by Marshall Bowden
Brandi Carlile and her friends in the country supergroup The Highwomen are looking to turn the tide of the music business’ attitude towards women artists, and she’s bringing the legendary Tanya Tucker along for the ride.
Welcome to Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris & Natalie Hemby’s inclusive girls’ club. Mean girls need not apply.
“I was raised during the era of Lilith Fair, when women were commanding those stages, getting record deals, demanding the airwaves,” singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile told Vulture before this year’s Grammys, where her sixth release, By the Way, I Forgive You won the award for Best Americana album. “They were ruling music, essentially, when I was trying to decide whether or not I could do this for a job. And because of them, I knew I could…“I’m married to a woman, I have two daughters. I need to know my daughters have that kind of representation, and right now, they don’t. I want to see it come back. It’s not good when progress reverses itself for 20 years like it has.”
From Outlaws to Americana
That period Carlie speaks of probably came to a crashing halt around the time the Dixie Chicks were essentially blacklisted from radio for commenting on the policies of George W Bush. But post-2010, things have seemed to head back in the right direction. 2011 saw country star Miranda Lambert launch her female supergroup The Pistol Annies, sparking a new breed of female outlaw country artist.
The original outlaw country movement died off by the end of the ’80s, but the influence of performers and songwriters like Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson hung heavily in the air and was influential on both country and rock artists who weren’t completely at home in one genre. Writers like Steve Young and Billie Joe Shaver never broke into the mainstream but were influential as well.
Although the original outlaw movement was male-dominated there were a few notable female performers that refused to be defined by the predominating Nashville country sound, including Jessi Colter, Sammi Smith, and Tanya Tucker. Of these, Tanya Tucker has had the longest and most successful career and a great deal of influence.
In the mid-90s the term ‘Americana’ or American roots music was actively used to describe a genre of music that was based on largely pre-rock acoustic music like country, bluegrass, blues, folk, and gospel, but which also included country rock and Southern rock. In truth, the term was wide and somewhat unfocused, able to include acts as diverse as The Band, Rodney Crowell, Gillian Welsh, The Mavericks, Drive-By Truckers, T-Bone Burnett, and Alison Krause.
Tell Them It’s Rock and Roll
In 2005, when Brandi Carlile released her self-titled debut album, her brand of songwriting and musical arrangements made her a natural as an Americana artist. She leaned towards the country side of things and was clearly influenced by writers like Kristofferson and Nelson, but the influence of years spent listening to the radio hits of The Beatles and U2 could also be heard.
“When I was making The Story with T Bone Burnett, he told me that whenever somebody asks me what genre my music fits into, I should say rock and roll,” she said in a 2015 interview. “At the time, I thought that he meant ‘everything’s rock,’ and it’s taken me years to realize that rock and roll is more of like a risk and the absence of affectation than it is a genre, and so that’s kind of the department I want to be in, if there is such a thing.”
Burnett probably also meant that an artist like Carlile, an openly queer songwriter with roots in country but an open ear to a wide range of other popular music, would likely find greater success in a less strictly defined genre like rock and roll. Burnett had worked with Bob Dylan, an artist who refused to be defined by any single genre, and whose explorations into American music with the Band as well as albums like Nashville Skyline, John Wesley Harding, and Blood on the Tracks took him away from the direction that rock music at the time was developing, yet who successfully maintained his fan base within the rock community.
At the same time, country music was seeing a resurgence of female performers, many of whom adopted an outlaw vibe because they refused to eschew the sounds and production techniques of rock and other popular music. Kacey Musgraves’ 2013 debut Same Trailer Different Park created a stir with some of its subject matter and its sound on the heels of performers and songwriters like Margo Price, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires.
Shires established herself as a singer/songwriter of note as well as a violinist. Initially playing as a band member of the Texas Playboys, Thrift Store Cowboys and her husband Jason Isbell’s backing band, 400 Unit, she released her debut solo album Carrying Lightning in 2011. Shires has definitely not stayed in any kind of country music perimeter, and most people hearing her most recent album, 2018’s To the Sunset would probably identify the music as rock or alternative rock.
How the Highwomen came to be
It was Shires’ idea to put together The Highwomen, a group of established female artists in a group that would pay homage to the country music outlaw ethos and the male supergroup The Highwaymen, comprised of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson. At the suggestion of her producer, she got in touch with Carlile, who was intrigued by the idea as well.
They quickly recruited country dynamo Maren Morris, still in the midst of her world tour for her Grammy-winning Girl album. Morris, like Kacey Musgrave, is already outside the bounds of country music with a sound that utilizes modern pop music production. She was also the voice of the genre-hopping collaboration with Zedd “The Middle,” a song that found its way into Target’s seasonal advertising through the summer of 2018.
Though The Highwomen toyed with the idea of a rotating fourth chair, they eventually settled on country super-songwriter Natalie Hemby. Hemby is a writer at Universal Music Group Nashville and has written songs for (and collaborated with) artists that include Keith Urban, Toby Keith, Kacey Musgraves, and Sheryl Crow. She’s written many hits for Little Big Town and over a dozen songs for Miranda Lambert.
The Highwomen premiered on April 1, 2019 at Loretta Lynn’s 87th birthday celebration. They released a single from the film The Kitchen, a cover of the Fleetwood Mac song “The Chain” that was co-written by Stevie Nicks, another inspiration. Then came a first single from their album, a performance of Hemby’s “Redesigning Women” accompanied by a video that features clips of iconic female country artists like Wynnona Judd.
