The Highwomen (an all-star group made up of Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires), have just released their self-titled debut album, which was produced by Dave Cobb. It would appear on the surface to be a can’t-miss creative success. After all, most everything up to this point touched by Cobb has been great, including Carlile’s recent Grammy Award-wining By the Way, I Forgive You. Without question, there are is some fine music on the album; yet one is nevertheless left wishing it had been a far better full-length.
The album is at its weakest whenever its songs are politically strident. The rewrite of “The Highwayman,” originally recorded by The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson), and simply titled “Highwomen,” lacks the power and personality of Jimmy Webb’s original. The feminist anthem, “Redesigning Women,” is little more than a cliched anthem. Even “Crowded Table,” which includes the wonderful Lori McKenna as one of its cowriters, pales in comparison to much of McKenna’s own solo material.
The album finally takes flight with its second half, though, where songs take on a more personal tone. “Old Soul,” with its gentle vulnerability is heartwarming. “My Only Child” sweetly touches upon the family dynamic. Miranda Lambert helped write this one, and Amanda Shires adds beautiful fiddle to its mix. On the lighter side, “Don’t Call Me” rumbles along nicely, as it forewarns a partner how this woman won’t always be available as a lifeline in a pinch. It includes a funny spoken outro and a sharp electric guitar solo. “Heaven Is A Honky Tonk” is a hopefully, country music-filled picture of the great hereafter. It’s also a straightforward country song, and one of the big benefits of his album is hearing Maren Morris singing real country, after her disappointingly overproduced pop album Girl. Shires gets solo writing credit for the powerful ballad “Cocktail and a Song,” and the album closes with “Wheels of Laredo,” which Carlile and the Hanseroth brothers wrote for Tanya Tucker’s recent comeback album.
Had Highwomen just stuck to singing emotive country songs, as they do so well with this album’s second half, instead of trying too hard to make social statements (what happens with the album’s first half), this project could have been truly great, start to finish. As it is, though, it’s just half-great.