Brandi Carlile hasn’t quit making waves since this year’s Grammy incursion. The hometown folk-rock star has kept her hot streak rolling, co-producing country great Tanya Tucker’s first new album in a decade, crushing her first headlining show at the Gorge Amphitheatre and already selling out next year’s Girls Just Wanna Weekend 2 — her Mexico minifest stacked with women-led bands launched as an answer to dude-dominated festival lineups.
But of all Carlile’s recent endeavors, none has commanded more excitement than the formation of country supergroup The Highwomen with Americana vet Amanda Shires, country/pop crossover star Maren Morris and singer-songwriter Natalie Hemby, who has written chart-topping hits for Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town and other country big shots. The name is a riff on The Highwaymen, another country supergroup that outlaw greats Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson formed in the 1980s.
The Highwomen, which releases its self-titled debut Sept. 6, was the brainchild of Shires, after she noticed a dearth of women being played on country radio. Country radio’s gender disparity, not to mention misogynistic lyrics in so-called “bro-country” songs, has been a hot topic in recent years. During an 18-hour block on Seattle country station The Bull last year, we counted only two different solo lead female artists — Morris and Kelsea Ballerini — with stand-alone songs in its rotation. Competing station The Wolf didn’t fare much better. This summer, Morris became the first woman to land a No. 1 song on Billboard’s country airplay chart in nearly a year and half. During the week of Aug. 31, only six of the chart’s top 40 songs featured women.
The Highwomen — and Carlile in particular — were the talk of this summer’s Newport Folk Festival, with Carlile curating a surprise all-women tribute set featuring her Highwomen mates, country icon Dolly Parton and others. We caught up with the Maple Valley rock star to talk about her buzzy new band, jamming with Dolly and country radio’s gender gap. Excerpts from the conversation follow.
What do you remember about Amanda’s pitch [backstage at Nashville’s Exit/In]?
Well, she’s so eccentric, you know. She just walked up to me with a drink and she said I want to start a band with you and I want to call it the Highwomen. I thought she said the Highwaymen. I was like, “I don’t know, like a Highwaymen tribute band?” She goes “No, no. The Highwomen.” I was like “Oh, that’s so cool!” Then she sent me this political text and introduced me to Emily’s List and I started to realize what she was about and knew that I wanted to do this with her.
And you immediately thought of Maren for the project?
Yeah. Maren had just invited me to sing “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” with her at the CMT [Artists of the Year] awards show. It was my first real invitation to the country world and it felt real profound to me that she would chose someone that was kind of a misfit, and certainly a different kind of woman to sing that song with. … I knew that there were, if not political, at least social undertones to that that I was impressed by and moved by, and I know there’s a lot more to Maren Morris than everybody thinks initially.
Was it important for you to include someone like Maren, who has been one of the few women embraced by country radio?
I didn’t consider that she had been embraced by country radio, because I didn’t know. I have a Ford F-350 diesel pickup truck that I drive for farm stuff — I get hay in it, haul my boat or go to the dump, because I don’t have garbage pickup out where I’m at. Everywhere I go, it takes me an hour, because that’s just where I live. Only when I’m in that truck I will listen to country radio, just to see what’s going on. Because when I was young, the only music I had access to was country radio, and thank God I had Tanya Tucker, Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Kathy Mattea, Lorrie Morgan, the Judds, Reba McEntire. I could go on and on and on. Mary Chapin Carpenter. I had a pile of female artists to choose from telling my story.
So, I listen to country radio from time to time because I know that’s the message going out to rural America. And everywhere I go in that truck … I have not heard a woman in that hour in three years. So I didn’t know Maren was being embraced by country radio, because she certainly wasn’t being embraced at the country radio stations I was listening to.
You mention hearing those women [when you were young]. What’s the message to the girl now who’s riding around in a truck like that and not hearing many women on country radio?
Well, the problem’s not nuanced, you know. … The problem is that country music is the story of rural America being told through music. And right now, only one half of the human race’s story is being told. I’m not even going to get into the mire about the lyrics and partying and objectifying women and only being able to sing about alcohol and Solo cups over and over and over again. I’m just going to say that [“XXX’s and OOO’s (an American Girl)”] and “Strawberry Wine” and “Love Can Build a Bridge” and “Fancy,” and the songs that I needed for my identity are not being sung on country radio anymore. And that’s a problem for young women not being represented and mirrored in the arts.
