Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby Form 'The Highwomen' Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires talk about the formation of their new all-female supergroup, a gutsy move within a male-dominated genre.
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Country's New Supergroup 'The Highwomen' Unite To Make Way For Unsung Female Artists

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Country's New Supergroup 'The Highwomen' Unite To Make Way For Unsung Female Artists

Country's New Supergroup 'The Highwomen' Unite To Make Way For Unsung Female Artists

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

And finally today, a new, all-female country supergroup, The Highwomen. Their name is a nod to the all-male 1980s group The Highwaymen, made up of country heavyweights Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGHWAYMAN")

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGHWOMEN")

THE HIGHWOMEN: (Singing) I was a Highwoman and a mother from my youth.

MCCAMMON: The Highwomen is made up of some of country music's biggest names today - Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris. And they've rewritten the classic Jimmy Webb song, calling it "Highwomen."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGHWOMEN")

THE HIGHWOMEN: (Singing) We followed a coyote through the dust of Mexico. Every one of them except for me survived. And I am still alive.

MCCAMMON: Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires spoke with me about the Highwomen's debut album. Shires told me how they approached rewriting the Jimmy Webb song, putting women front and center.

AMANDA SHIRES: When we were talking about The Highwomen as a band, you know, that was one of the first things we tasked ourselves with - was writing that to tell the stories of women and the progress and the regress, I guess, at times. And Brandi started it, and then I swung it back to her, and then she swirled it back to me. And we kept going back and forth until we had it to perfect.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGHWOMEN")

THE HIGHWOMEN: (Singing) We're the Highwomen. We sing a story still untold. We carry the sons you can only hold. We are the daughters of the silent generations. You send our hearts to die alone in foreign nations. And they return to us as tiny drops of rain, but we will still remain.

MCCAMMON: Natalie, you've written some massive hits, including a couple of songs on the soundtrack of the film "A Star Is Born" from last year. But this is kind of new for you, right - being out front? What is that like?

NATALIE HEMBY: You know, it - actually, it's a lot of fun.

(LAUGHTER)

HEMBY: And I'm going to be honest. I'm not in just any group with three girls. I'm in with three superstar girls who are all three different in their approach to music. So when they first asked me to be a part of it - actually, they asked me to write for the project first. And so I like to say I kind of wrote my way into the band. You know, Amanda and Brandi - they were both looking at me. They were, like, hey, do you want to join our band? (Laughter) And I went - first, it was like - I mean, I'm not stupid. I'm 42 years old. And I was, like, what does that mean?

(LAUGHTER)

HEMBY: I mean (laughter)...

SHIRES: I'll tell you, one of the things that was awesome about meeting Natalie is it felt, like, instantly right. I mean, she was - she started drinking rose that day at 12:05 p.m.

(LAUGHTER)

HEMBY: Well, I mean, you guys are an easy hang, and it really was funny. The weird part about our band is that we are not - we didn't grow up together, and we didn't practice in garages and, you know, have - or go to college or anything. We kind of found our people...

SHIRES: You mean together.

HEMBY: Yes.

SHIRES: Yeah.

HEMBY: And it's weird how all four of us are so different. But we fall right in place with each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CROWDED TABLE")

THE HIGHWOMEN: (Singing) I want a house with a crowded table and a place by the fire for everyone. Let us take on the world while we're young and able and bring us back together when the day is done.

MCCAMMON: You know, when you're listening to some of your songs, it can be really hard to tell who's who. And even as you're talking, Amanda and Natalie, I'm sometimes going, wait, who's talking? But in some songs, there's not really a clear lead. It reminds me, in fact, so much of the way that women often interact - you know, the way that we sort of finish each other's sentences and read each other's minds.

HEMBY: For sure.

MCCAMMON: There's this really complementary feeling about it. Is that something that you designed? Or can you design that? Or does it just happen?

SHIRES: You know, when we were singing one of the - for - when - it was either "Redesigning Women" or "Crowded Table" first when we did - no, it was "Redesigning Women," I think.

HEMBY: Exactly (laughter).

SHIRES: And we started singing it, you know? Then we were, like, why don't we just all sing it together in unison? And...

HEMBY: (Laughter).

SHIRES: You know, and then we just sort of tried doing all the other parts in harmony. And I thought that was really cool, it sort of to me is - it makes it feel like a collective, like other people might sing along or that it might...

HEMBY: Yeah.

SHIRES: You know what I'm saying?

HEMBY: Yeah.

SHIRES: I'm just saying I don't know a lot right now (laughter).

