(New Elektra )
The Highwomen album is brilliantly branded.
Country radio playlists this decade have become ridiculously, unconscionably dude-dominated. The bold response of Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby has been to form a female supergroup whose name plays off the Highwaymen, the totemic quartet of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.
The band's name makes its point, and the 12-song title track opens with a rewrite of the Jimmy Webb-penned "Highwayman."
"Highwomen" flips the script with stories of persecuted women, from Central American immigrant mothers to victims of the Salem witch trials. Smartly, the four white women bring in black British country singer Yola to sing a verse about a civil rights worker. It's a virtuous but not terribly entertaining beginning -- and a reminder that collectively, The Highwaymen, weren't nearly as great as the sum of their parts.
Thankfully, "Highwomen" picks up from there. "Redesigning Women," written by Hemby, is a working mother's task-juggling tale, about "full-time living on a half-time schedule / Always trying to make everybody feel special." The family vs. the workplace theme is amplified in "My Name Can't Be Mama," written by Carlile, Shires and Morris.
Because the project was created between solo commitments, the album -- which entered the Billboard country charts at No. 1 -- feels a bit pasted together. Still, the quality is high, and Morris impresses with two older songs, "Loose Change" and "Old Soul," both purer country than her crossover solo work.
The standouts are "Crowded Table," a celebration of inclusion written with Lori McKenna, and the ingenious "If She Ever Leaves," penned by Shires and her husband Jason Isbell with Chris Tompkins, and sung by Carlile. It's a gay country song that seems predictable until a man is made to understand he has no chance whatsoever with the woman he's hitting on because -- believe it or not -- she's not interested in men. -- Dan DeLuca