Is it important to you that The Highwomen are picked up by country radio, that they play your songs?
It is important that they do and that women and young women have access to them. And if they don’t, it’s important that everyone watches them not do it, so that they have to do it next time for someone else. It’s most important that it changes.
Coming off the Grammys and everything this past year, why was this the right time for you to launch this project?
It was just when it happened. I could either say no and prioritize myself or say yes and prioritize my daughters [laughs]. So, I chose to say yes. … And it’s kinda fun, because the project is so holistic and so maternal that it actually doesn’t take much away from my family. I’ve been able to bring my kids to everything I’ve done with The Highwomen. They’re always running around and so is [Shires’ daughter] Mercy and [Hemby’s daughter] Sammie Jo. The girls are there and that feels like a metaphor for us.
You’ve described The Highwomen as a movement. Can you tell me more about what you mean and what you envision?
We designed the name to be an adjective that can be attached to anyone — any woman or any man. When I introduce my drummer every night, I call him a Highwoman, because first of all, he plays drums for the Highwomen. But second of all, he believes in and supports women’s music fundamentally. I think that that’s a really hard thing to do when women aren’t being showcased or held up in the commercial stratosphere, because it sends a message to young men that women’s music is for women. So, I want The Highwomen to be something that every man, woman and child can wear on a T-shirt and also be a Highwoman.
There’s been a lot of conversation about the lack of women on country radio. Does it feel like we’re approaching a tipping point?
Yes, it does. I really feel it. … This is going to be the year of women in country music. They’re all coming out, you got Miranda [Lambert], you got the Dixie Chicks. Trisha Yearwood just made an awesome album. Tanya Tucker just put out the album of a lifetime. It is a great year for women in country music. We’re just riding the wave of it, we’re not even trying to be the leaders of any movement. We’re just happy to join the chorus.
You pull a lot of influences into your own music. Why did you want to do a straight-up country band right now?
Because it’s so different from what Brandi Carlile is. Me and the twins are in a rock ‘n’ roll band. We owe as much to Radiohead and Pearl Jam as we do Johnny Cash or Patsy Cline. So getting to do this as a side project, but also just to be a harbinger of joy and equality to this musical community is a really great honor that not many people have access to. I feel really proud to be able to be part of the country-music community, not being completely a country-music singer.
Well, you certainly recruited a heavyweight from the country world for Newport, playing with Dolly Parton. Has she been a big influence for you?
Dolly’s influenced me personally beyond measure. I read her book when I was 15 … and in the footnotes she does a Q&A with fans and she became the first country artist to ever publicly support LGBTQ people, which has made her — for that and for many other reasons — a total gay icon. I liken her to Freddie Mercury and Elton John in that way. There’s a certain amount of eccentricity and camp to who she is that has always spoken to me as kind of an audacious teenager. …
It took me almost a year to get the commitment from Dolly. Honestly, I think it was the highlight of my whole career so far, getting Dolly to come out to Newport and sing those songs with her. I cried.
Did you get to hang out with her?
Yeah. She came in looking like the Grim Reaper. … They brought her in with, like, a bag over her whole body [laughs]. She could see out, but nobody could see in. All you could see were these high heels and these inch-and-a-half long fingernails with glitter on ’em, holding this hood down. She goes into this trailer and I walk in and my heart is beating so hard, because I was sooooo nervous. The band had learned the songs, I had learned the songs, the Highwomen had learned the background vocals. We were all terrified. We knew the gravity — Newport makes history. It’s where [Bob] Dylan plugged in and it’s where Dolly closed the first all-female headlining set.
She’s obviously a groundbreaker in the country world. Do you see any kinship between her career and what you’re trying to do with The Highwomen?
I mean, she has been — and she would hate this if she heard me say it — but she has been the consummate, the unwilling and accidental feminist in country music. The one that’s most consistently bucked the trends, combated all the misogyny, risen to the top. You see men walking around wearing Dolly Parton T-shirts all the time and I think that she has changed the tide for us more in country music than almost any other country-music icon.
Do The Highwomen have any plans to tour?
At this point we don’t. At this moment, The Highwomen is a movement and an album, and we don’t know beyond that.
It’s been a busy year-plus for you. Has it been tough to juggle time for all the projects you’ve been launching lately?
Yeah. But you know, I’ve got that song “ ‘Wherever is Your Heart’ I call home.” That song’s the truth, you know. I’ve got my girls in my life with me everywhere I am, so I’m essentially always home.