HEMBY: You know what, though? When we sing these out, it's great because we're all singing the lead. And it was kind of intentional in that way. It didn't - it wasn't written intentionally that way, but it ended up intentionally that way, so...

MCCAMMON: Well, let's listen to another song. Let's listen to "Redesigning Women," which was co-written by you, Natalie Hamby, and Rodney Clawson. Let's hear a little bit of it.

(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 brake and when to hit the pedal, working hard to look good till we die. A critical reason there's a population raising eyebrows and a new generation, Rosie the Riveter with renovations, and always gets better with wine. Redesigning women...

MCCAMMON: All right, Natalie. There's so much going on there. But tell me what you were thinking about.

HEMBY: (Laughter) Well, you know, I had always had this title called "Redesigning Women," and I've always wanted to write it, but I just never found - because I'm writing with different artists and different people, I never found the right person to actually do that song. So I took that title, and I literally - I called Rodney Clawson, my friend, because he's a very colorful person and just somebody I knew that I could lyrically take something like this to. And so we literally sat in my - at my house, and we wrote that song in about an hour.

And I just kept laughing, you know, at some of the lines because they're all so true. I mean, the buying 11 pairs of shoes and always trying to make everybody feel special - and it's just like we are trying to run our world and clean up the kitchen. I don't ever feel like I can ever catch up with my own self.

I wanted it to be more Dali-esque and not so - not - I also didn't want to be, like, male-bashing and all that kind of stuff either. I wanted it to be fun hey-we-can't-do-it-all-but-we-can kind of thing. So it's been really funny to watch because women from all across the board are, like, girl, you just wrote my song, you know, from all walks of life (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REDESIGNING WOMEN")

THE HIGHWOMEN: (Singing) How do we do it? How do we do it? Make it up as we go along. How do we do it? How do we do it? Halfway right and halfway wrong. Redesigning women...

MCCAMMON: Speaking of women, I want to ask about representation in country music - big reason why your group exists. A recent report came out from the University of Ottawa that showed in the year 2000, female artists represented about a third of the songs on country radio. Last year, that was down to just 11%. Why are women so underrepresented on the country airwaves?

HEMBY: You know, it's a great question. And I think if we knew the answer to that, it would already be solved. But for me, it's very frustrating. It's been a frustrating thing for a long time because I work with a lot of different female artists, and I write songs for them. And it's, like, even as a songwriter, it's so hard to get songs cut or played on the radio because there's still this talk of, like, well, we've got a girl like her already. And it's, like, well, you have 10 boys who all sound alike, and all their names are Luke. So it gets really frustrating.

SHIRES: My theory has to do a little bit with the money and people getting used to pushing the money button. And this makes money, so we might not want to try pushing a different button.

HEMBY: I feel like, though, what we keep hearing from programmers and radio programmers is that, oh, you know, it didn't test well. Women just don't listen to other women in country music. And that is just a bunch of...

SHIRES: It is.

HEMBY: ...Lies (laughter).

SHIRES: It's a bunch of lies.

MCCAMMON: Since we are talking about representation, you know, this album certainly elevates women. And it in a lot of specificity describes the different kinds of life experiences for different women. But you are all white women. I wonder how you think about that in light of the larger goal of inclusivity.

SHIRES: Well, everyone's welcome to be a Highwoman. And, you know, it was never going to be limited to just four folks, you know, straight up. It's always going to be a band where we want everybody to jump in. You know, and part of the problem is that along with not playing women on the country radio, there's not a lot of representation for anybody that's...

HEMBY: Well...

SHIRES: ...A minority. And then after that, then why would you even want to play country music? So you know what I mean? Like, the...

HEMBY: Right.

SHIRES: You can't really have a pool if there's no pool. But there is a pool, but we can't see it because we're not allowed to see it because they've already decided to put all the Lukes on the radio.

HEMBY: Right.

MCCAMMON: Well, I also want to mention something I read in Rolling Stone that your fellow band member Brandi Carlile said. She called The Highwomen a movement. What does that mean?

SHIRES: It means it's more than just the country music.

HEMBY: Yeah. It is. It's more than just our band, our record. We're trying to make a statement and bring more women front and center - and, like Brandi has said many times, open the door and hold it open for other female artists.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD SOUL")

THE HIGHWOMEN: (Singing) Weight of the world on these small shoulders, beyond my years is where I like to stand.

MCCAMMON: That was Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires, two of the four members of the supergroup The Highwomen. Their self-titled debut album is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD SOUL")

THE HIGHWOMEN: (Singing) I listen to vinyl for the scratches. I find myself in other...

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