The Highwomen Deliver Emotional Effort, Sheryl Crow Going Out with a Bang

One of the things that the world of music has gotten hammered on over the past few years is the paucity of female performers, both on the radios and satellites of listeners and in the awards process (Grammys, CMAs, etc.). It is a fair argument too; in country music currently, you have to go down to #11 on the Billboard Country Singles chart to find the first female entry (Carrie Underwood) and, on the Billboard Hot 100, although the first three slots are occupied by women or male/female combos (Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts,” Shawn Mendes & Camilla Caballo with “Senorita” and Billie Eilish’s mopey “Bad Guy”), there are only two other female contributors in the Top 20 (the Ariana Grande/Miley Cyrus/Lana Del Rey collaboration for the reboot of Charlie’s Angels entitled “Don’t Call Me Angel” and Ariana Grande with Social House). With two new releases out from top female artists, you might think that this situation would change, but you’d be surprised.

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First up is the rather ostentatiously named The Highwomen, who have come out with their eponymous CD Highwomen. The quartet, consisting of Grammy winners Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile and Amanda Shires along with Grammy nominated songwriter Natalie Hemby, are all very accomplished performers and songwriters in their own rights. Coming together for this record, however, they put their egos at the door and come up with an emotional effort that delivers across the board for their purposes as a female country supergroup.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first, however: they probably should have called themselves something other than “The Highwomen.” That name harkens back to the 80s when four of the titans of country music – the late Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson – joined forces as “The Highwaymen,” a country supergroup that brought each man commercial and critical success. By branding themselves as “The Highwomen,” it seems that Morris, Carlile and Company are equivocating themselves as equal to the legendary male artists who made the name famous (plus they’re putting a HUGE target on themselves). Even Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt – the closest thing there was to a female “Highwaymen” previously – didn’t have the audacity to call themselves “The Highwomen.”

If you can get by the quartet calling themselves “The Highwomen,” you’re going to find a very solid outing from the artists involved. Of course, they have to start off the album with their version of The Highwaymen’s “Highwayman,” and it is naturally called “Highwomen.” It follows the pattern that was set by Cash, Nelson, et. al., with a call-and-response song about repressed women in history. A woman subjected to and executed during the Salem Witch Trials; a Freedom Rider murdered in the South; and (poignantly starting the song) a refugee from Honduras who took the long walk to try to seek asylum with her family in the U. S before dying on the trek. It is an excellent update from the male oriented original and starts a very emotional trek that runs through the album.

“We are the Highwomen,
Singing stories still untold.
We carry the sons you can only hold.
We are the daughters of the silent generation,
You send our hearts to die alone in foreign nations,
And they return to us as tiny drops of rain
But we will still remain…”

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Going deeper in the album there are some jewels for the listeners. Perhaps for the first time ever, there is a lesbian “kiss off” song called “If She Ever Leaves Me” that tries to subtly tell a cowboy that the woman he’s looking at picking up – Carlile’s secret lesbian lover – “thinks your cologne’s too strong, she’s into perfume” and that he has absolutely no shot. Another song that is noteworthy is “My Only Child,” a song from a mother to her child about why she didn’t have any more children for her child to play with.

The songs aren’t long on Highwomen, roughly three minutes in length for the 12 songs on the record, but each one packs an emotional punch that doesn’t get displayed often in music. If you’re a fan of the women in the group – or you just want to hear some damn good country (or maybe “Americana”) music – you’d be well advised to pick up the record.

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In her over 30-year career, Sheryl Crow has pretty much done it all. Originally a music teacher, Crow would in 1987 become a backup singer for Michael Jackson on his Bad tour. She would eventually find success as a solo artist through her debut album Tuesday Night Music Club in 1994. Now, more than 25 years later (Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, are you listening?), it looks as though Crow is calling it a close for her album recording career with her CD Threads.

Why does it seem like the Missouri songbird is ending her recording career? Because it seems that she brought everyone and their brother out to play with her on the album! Both Morris and Carlile from The Highwomen make appearances with Crow and they rank as the MINOR players on the record. Artists such as Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, Mavis Staples, Eric Clapton, Gary Clark, Jr., Keith Richards, Willie Nelson, Joe Walsh, St. Vincent, James Taylor and Emmylou Harris all add their prodigious talents to the record, making it for a stellar outing. Let’s put it this way: if this is the way that Crow wants to bid adieu to her recording career, she’s done a hell of a job.

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There are several highlights on the record. “Prove You Wrong” with Crow harmonizing with Nicks and Morris, starts the record with a bang that sets the ever-increasing standard for the rest of the record. “Beware of Darkness” is an ode about falling too far down “the rabbit hole” and letting everyday news bring us down, brought to life by the guitar work of Clapton and the vocals of Sting and Carlile.

