Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby & Amanda Shires of The Highwomen
Photo: Daniel Mendoza/Recording Academy
Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby & Amanda Shires Of The Highwomen Are "Redesigning Women" | Newport Folk 2019
The Highwomen stole the show on opening night of Newport Folk Festival 2019. The new supergroup composed of Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires have been storming the country world with a powerful and poignant message, and they're having fun doing it.
"Redesigning Women" arrived as an anthem for the modern female—but the single serves to unite, not divide, which was very clear as the group closed out their Newport set with the song. Their second single, "Crowded Table," a siren song for inclusivity, also dropped just ahead of their Newport debut.
We caught up with three-quarters of The Highwomen backstage at Newport Folk to talk about their debut album, due out Sept. 6., about the lack of representation of women in country radio, why they call Carlile the group’s “wide receiver” and more.
Let's start with Newport and the debut last night. How did it feel to finally present this project live? What's special about this festival in particular?
Morris: I mean, it felt amazing. We felt like when we walked on stage that all these people that came to see us were already on our side. It went by too quick. That was my only complaint.
Hemby: Yeah. It went by really fast. I was kind of relieved it was over, but kind of sad that it was over. But it was very electric. It was like everybody was waiting for us and it was just, I felt I was really nervous. This is my first time to Newport and being on stage with the girls. We had been rehearsing and it was kind of emotional because it was all coming to fruition, you know?
Shires: It seemed electric. You know, we walk out there and we're ready to play, they want to hear us. Then we're also at Newport. I've been coming here a long time and I haven't felt a audience as charged as what I felt on that stage last night. I'm not saying I was here when Dylan did his thing, but I'm sure that was almost as electric as what we did.
Highwomen go electric.
You closed the set with "Redesigning Women," a song that makes a bold statement, but it's also a lot of fun. Was the video as fun to make as it looked?
Morris: Yeah. It was the hottest day in Nashville and we were wearing firemen gear.
Hemby: Which is so heavy.
Morris: Then we built a fire. So we were melting by the end of it. But it was so fun. Tanya Tucker and Wynonna Judd came out in support. Yeah, it was probably just the easiest video I've ever done.
Hemby: Yeah. Elizabeth Olmsted did it and she was incredible.
Shires: I think the song though... Natalie, wrote it and as far as I can tell, it's about owning what it is to be a woman.
Shires: And I think making that video and then including all our friends, you know, up and coming and the legends. I think that has a lot to say for the unity of the project.
Hemby: Well, I mean you touched on it perfectly. It's basically, I didn't want to sound preachy writing the song. I wanted it to just be real and be kind of funny. It is the life we lead, we are doing as women now more than ever. We're running businesses and taking care of families and it's a different time we live in and it's just sort of like the hilarity of it all.
Morris: There were dudes singing "Redesigning Women" in the crowd last night. It was awesome.
Shires: I love the evolved ones.
Morris: It's for everybody.
Yeah, everybody was singing last night. Also, the second single came out this week, "Crowded Table." Can you talk about where that song came from?
Hemby: Well I wrote that one, again... I actually wrote these two songs before I actually even joined the band, so I feel like it was sort of my rite of passage to get in the band. I wrote that with Lori McKenna and we sat down at my piano and I told her about what they were looking for for the Highwomen project. I had this title that I wanted to write for a long time called "Crowded Table."
We sat down at a piano and we wrote it literally in 30 minutes and then I took it to Brandi and I was like, is this something that works? And she changed it. Just like a few lines on it and it was just perfect. We just wanted to write a song about women getting pitted against each other. We wanted to write a song about like, "Hey, I've got you." It's not just women, actually. I think men too. Like, I want a big house that has lots of friends and family. Just something sort of heartwarming, you know?
Morris: This motto of the band, it fits so perfectly with that song because I think the message we're trying to get across is like, you can sit with us. This is a very inclusive project.
Shires: We're singing in unison so people can sing along.
Amanda, I read this project came out of noticing a lack of representation at women in radio and country radio specifically. Can you talk about a little bit what you found and how that turned into this project?
Shires: It was something I had noticed before, but I really don't operate in that genre. When the idea really started was after my daughter was born and I was thinking, what if Mercy grows up and decides she wants to be a country artist? Like, what can I do and how can I in any way try and change it or at least make it easier? That's sort of the whole thing for me. And then, you know, as ideas do, they grow and they become something much larger than you ever could even imagine. I feel very lucky that these people wanted to do this with me.
And how have you seen this project already have an impact on the conversation about gender equality so far with these first two singles?
Hemby: Well, I think we just want to shine a light on all different types of artists. It's exactly what Maren said in her video.
Morris: We don't want more than anyone else. We want the same as everyone else.
Hemby: Exactly. I think that's the key to it all. In the Top 50 charts of country music, there's not very many women on it.
Shires: Apparently Maren's number one. Watch out. Fire.
Hemby: She is currently number one. This girl right here. I don't know yet what happened.
Morris: But it is cool. To be at Newport and do the Highwomen debut the same week that "GIRL" went number one. It just feels like, I don't know, I'm pretty superstitious, but sometimes the stars just align and it's just timing.
Hemby: But it didn't use to be an issue of having women on country radio. We used to have Tricia [Yearwood], Shania [Twain], Faith [Hill], all of the them.
Morris: Dixie Chicks.
Hemby: Dixie Chicks. Through the years it's just, it's been so much less inclusive and that's kind of our point. It's not, we don't want more. We want the same opportunities.
Well, what you're doing is incredible. Maybe because she's not here, we can talk about Brandi. What does she bring to the group?
Morris: We have dubbed her the wide receiver.
Hemby: She's the wide receiver. If you have a ball and you want to do something, Brandi will take that ball all the way. She was like, I'm going to catch the ball and we're going to score a touchdown and we're going to win the Superbowl.
Shires: And then she'll run back down and get it again.
Morris: Yeah. She's definitely a doer. Like, she has an idea and she manifests it.
Shires: I think her work ethic matches the power of her voice.
Morris: Unparalleled vocalist.
Shires: The amount of work she can do, the amount of, you know, air she can take.
Hemby: Yes. That powerful voice. That's how she works too. And she's also, she is a very big supporter.
Shires: All we do is hold onto the reins.
Morris: She's really supportive. In our show last night, I was like, Brandi has amazing stage banter. I'm kind of glad I can sit back. She had the crowd in the palm of her hand when she was speaking.
Hemby: She is definitely made for this, for sure.
The album comes out Sept. 6. How in the world did you record this with four very busy schedules?
Hemby: Well, you work. Dave Cobb produced our record and she's worked with Dave several times.
Shires: Yeah, I have worked with Dave a lot. But when I first had the idea for this before it became even this, I told Dave about it and then I told him that I wanted him to produce it. Then he was like, you gotta go meet Brandi. And I met Brandi and then everything started coming together. I mean, we have the songs, we have awesome bands, we have awesome suits.
Morris: I recorded for two days. Well three, I guess with cocktails. What was the life span of the studio time? It was probably-
Shires: It was two weeks. We did a lot of stuff the first week and came back and did it the second week.
Hemby: Yeah, and we tracked a lot of the vocals-
Morris: We were writing in the studio also. Like, on "My Name Can't Be Mama," they wanted me to help write my verse and so it was very collaborative and creative. I love the way Dave operates. He's really into live tracking. So you've got humans around you making music and you can look at each other and you're all on each other's wavelength. I loved recording that way.