The Highwomen, queerness, and the stories women tell in country music

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Photo Credit: Elektra Records

The Highwomen, queerness, and the stories women tell in country music

September 6, 2019

I grew up surrounded by country music. As a little gay jewish girl in Northern California, I may not have been the target audience of country musicians, but nonetheless, I felt it understood me more than any other genre. My dad had a beautifully curated CD collection filled with the finest country-pop from the early ‘90s to mid 00’s that soundtracked our house, our car, and even the walkman my sister and I shared. The radio showcased more of the best: Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and my forever number one, The Dixie Chicks. In country music, much like in my life, it was only the women I fell in love with. 

One day, as a teenager, on a long drive with my dad accompanied by the Dixie Chicks’ “Fly”–which is perhaps a perfect album–I bemoaned the lack of all-women country groups. I asked my dad, “Why aren’t there more groups like this?”

“Country radio is sexist,” my dad responded. He wasn’t wrong.

In the decade prior, country radio stations had become more and more male-centric. Hence, pop music became the soundtrack to our family car rides because these stations actually played music by women.

As country and pop rising star Maren Morris told Rolling Stone, “If you look at the country radio charts, and there is one woman every three weeks in the Top 20, what’s going to encourage women to try to make music in that direction?”

Morris is a member of the new country group The Highwomen, whose debut album released today. The group’s name repurposes and pays homage to The Highwaymen, a well-known country supergroup of the ‘80s and ‘90s composed of four great (male) country musicians. The Highwomen are also made up of four great country performers: Morris, Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby, and Brandi Carlile. Carlile, notably, is also an out lesbian.

While a freshman in college, I discovered country music independently of my dad for the first time. My friend Sara, a Kansas native, fellow lesbian and wonderful person, introduced me to the stylings of now multiple Grammy Award winner, Kacey Musgraves. Sara and I listened together, feeling Musgraves’ music strike a familiar nostalgia within us for different reasons, but fixating on one specific lyric for very much the same reasons. 

In the chorus of her first big hit “Follow Your Arrow,” Musgraves sings, “Make lots of noise / and kiss lots of boys / or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into.

“Follow Your Arrow” was something revolutionary in country music. Though Musgraves herself is straight, the song was co-written by queer country artists Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally. It felt fresh and celebratory, yet still unmistakably country. It felt like acceptance. I was very consious of the fact that we needed more women in modern country music, but I never fully realized that those women could be queer too. Now, two lesbians were sitting in a dorm room listening to a song that was a full celebration of women, giving us the freedom to enjoy whatever we did or didn’t do. And for once, that included queer women like us. All with a fiddle. 

This joyful expression of feminism can also be found in “Redesigning Women,” the first single from The Highwomen, where the four celebrate the joys of being women. The music video puts this energy on display, and includes a group of women burning a large metaphor for gendered expectations. Carlile’s wife, Catherine Shepherd, also makes an appearance. A spouse appearing in a video may seem like a small, sweet little gesture, but it doesn’t feel small to me.  

What has always struck me from a young age about country music is how one four-minute long song can tell a full story. The Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” has a more satisfying revenge arc than the entire series of "Big Little Lies.Sara Evans’ “Suds in a Bucket" captures the feeling of escaping a small town for love. And there is nothing like the enticing romp of Dolly Parton’s “Two Doors Down.” These songs, just like other forms of media, told stories that barely ever touched on queerness. There could and should be more queer stories in this genre that thrive through storytelling. It took me a long time to realize that wanting more women in country music and wanting queerness in country music were not mutually exclusive desires.

One of the songs on The Highwomen’s album is entitled “If She Ever Leaves,” a love song that Carlile sings about another woman. There, matter-of-factly, in the debut album of a group of women challenging the status quo of women in country music, is this queer love song. It feels like the whole world is opening up, in the way queerness naturally fits into the album’s fabric and into a movement that could affect more than just the radio.

The Highwomen are not silent when it comes to inequality in country music. They are intent on making sure women’s voices are heard and make waves. Even more revolutionary is how one of the women spearheading this movement is an out lesbian who sings love songs for women, features her wife in music videos, and is commited to change country music for the better. The Highwomen may very well be the next big thing in country music, and they will do this being women, and they will do this being queer. 

The Highwomen are by no means the first group of women to make a big splash in the country music industry. Carlile is not the first lesbian to make profoundly queer country music. But the fact that these are not first women to do this means that their presence is more than a blip on the radar in country music. This is a movement. There will be young women and young queer people who hear The Highwomen on the radio and who will be inspired to make music themselves. There will be little gay girls in cars hearing love stories through the radio with the paticular emotion that only a country song can carry.

It took me a long time to come to terms with the facts that the music I loved from my childhood didn't include people like me. I’d like to imagine a world not too far into the future where no one will have to come to that realization and that young queer people can hear themselves in country music all across the radio.

The Highwomen is out today, wherever music is sold.

Raina Deerwater serves as the Entertainment Research and Analysis Associate for GLAAD Media Institute. In this capacity, she provides research and assists in writing GLAAD’s Where We Are On TV and Studio Responsibility Index, our two annual reports examining the quality and quantity of LGBTQ representation in television and Hollywood film. In addition, Raina authors regular posts for GLAAD’s website.

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