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The Highwomen: Reimagining An '80s Supergroup

Sep 10, 2019
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In the 1980s, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson formed a country supergroup called The Highwaymen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGHWAYMAN")

THE HIGHWAYMEN: (Singing) I was a highwayman. Along the coach roads I did ride.

KELLY: Now The Highwomen are hitting the road. They're a country supergroup, too - Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires. Their self-titled debut album is out now. Our critic Will Hermes says it is a bold interpretation of country tradition and far more than a simple tribute.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGHWOMEN")

THE HIGHWOMEN: (Singing) I was a highwoman and a mother from my youth. For my children, I did what I had to do.

WILL HERMES, BYLINE: That's Brandi Carlile singing "Highwoman," her group's rewrite of "Highwayman," a song at core about the human spirit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGHWOMEN")

THE HIGHWOMEN: (Singing) We followed a coyote through the dust of Mexico.

HERMES: Four of America's best singer-songwriters make up The Highwomen, and they do more than just rewrites. Their music and wordplay is steeped in country tradition. "Loose Change" finds Maren Morris drop-kicking some half-baked lover to the curb.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOSE CHANGE")

THE HIGHWOMEN: (Singing) Loose change - I ain't worth a thing to you. Loose change - you don't see my value. I'm going to be somebody's lucky penny someday instead of rolling around in your pocket like loose change.

HERMES: And "My Only Child" is a tearjerker with Natalie Hemby recounting images that haunt her and the voice of a mom addressing a daughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY ONLY CHILD")

THE HIGHWOMEN: (Singing) Pink painted walls, your face in my locket, your daddy and me, your tiny back pocket, mama's first love, last of my kind - you'll always be my only child.

HERMES: But The Highwomen also update country tradition. Take "If She Ever Leaves Me," a classic honky tonk waltz about a same-sex couple.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF SHE EVER LEAVES ME")

THE HIGHWOMEN: (Singing) I've loved her in secret. I've loved her out loud. The sky hasn't always been blue. It might last forever or it might not work out. If she ever leaves me, it won't be for you.

HERMES: Back in the '80s, The Highwaymen came together with practical concerns. At the time, its individual members were getting very little commercial traction. The Highwomen have formed at a moment when women in country music are collectively struggling for representation on commercial radio, streaming playlists and festival bookings. Fittingly, this album leans into social justice themes, and that gives The Highwomen a different kind of power than the supergroup they were modeled on. They wield that power with purpose, grace, humor and, above all, great music that stands entirely on its own.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REDESIGNING WOMEN")

THE HIGHWOMEN: (Singing) Full-time living on a half-time schedule, always trying to make everybody feel special, learning when to break and when to hit the pedal, working hard to look good till we die...

KELLY: The Highwomen's self-titled debut is out now. Our critic Will Hermes is author of the book "Love Goes To Buildings On Fire: Five Years In New York That Changed Music Forever."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REDESIGNING WOMEN")

THE HIGHWOMEN: (Singing) And always gets better with wine. Redesigning women, running the world while we're cleaning up the kitchen, making bank, shaking hands, driving 80... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.