From Dolly Parton's blessing to Tonight Show giggles: Get to know the Highwomen
WHILE ANY GROUP DEEMED WORTHY OF the “super” moniker usually has harmony vocals listed high on its resume of superpowers, one of the most striking aspects of the debut album from the Highwomen — the assemblage of solo singer-songwriters Brandi Carlile, 38; Natalie Hemby, 42; Maren Morris, 29; and Amanda Shires, 37— is actually when the four women sing in unison. In and of itself, the sound of the distinct voices joining together on the same notes is soothing and communal in a way that contemporary music doesn’t always feel. But that gang vocal approach also serves to punch up the synergy of the goosebump-inducing harmonies when the women do break into them, making the Highwomen’s impressive vocal stacking that much more glorious in its weave. It’s also an apt metaphor for the group itself: They have a certain kind of power working together toward one goal and a different strength taking individual parts in an effort with several layers — and not just harmonically, but lyrically, emotionally and attitudinally.
Out Friday, the dynamic and dynamite Highwomen album contains a dozen songs that span classic country and contemporary Americana. There is what Carlile has dubbed “the first gay country song” in the cheeky but exquisitely rendered “If She Ever Leaves Me,” co-written by Jason Isbell. Shires delivers the kiss-off of the year with the shady swagger of “Don’t Call Me.” Morris finally puts to tape a version of her fantastic “Loose Change,” a confident jam about recognizing your own worth. Hemby soars on the poignant “My Only Child,” co-written with pal Miranda Lambert. And so much more. EW chatted with Carlile and Hemby about singing, songwriting, sisterhood and being blessed by Dolly Parton, and here are a few things you should know.
The Highwomen got the seal of approval from the songwriter behind “The Highwayman”
The first track on the group’s debut is Carlile and Shires’ gender-flipped rewrite of a famous song by a previous supergroup of like-minded artists: Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson. The haunting, dusty ballad serves as a fictional “origin story” for its members — a healer, an immigrant, a preacher, a freedom rider — just as the original, written by revered songwriter Jimmy Webb, did for the men.
“I wanted to recraft the song and started conceptualizing the characters, and it was Amanda’s idea to go to Jimmy Webb and see if he had any additional input, if he wanted to write any verses, if he felt okay with us doing it in general,” Carlile recalls of asking the man who wrote “Wichita Lineman” and “MacArthur Park” to re-envision one of his classics. “We sent it to him as a rough draft, and his wife called us back and said that it made him cry and he did not want to change anything about it.” The women were deeply relieved. “It was starting to feel more like a [writing] exercise for me than a song because I did not know if it would ever see the light of day, so it was just something I was doing, almost like therapy.”
Of the various identities, Carlile says, “They just came to me and felt like the characters that belonged in the song. I was really moved by the original version of the song and the concept of the Highwaymen being on the astral plane or ghosts or spiritualists or whatever they were. It was like a way of them assuming another form outside of their careers.”
Dolly Parton blessed them, literally and figuratively, at the Newport Folk Festival
Even before their debut arrived, the Highwomen were making waves. During the Newport Folk Festival in July, the quartet played their first full-fledged live show and welcomed to the stage one of the highest women of all as a special guest: Dolly Parton.
“I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience,” says Hemby, a longtime Nashville hit songwriter enjoying one of her first tastes of the center-stage spotlight. “I was just so nervous. I mean, Dolly doesn’t make you feel nervous, it’s just like Santa Claus: You can’t believe she’s standing in front of you. You just want to sit on her lap. I didn’t feel inside my own skin on that day because I was just like, ‘There’s Dolly Parton. This is Dolly Parton. She’s right in front of me. She’s right here. That’s Dolly Parton.’”
“It was crazy,” says Carlile of the Newport show, which she calls “one of the most pressurized moments I have ever had in my career.” The Washington native had orchestrated a series of collaborations and special moments throughout both the Highwomen and her own appearances. “I was responsible for all of that going off without a hitch, and everyone knew that something big was going to happen and I had been rehearsing for weeks, and I was so stressed about it,” she says. “But, right before we went out on stage, Dolly shows up, and she looks like the Grim Reaper. She has got a cloak completely over her entire body. There is like nothing but tiny high heels and fingernails sticking out of this thing. And she goes into her trailer and they came and got me and I went to her trailer and she basically put her hands on my face, telling me to bow my head, and said this huge prayer over me. And I felt so Zen in that moment and so ready for a big, historical Newport moment and it would not have been if Dolly had not done the prayer.”
Mysticism was a secret ingredient in the project overall, and in the vocal choices specifically
That aforementioned deployment of unison singing was a product of listening to one Highwoman in particular sing on songs like “Crowded Table” and “Redesigning Women.”
“When I look back on it, it was all really natural, but in a mystical way,” says Carlile, who cooked up the group concept with Shires and invited Morris and Hemby into the fold. (Yola, who performs the freedom rider verse on the title track, and Sheryl Crow are among the supporting Highwomen cast, along with Carlile’s bandmates Tim and Phil Hanseroth, Shires’ husband Jason Isbell, and producer Dave Cobb.) “The vocal arrangements had lot to do with the way that we were hearing Natalie specifically with her voice doubled and tripled in unison; it started to become a metaphor for what the band should sound like and be like.”
Written by Hemby, Carlile, and Lori McKenna, “Crowded Table” in particular cracked a concept Carlile had long been wrestling with “of going out into the world and being an activist and furthering agendas that I think will make the world a better place, but still being able to come home at the end of the day and be in my family and be with people that do not agree with me so that we can all move a little bit closer to the middle of the road.” She was taken aback that the vocal arrangements unwittingly mirrored that idea. “Because even within our band, we do not all believe the same things. But to snap those voices back into unison like that is really what the concept of women learning to work together and community is.”
“We’re just trying to celebrate all different types of women and all of our struggles, but have fun with it,” says Hemby of that song and the album in general. “And we are preaching to the choir in so many ways, but,” she adds with a laugh, “I feel like we are also in the choir. We’re all just doing the best we can. To me the greatest compliment is not just that women are loving what we’re doing, but we’re getting men to love what we’re doing, because we need them as well.”
Stevie Nicks gave the thumbs-up for their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”
When the producers of the recent Tiffany Haddish-Elisabeth Moss-Melissa McCarthy film The Kitchen reached out to the Highwomen to record a version of the Fleetwood Mac classic, Carlile said the band was happy to knock out a cover.
“The crazy part is that Maren and I played a show at the Basement East in Nashville and they had Fleetwood Mac night or something, and we covered ‘The Chain’ together in like 2015. And so I feel there’s just some real full-circle moments here. And then the fact that we got Stevie’s blessing was, to me, even more exciting than actually covering the song.”
But when it came time to perform an acoustic version on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon recently, they had trouble keeping a straight face, says Hemby. “We sat in a circle with him and we had this camera going around really slowly and we had to do it like four times. Jimmy would come in too soon on something and we had, like, church giggles. We were just laughing under our breath. It was the most fun thing ever. In that moment, I was like, ‘God, this is the power of music.’ I felt like we were a bunch of kids just playing one of our favorite songs.”
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