The Highwomen Are Redesigning Country Music

Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images.
Everyone knows that country radio hasn't been making room for the voices of women. The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative did a study on the genre that showed that over the last decade, airplay for women on country radio has plummeted. It seems like everyone, from Carrie Underwood to Miranda Lambert to CMT are doing whatever they can to support women artists — everyone except country radio programmers, that is. And now there's a new voice in the fray, with their sites set directly on country radio: The Highwomen.
You could call them a supergroup, because all the members are superstars in their worlds. There's Maren Morris, one of the few women to break through in mainstream country music in the last decade; Brandi Carlile, who won three Grammys for 2018's By The Way, I Forgive You and has become a leading voice in Americana and roots music after a long career; Amanda Shires, who is the mastermind behind the group, a mean fiddle player, and a singer/songwriter; and Natalie Hemby, a songwriter who's penned hits for Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert, along with many others. But they call themselves a movement as much as a band. Their debut LP plants a flag in the ground for the cause of reclaiming country music from the white and male perspective of simple life, recentering it on inclusive voices, telling the stories of women, mothers, people of color, and from the LGBTQ+ community — all through the lens of music that could only be called country, with more than a passing nod to traditional country storytelling songs. Their lead single, "Redesigning Women," was serviced to country radio after the band had performed on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Howard Stern, making the rounds on the morning shows, and doing interviews with everyone from Rolling Stone to Esquire. In short: they set themselves up to be bigger than — and have a fanbase outside of — radio, but they're game for the challenge of submitting their songs to programmers and seeing if someone will make room for them on the playlist.
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"I don’t know if we’re gonna crash through the doors of country radio," Hemby told Vulture. "If anything, I just love the fact that we made a country record that some young girl...is going to hear and go, 'Wow, I want to write a record that’s honest like that.' Maybe we don’t have radio on our side. Maybe we do. But we’re here, and you’re going to have to listen to us."
"You're going to have to listen to us" could be the mantra of women in country these days who exist outside of the radio establishment. Musgraves famously didn't bother submitting songs from her Album of the Year-winning album Golden Hour until after she won the Grammy — she just set about doing world tours and servicing a much bigger world of fans than people who listen to the radio. Finding fans without the support of radio is something a lot of women who want to be in country music have had to start thinking about and, following the success of Musgraves and the Highwomen, it's about to flip country radio's "woman problem" on its head. Instead of the problem being that they won't play women, we're starting to see a world where women, and anyone else who wants to find success in country music without adhering to a narrow idea of what constitutes the country sound (ahem Lil Nas X and Yola), can have enormous success without needing radio.
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