The Highwomen Celebrate ‘A Movement Much Bigger Than Us’ 

Redesigning Women:
Douglas Mason / WireImage
– Redesigning Women:
The Highwomen, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby with the great Dolly Parton bring down the house at the Newport Folk Festival 2019, the 60th anniversary finale, at Fort Adams State Park in Newport on July 27, 2019.

Right after Brandi Carlile was presented the Jim James Award for Most Sit-In Appearances at the 2018 Newport Folk Festival, she and Newport Festivals Foundation Executive Producer Jay Sweet were on a boat to a post-party, shooting tequila and dreaming big about Newport’s 60th Anniversary – and both had notions they wanted to realize.

Carlile, who six months later would stun America with her catharsis Grammy performance of “The Joke” on the way to three awards, wanted to do an-all female jam as the finale. Sweet, who talks of “white whales,” spoke of Dolly Parton on a list that includes Neil Young, Paul Simon, Eddie Vedder and Thom Yorke.

Carlile is a big “T” thinker, so he went with it. “I’ll book it right now,” Sweet recalls. “Whatever you call it, count on it! I will do whatever it is, right now. Even without Dolly.”
What he got was so much bigger than even the 35 female performers – and yes, Parton – who took the stage to close out Newport. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, “By the time they got to Newport, they were millions strong…” More than just an all-girl finale, the Highwomen – an ad hoc convergence of Carlile, noted instrumentalist/singer Amanda Shires, massive mainstream writer Natalie Hemby and country breakout superstar Maren Morris – had coalesced into a movement that reaches across roles, seeks a broader kind of feminism and embraces anyone who wants to be part of the collective.
“Feminism has always been a good thing,” says Carlile. “But I also think it can evolve and find a new voice. It doesn’t have to be intimidating, or leave a certain kind of woman, no, person behind. There’s a place for everybody, and ‘Redesigning Women’ is a hand-in-hand way of addressing feminism and never leaving any woman out of the conversation. As long as you want to be here, there’s a place.”
Onstage at Newport, that included African UK singer Yola, rock icon Sheryl Crow and Americana force Jason Isbell, as well as Our Native Daughters and Maggie Rogers. But if you see the song’s official video, you will also see Wynonna, Lilly Hiatt, Tanya Tucker, Cam, Cassadee Pope, Natalie Stovall, Kassi Ashton, Anna Vaus, Hailey Whitters and more, crossing age, race, and place boundaries. Or as producer Dave Cobb says, “It’s all-encompassing, all-welcoming. It’s like a pirate ship where everyone can jump on board and be part of the thing – only we’re all really nice pirates.”
Cobb, the man who’s produced Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, John Prine’s Tree Of Forgiveness, Carlile and Shires, understands music for music’s sake and the power of collaboration. His Low Country Sound through Elektra Records released Cover Stories, which saw Pearl Jam, Parton, Kris Kristofferson and more interpreting the songs of Carlile’s breakthrough The Story a decade after its debut.
“She continually amazes me by her ability to manifest things,” Carlile’s manager Mark Cunningham says. “I’ve been with her for 14 years, and no one has better instincts. Cover Stories? It started out as one thing, then we have Pearl Jam, Adele, Jim James, and Dolly Parton. Once she has a vision, she makes these amazing things happen.” 
For Newport, it meant a nine-month courtship. Carlile personally sent letters to the country legend and her manager, followed up, continuing to explain why the appearance mattered. Parton, whose own femme-celebrating “Eagle When She Flies” mines the same soil, is a fan, as are some of her nieces. Suddenly, Sweet’s dream was coming into view.
But long before Newport, the seeds were sown. After an unfortunate country PD’s crack about women being “tomatoes” in the salad, Shires decided to do her own research. Listening as she toured America in a van, she went 18 songs before hearing a female voice, 22 before hearing a second. Calling the radio station to complain/request/seek understanding, she received a profound runaround, which got her West Texas fire up.
“It’s a weird Catch-22, and everyone blames everyone else, including the listeners,” Shires reports. “I have a daughter, and I don’t want a world where she could gravitate toward the country genre as it is right now. Especially after all the amazing women who’ve been country artists! 
“A few weeks later, I thought, ‘I’m gonna start a band called The Highwomen…’,” continues the woman who landed on the 2017 CMA Awards red carpet wearing a tank top emblazoned with “Mama Wants To Change That Nashville Sound” about taking action. “I’d gone into the studio to help Dave, and told him because he has a daughter who likes music. He said I should talk to Brandi, but I didn’t know her.”
When the two were finally in a room together, Shires marched up to the woman riding the massive critical wave and said, “Hi! I’m Amanda Shires, and I’d like to start a band with you called The Highwomen.” 
