The Highwomen have presented country music with a chance to change for the better instead of blend into oblivion.
What constitutes a good country song? The bar seems to be getting lower and lower. Earlier this year, Blake Shelton’s “God’s Country” dominated the charts upon its release. However, the song itself delivers no claims or analyses; it tells no stories or psalms – it is devoid of meaning and depth. Unfortunately, this level of quality has been declared good enough for radio.
This low standard may be the result of a severe lack of diversity in country music. In the process of ensuring the success of white males with soothing tenor voices, country has left behind women and people of color. Backed by both studies and personal accounts – the resulting damage is of great concern.
There is a heavy financial burden for radio stations to play and write about the most widely accepted music. It is also natural for artists to be influenced by the music that surrounds them before creating and releasing their understanding of the world for all to hear. With that in mind, it then becomes clear that the blending of pop and country was inevitable. On one hand, this could be a positive step in the direction of diversification for country music. But if country fully fades into pop, the genre will then be fully steered by the masses instead of the artists.
If exciting and innovative artistic growth – coming from the roots of country music – is to remain, the producers guiding it and the artists within it must make a change that lasts. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, the three-time Grammy award winning artist Kelly Clarkson said:
“So why don’t we all just start putting our Eighties and Nineties records on and let’s figure out, what is country music? What is the sound we like again? Cuz it’s not what you’re playing on the radio.”
Country music is desperate for a chance to restart. Kelly Clarkson’s suggestion could be the key to opening up that possibility.
“Country music is three cords and the truth.” – Harlan Howard
The Highwomen – a country super group of badass women hoping to bring about great change in Nashville – is made up of Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, and Natalie Hemby. These four singer-songwriters have contributed their minds to folk, Americana, country, and country-pop for years, and have intentionally come together at the peak of their careers so as to, as Natalie Hemby put it in her interview with the Country Music Association, “…[make] women a part of the whole narrative.”
Explicitly deriving influence from country music legends including Sheryl Crow, Tanya Tucker, and Dolly Parton, this group did their research to ensure that the best of country is preserved in their work. The album’s 10th track, “Heaven is a Honky Tonk,” features Sheryl Crow, one of the few female country music stars who The Highwomen saw rise to fame throughout their lifetime. Crow released her 10th studio album two weeks ago and her feature on The Highwomen album stands to prove that there is both space and a need for women in country music.
The debut album’s opening track, “The Highwomen,” tells a sad story. With great help from Yola, a young black country soul artist, The Highwomen use three cords and elegantly sculpted lyrics to speak a truth long gone untold in country music: Innumerable women have gone without praise for the progress they helped achieve by making the world a safer place for their peers and children. The five singers take turns sharing the stories of women unknown, from freedom rider to immigrant. Country artists of the 50’s and 60’s are known for their ability to bring a tear to the listener’s eye—The Highwomen prove they can do the same right out the gate.
The Highwomen recognize the importance of delivering an inclusive message amidst this propulsion into a position of collective fame. Brandi Carlile delivers one of country’s first mainstream gay love songs “If She Ever Leaves Me,” with honesty and gusto. Carlile was one of the first country artists to publicly identify as a member of the LGBTQ community. Coming out is a big deal for a country artist, as the genre tends to align with Southern Christian folk. So the fact that Carlile is thriving on a platform constantly at odds with her identity should make this song go down as nothing less than a remarkable moment of progress in country music.
The Highwomen have delivered upon their promise to connect the roots of country music with today’s society. In doing so, they have forged a turning point in the genre which will ensure a more honest, sincere, and inclusive future. May they inspire the next generation of Highwomen.