Come back again, and again, and again: Brandi Carlile and The Highwomen

28 Jan

Shh … his Versace has a lot to say
(L.A. Times)

There is a lot of barroom debate among rock and roll fans about the quality of contemporary country music. It’s not that we don’t like country music, we explain patiently over a $12 draft as Buck Owens plays on the Pandora stream; we just don’t like popular country music. As Tom Petty put it, “What they would call country today is sort of like bad rock with a fiddle.”

I cop to the snobbery. For the bulk of my country music library, the older the better. I have a lot more Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline than I will ever have Florida Georgia Line. Likewise, I am the only American citizen who has yet to hear a single one of the kabillion remixes of “Old Town Road.”

It’s not a stretch to say I enjoy a lot of alt country artists, because it’s a very convenient category that fits all the acts I like and excludes any I think are too crass or too well known. The list is long: John Prine, Lucinda Williams, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, Calexico, Uncle Tupelo and the Civil Wars (RIP) are a representative few. They know the aching perfection of a small detail that reveals the whole of heartbreak or the delight of a smartalecky lyric you wish you’d thought of first. And while the vocal styles and quality are just as all over the map as rock and roll, country music allows for a crystalline purity of tone and harmony that just stops me in my tracks.

So it was about time I listened to Brandi Carlile. Last night, she won two Grammys to add to the three she got last year – and thanks to Carlile’s songwriting and production, Tanya Tucker earned her first gold gramophone for the resolute and tender, “Bring My Flowers Now.”

Last week, I finally checked out the debut album by the Highwomen, the supergroup Carlile formed last year with Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby, with guest vocalists Yola and Sheryl Crow helping them out here and there and Jason Isbell contributing songs and guitar support. The name of the group – and their lead track – come from Jimmy Webb’s song that was famously adopted in the 1980s by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings in their own star-studded project.

With Webb’s blessing and assistance, the song was reframed to tell the stories of women whose spirit lives on even after they died in service to others. As Carlile said in Rolling Stone, “[The Highwaymen’s characters] all died doing things that men do. Willie was a bandit. Johnny Cash drove a fucking starship, nobody knows why … We rewrote it with fates that befell women …”

I listened to the song in the dark of my morning commute and couldn’t stop crying. It’s so moving, resolute and fierce – and the harmonies are utterly gorgeous. It hits me hard every time I listen.

The album has a lot of humor in its heart. “Redesigning Women” salutes those who are “Skipping the bread for the butter/ Changing our minds like we change our hair color.” The lyrics of “Loose Change” have the nested cleverness of imagery that country songwriters are famous for:

You don’t see my value
I’m gonna be somebody’s lucky penny someday
Instead of rollin’ ’round in your pocket like loose change

And, the cowboys aren’t always the ones getting the girl, either:

Songwriter Harlon Howard famously said, “Country music is three chords and the truth.” Brandi Carlile and her collaborators are expanding who gets to tell the truth – and drawing me in as a fan eager to listen.

See you on the flip side …

8 Responses to “Come back again, and again, and again: Brandi Carlile and The Highwomen”

  1. Jennifer Saulten Arapoff January 29, 2020 at 10:17 am #

    I SO enjoy your posts and was excited to see a new one–and as usual I loved it. I famously love nearly every genre of music except country. But then, I like Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton; I like a lot of southern rock and new alt country rock like the Avetts. I like some crossover (a few Taylor Swift or Shania songs are ok). But I LOVE Brandi Carlisle and I’m definitely going to listen to this album at your recommendation. Keep the posts coming!

    • lpon45 January 29, 2020 at 10:44 am #

      You are too kind! I like to blog if only to stay in touch with fellow music lovers who aren’t just down the hall anymore. Thanks so much for reading, and I hope all is well out by you.

  2. pamhoughton January 29, 2020 at 5:21 pm #

    I like this, Lisa. Well done! I like all those country music stars you listed here (although there are 2 or 3 I hadn’t heard of) – but ya know, sometimes I like the bro’ music, too. Especially if the song is a toe-tapper that gets me going on the treadmill. Hey, what about Vince Gill? Patty Loveless? Ricky Skaggs? (and others). They are all so technically skilled and yet still pure in their approach, IMO. BTW – just finished reading Linda Rondstadt’s 2013 memoir – I recommend the first two-thirds, mostly because she writes about the music I grew up listening to, then it gets a little dry. She seems like a very private person, which is fine and respectable, but makes for an occasionally boring read. Anyway! Glad to see you blogging.

    • lpon45 January 29, 2020 at 7:56 pm #

      Thanks for being such a loyal reader, Pam! Thanks, too, for the tip about Ronstadt’s memoir. I still need to watch her documentary, which was in CNN earlier this month. Hope you’ll post, soon, too!

  3. Tom Doyle February 3, 2020 at 3:53 pm #

    Thanks for posting this!

    • lpon45 February 3, 2020 at 7:50 pm #

      Thanks for reading it!

  4. marmaladefille May 14, 2020 at 10:11 pm #

    I listened to this on your recommendation and it is truly a marvel. Thank you for always being my source of amazing new music (or at least new to me)!

    • lpon45 May 14, 2020 at 10:13 pm #

      I’m always happy to share great music – I’m so glad you like it!

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