While many in Carlile’s spot would’ve smiled and small-talked, she dug in. A champion for the underdog, the unseen, the bullied and the overlooked, Carlile was intrigued. Laughing, she confesses, “I tend to act on instinct. I’m very impulsive and want to go-go-go. I believe there’s no win/lose, just win or learn. It makes me kind of fearless in the projects I take on.”
Morris, whose anthemic “GIRL” hit No. 1 as Newport happened, may be the only true mainstream country radio breakthrough superstar story in the genre since Miranda Lambert. Coming off “The Middle,” a massive pop hit, The Highwomen was the antithesis of what today’s bright shiny stars are doing – and that’s what makes this congress so compelling for the first woman in 18 months to hit the top of the airplay charts.
“I want to be a record head who says ‘Yes’ and supports my artists’ creative endeavors,” says Sony Nashville Chairman Randy Goodman. “As a Texas girl, she’s so rooted in the DNA of what this is, it makes total sense. Maren will always push the boundaries; she pushed one envelope, then comes back and pushes another. 
“Visually, she’s a bit more dialed back, because she embraces being a Highwoman. She’s deliberate in her involvement, and even though she doesn’t look or act like those other women in terms of career or business, those unique dichotomies make this collaboration compelling.”
“We joke that each brings their own superpower to this,” Cunningham, Carlile’s manager, concurs. “Different priorities, perspectives, experiences. Everyone gets in the room, adds it up and see what’s happening. And most importantly, the record is really good. It’s stacked with great songs, so more than a movement, more than a moment, this is something to bring people together.”
Noting that each woman has a vital career, getting a large block of time to commit is tricky. Newport provided a bull’s-eye in terms of live performance. With Carlile’s organization handling all of her logistics for the event, it was smoother implementation, but plenty of rehearsing went into the performance that was met by a standing ovation before the first note was even played.
“Even Dolly seemed to know,” Cunningham marvels. “She came to rehearsal for two hours, and hung out. It started as two songs, then three, then ‘We need to do ‘9 To 5’… Everyone understood it was a historical moment for Newport.” 
Newport’s Sweet adds, “The energy was crazy crackling from the moment I introduced them. Just a wave of applause that kept breaking. There was a half-second pause (when Parton was announced), then the shock wore off. Just this wave exploded! It was another miracle in the place where Dylan went electric, Brandi looked at me, and we started giggling.” 
The Highwomen have that impact. For Hemby, who’s a go-to writer for Lambert, Little Big Town and Kacey Musgraves, inclusion was so organic, no one saw it coming. Carlile recalls, “We spent hours on the phone, just being friends and talking about songs. I hadn’t done that since junior high school.
“But when she came in with these lyric sheets and her demos, where she just doubles and triples her vocals because she does them that way, it was overwhelming. This person who has an almost Bob Dylan power of delivery, we started realizing how influenced we were by her… It occurred to us ‘what you are isn’t who you are…’ She came in as a songwriter, but she’s so much more.” 
And so seeing past labels again defines The Highwomen. Warner Nashville is committed to work “Redesigning Women” to country radio, and Cunningham is optimistic. “We wanted to get some music out and let the attention happen. Then do Newport, and let that attention happen. Do some television, and build. Let the press build, so there’s awareness. 
“We know country radio takes time. We can’t do a radio tour, but we can give it time. It’s really complicated, but everyone’s still in, labels, managers, everyone – and we all talk almost every day. We have things on the books through November, but don’t want to overcommit and have to cancel.”
After all this work, all this fun and all this collaboration, Carlile wants to build. “I’m only realizing there were some pieces we couldn’t see [about what this means] as I talk to people about the project. This is a vision in motion, and a group who responds to what we’re feeling and thinking. I considered Maren immediately, but with her career, I was sure she’d say, ‘No.’ But she didn’t.”
Pausing, she weighs her words. “To me, this is more of a movement than a band. It’s so much bigger than the four of us – and I have personal aspirations to take (The Highwomen) into a space where it’s coming together for all great women’s music.
“I was at the first Lillith Fair, watching it and being part of what was happening. I went to every one, entered the contests, played every stage, and watched all the acts. I did the cross-conferences and everything attached because I believed. 
“It redefined women’s place in the industry. How women executives were tapped and listened to, how radio viewed the music. It set the tone and the stage for what happens. The energy coming together and coalescing: the most carnal way to digest music is live.
“This is a different socio/political moment – and maybe this is where all what we’re doing is headed. I have hopes.”