The album’s link with the group that provided its name is a rewriting of Jimmy Webb’s original song”Highwayman.” That song followed the story of the highwayman through several incarnations: a highwayman, a sailor, a worker on the Hoover Dam, and the captain of a spaceship.
The new adaptation, written by Carlile and Shires, is a female version of the song, following first a mother who brings her family north from Honduras, a healer executed as a witch at Salem, a civil rights freedom rider, and a preacher who is murdered because ‘teaching was unrighteous for a girl.’
Because Jimmy Webb holds the rights to the original song Carlile and Shires had to have his blessing for the new set of lyrics. Shires discusses his reaction in a recent Esquire interview:
‘It took him a couple weeks to respond. He probably gets sent versions of that all the time. But his wife sat and listened to it first and then she played it for him. I had sent him a work tape—which is beautiful—and I said, “If you need us to do anything different, if you want make any changes, we want to honor your song and by no means take it over.” And he said it was dead oher n and that we didn’t need any help at all. It felt good, because that could have shut it down.’
You know this was a heartfelt project–first because it sounds that way, and second because all of these ladies are busy as they can be. Carlile still promoting her Grammy-winning album By the Way, I Forgive You, Maren touring behind her Grammy-winning album Girl, Shires with her last album To the Sunset, and Hemby busy writing as well as her own recording career. But you still sense that everyone gave their best to the Highwomen and that we’ll probably see more of them, together, in the future.
Tanya Tucker: The Outlaw Returns
But of course, there’s more to the story. Carlile spent a lot of time this past year, along with Shooter Jennings, producing what would become the first album of new material in over a decade by country’s Outlaw Woman #1, Tanya Tucker.
While I’m Livin‘ was released just ahead of the Highwomen album and is already collecting great reviews and positive reactions from fans. But it wasn’t necessarily a match made in heaven. Tucker initially resisted everything about the project, from its song selection to its producer. Despite her ascending profile after more than a decade in the business, Brandi Carlile was a complete unknown to Tucker according to an interview at EW.com.
Tucker also felt that there were elements to the songs that did not suit her, “things I wouldn’t say.” Seven of While I’m Livin’s ten tracks were co-written by Carlile with her partners Tim and Phil Hanseroth, and the album’s second track, ‘Streets of Laredo’ is also the closing track on the Highwomen album.
But Carlile persisted, aided by Jennings, who had gotten the ball rolling by pushing Tucker into the studio and suggesting Carlile, a huge Tanya Tucker fan, to work on it with him. She even spoke to Rick Rubin, who produced Johnny Cash’s American series of recordings, stripped-down work that at first unnerved Cash.
“Everything was super loose,” Tucker told Vinylme.com. “There were a couple of lines where I was like, “Brandi, I don’t like the way I sang that line,” and she’d be, “Well, that’s the way you sang it! Tanya, this album is not ‘Tanya the Entertainer’ who wants to get everything perfect. This album is a singer’s album, mistakes and all.”
That’s what listeners get with While I’m Livin‘: a singer’s album where Tucker’s years of experience can sometimes be heard in her voice, in little cracks that a younger performer would see as imperfections. Often when a team of producers take control of a project, writing the songs and setting the emotional vibe for the recordings, the artist can feel like a bit of an afterthought. But that’s never a problem with this album. On the contrary, it feels as though Carlile and Jennings actually uncovered the pure gold in Tanya, with Carlile and the Hanseroths writing songs that spoke to her life and speak through her voice as though they the most classic tunes, just waiting for Tucker to record them.
“Bring My Flowers Now” was a chorus that Tucker had written and had carried around for many years, but she never found the ideas or words to turn it into a complete song. She and Carlile worked on it during a recording break, and the song came into focus. “Bring my flowers now while I’m livin’/ I won’t need your love when I’m gone” are lines that come straight from Tanya Tucker’s heart and the song sounds like an instant classic.
“I feel like Brandi just fell off some cloud somewhere. I don’t know where the hell she came from, but she dropped into my life and here’s a girl whose career is blowing wide open, and then she’s over here working on me. I have a hard time not getting overwhelmed with just doing my own shit! I mean, how do you just do this for someone you don’t even know? You never met me.”http://www.vinylmeplease.com/magazine/tanya-tucker-interview/
Suffice it to say that Brandi Carlile is all about inclusion. As an artist who talks about equality and justice and artistic partnership among women, she definitely walks the walk. A lot of care was taken during the recording of Highwomen to ensure it was a democratic process, even down to the mixing of the vocals, where Carlile asked producer Dave Cobb to do a more mono-type sound rather than spatially mixing the four voices.
She has referred to The Highwomen as her way of creating a girls’ club that would make her feel accepted and where she could let her hair down and have some fun. And one senses real emotion when she talks about the way her relationship with Maren Morris developed from an invitation to perform on CMT:
“When Maren had asked me to do “Natural Woman” with her when she was being honored on CMT—and maybe I’m just like a wooey old lesbian and I take everything too cosmically—I was just like, “Man, there’s something really special about this person.” She’s completely embraced by the establishment. She’s beautiful; she fits. And she’s invited someone, to do this with her that doesn’t fit and isn’t accepted by the establishment…It caused people in the country music community to take a second look at me.” (Esquire)
Times may be less than ideal for female artists in the world of country, but for artists as talented and open-minded as The Highwomen, there is always room for new voices and if this group of ladies has anything to say about it, the days ahead will be bright and full of wide open spaces.