The Highwomen Interview: Where Have All the Mothers Gone?
Much has been written about how hard it is to find a woman's perspective in country music these days. It's even harder to find a mother's perspective. On their eponymous debut album, the Highwomen address that.
Undoubtedly the strong maternal point of view on The Highwomen is a matter of circumstance.
"I feel like part of the point was to have more stories from our perspectives and a record is a collection of where you are at the moment, generally," Amanda Shires tells Taste of Country, seated next to Natalie Hemby and across from Brandi Carlile, both mothers (Maren Morris was not available for the interview).
It's refreshing to hear songs like "Crowded Table," "My Name Can't Be Mama" and even the poignant "My Only Child" — when was the last time a female artist scored a hit with a song aimed at her children?
Was it Martina McBride with her back-to-back Top 5 hits ("In My Daughters Eyes" and "This One's for the Girls") in 2003? Little Big Town gave it a try with "The Daughters" in 2018, but mainstream radio and digital service providers reached out for that song with alligator arms.
"Redesigning Women" is the Highwomen's radio single, but the heart of the album is their perspectives on motherhood, womanhood and the world around them. It's relatable in ways long forgotten, enjoyed best when it's not parsed and separated. The Highwomen works best in context, much like an album from the four men who inspired their name.
Have any of the surviving Highwaymen or family of the Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings reached out in a significant way?
Amanda Shires: We’ve talked to Shooter several times. I talked to Willie (Nelson) and she has too.
Brandi Carlile: All of them. Like the families of ... so we’ve gotten huge support from Shooter Jennings ... Rosanne Cash and John Carter Cash have both been extremely supportive of the movement. Willie himself has given it his sideways grin, and his wife and his sons have been incredibly a big part of it. And Kris Kristofferson himself is really proud that we’re doing it as well as Jimmy Webb (writer of "The Highwaymen").
Has anyone shared a remarkable story or some perspective after listening to the album?
AS: When Brandi and I wrote the song ("The Highwomen"), I sent it to Jimmy Webb, and after multiple tries of getting him to hear it, he finally listened to it by way of his wonderful wife. I was just trying to make sure that we didn’t do anything that he wouldn’t also be proud of. I was like, “Just go ahead and write on it if you feel like you need to change anything.” And he said, “It’s perfect. Don’t change a thing.”
"I still feel like they should have gave me a test or something. There was so much, 'What am I doing? I drove 20 miles per hour, I’ve only changed a diaper twice now. Why is this legal?'”
Did the Country Music documentary on PBS reshape your perspective on what you’re doing, or add any historical context?
Natalie Hemby: For sure. The last episode I just finished is "Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’" and the thing I really like is there’s a common thread of there’s new movements of country music, but it always goes back to its roots. And for me, I feel like what we’re doing right now as far as what we’re trying to get across, it is a sort of a divine thing how it all came together but we’re also trying to get back to our roots of country music itself ...
AS: The storytelling, the instrumentation — the fiddle has been missing for a long time.
BC: Also the live element of recording and performing live while you’re making your album is a little bit of a lost art, and we really embraced it on this album.
NH: If anything the documentary for me was sort of like an affirmation.
BC: I was gonna say affirmation. That’s exactly how I felt about it.
NH: There’s a time and a place for everyone through artistry, through movements. Right now is a good time and place for us.
Have any of the songs been interpreted in ways you did not expect?
NH: For me, I’ve gotten a lot of letters about “My Only Child.” Just personal things from women who are like “You’ve just written my ...” — actually from only children who used to hold grudges against their parents because they didn’t have a sibling and how they completely understood, almost through that song.
BC: There definitely is a connotation attached to the only child thing. I was just on the phone with Amanda the other day, and we were being catty about somebody and I said off the top of my head, “Only child.” (Natalie laughs) My wife goes like this (makes a "cut it out" gesture) to the corner of the room and I was like “I’m sorry about that, Amanda.”
AS: I don’t care.
BC: I realized how it’s like casually we can judge someone without knowing their story. So a song like “Only Child” educates my heart and educates other people’s heart that maybe don’t have any children and maybe have a whole crapload of children. The songs are teaching us, and it’s an evolution.
There’s a really strong maternal point of view on The Highwomen. You’ve talked a lot about the importance of four women coming together, writing and producing an album and how that’s important right now, but you don’t hear a lot of mothers (or a mother’s perspective) on the radio?
AS: Because they’re not sellable.
They were at one point though. That’s certainly relatable. A mother’s point of view, what’s more relatable than that?
AS: No, I’m just talking about currently.
NH: The bedrock of country music, she was the greatest mother: Maybelle (Maybelle Carter). I just feel like it’s something that’s definitely not tapped into as of recent times.
BC: But we all got one and a lot of us are mothers and I actually feel like there’s enormous potential for it, and tons of men that are interested in that point of view, too. I have this song called “The Mother” and it’s a song that I wrote about becoming a mother for the first time and actually finding it difficult and feeling like a bit of a fish out of water and not knowing if I was doing it right. And I got the most emotional response from men. Sometimes I think that when men, when a baby is born, they’ve not been getting aquatinted with it for nine months like mama has. It comes into the world and they don’t know quite what to do sometimes and that’s how I felt. I do think there is a place for the stories of mothers in music.
AS: I still feel like they should have gave me a test or something. There was so much, “What am I doing? I drove 20 miles per hour, I’ve only changed a diaper twice (prior to her daughter being born in 2015) now. Why is this legal?” (All chuckle)
How do you keep this going forward? You all have successful solo careers —
NH: I don’t think we all really know yet.
AS: I think we just keep having fun.
NH: I think as long as people keep wanting it and time allows and songs allow.
BC: I think we belong to the time. I think we belong to the culture and it’ll decide. If it puts us on the road, we’ll be on the road. If we make another record, we make another record. We came to serve this time, not serve ourselves and not serve our careers, and we’re gonna let the people decide.
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