It is a couple of collaborations you don’t expect that seem to steal the record, though. First is a stunning “Redemption Day,” a duet with the late Johnny Cash. The collaboration took a version of her song that Cash recorded before he passed away and mixed it with her voice, delivering a performance for the ages. From Crow’s lilting voice to the gravely rumble of “The Man in Black,” the song that Crow wrote about the U. S. involvement in Bosnia gains new life in these times. Crow comments in the liner notes that “online trolls say ‘shut up and sing…’ I’d think no one would have the gall to tell Johnny Cash to shut up and sing…he’d probably respond with the famous photo Jim Marshall took of him at San Quentin, the shot taken ‘just for the warden.’”

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The other collaboration is surprising in the mixing of genres that comes together. Crow teams up with Public Enemy’s Chuck D, soul singer Andra Day and guitar wizard Clark on “The Story of Everything,” a song that, according to Crow, “was born out of the feeling of frustration with the state of affairs in America…so much hope accompanied our first black President into office, but that hope turned into fear and division.” The foursome power through the song, calling out those who continue to push the divisiveness in the nation today, and they aren’t shy about laying it at a certain politician’s door. Musically the song is evocative, lyrically it is a protest from the people…and a warning that the people better pull their heads out of their asses.

The record could have been called “Sheryl Crow and Friends” because, without the ample assistance from Crow’s pals, the record wouldn’t have been as impactful as it is. Crow’s steady, beautiful mezzo-soprano is accented by each and every performer and she’s smart enough to know when to get out of the way and let her guests do their thing. If it is goodbye to recording for Crow, this is one hell of a way to exit the stage.

Alas, it appears nobody is listening to these artists. The Highwomen are currently ranked #53 on the Billboard Album charts after peaking at #10 two weeks ago, while Crow’s record reached #30 on the Albums chart and #2 on the Country Albums chart before plunging off in a mere two weeks. This is a sad statement on the music industry today, but it is something that REAL music fans will appreciate by supporting these women.

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So There’s No Good Music Anymore? You’re Not Looking Hard Enough

I’ve heard the argument since I worked in the radio business (a career that spanned three decades and various formats, I have to add). In discussion with fans of particular genres of music – whether it was rock, country, metal, etc. – the refrain was often “They don’t make music like they used to.” I often thought about that statement and came up with some reasons why people make that statement and/or believe what they’re saying.

For many, there is no better era for music than when they grew up. For Baby Boomers, the 1960s and its wide variety of genres (seriously, on the radio back then you could hear almost ANYTHING and often on one station) and the 1970s is what they look at as the epitome of the history of music. For Generation X (born in the early 1960s), the sounds from the 1980s and some of the 1990s is what captures their ears. For the Millennials, the late 90s/early Aughts is where music was cooking. What Generation Z – those that are currently in grade school – will be listening to is a huge guess. And if you want to reach back further than 50-60 years ago, there are those that consider the “Big Band” Era the shit and so on.

Failing that, people will often look towards their wild and crazy “single years” as THE time when music was great. Whether you were dancing in a disco, moshing in the pit or line dancing at a honkytonk, people will often equate music with when they were having their most enjoyable times. Ask any person and they will probably be able to put a soundtrack together that would tell the story of their lives better than any book or documentary could ever hope to achieve and a predominance of the music is probably from their young adult days.

Finally, there IS some credence that has to be given that music isn’t as good anymore, but it is more about the talent of the performers rather than what music they are presenting. For some of the greatest music in the history of mankind, one person sat down and put together EVERYTHING. They served as the writer, producer, performer and, if you really want to go back in time, seller of the music (you think Beethoven did his music for free?). Nowadays, the list of co-writers on a song can be as many as 10 different people and producers can reach nearly the same number. Then there’s the fact that performers don’t exactly “perform” live anymore…

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With this said, there’s plenty of music that is out there nowadays, people just aren’t looking hard enough for such gems. Normally people will not pay as much attention to music as they get older because the “acts of life” (working, taking care of the bills, children, etc.) become more significant rather than the “frivolity” of listening to music. Unless you actually are working in the music business, then it becomes more background noise than something that you actually are tremendously invested…but that can change.

I personally try to keep up on the new music out there and, as I’ve previously stated, there’s some good stuff out in the stores and on the airwaves (or the internet). I’ve spoken plenty of times about how good Florence + The Machine are and Bruno Mars is an outstanding performer, one that I’d definitely pay to see. If you don’t think there’s any good music out there, here’s some choices that run the gamut from pleasant and quiet to hard, heavy and raucous that you’re missing.

Halestorm

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There’s just something about a loud, thundering guitar and crushing bass notes that gets the blood pumping. I’ve personally always enjoyed hard rock/heavy metal (what some people consider “metal” is far from it, to be honest) and still do to this day. Halestorm, led by Lzzy Hale, is a band that you’re missing on big time if you haven’t checked them out.

Hale seems to firmly embrace the “rock and roll attitude,” but she’s also got the vocal and musical chops to stand on her own in front of the band. “I Like It Heavy” simply comes out and slugs you in the mouth, catching your attention from the start. At the very end, Hale’s almost church-choir sounding coda (of the studio version of the song) simply surprises you with its impact. Finally, anyone that can cover Pat Benatar’s “Hell is for Children” and pretty much equal Benatar’s voice is worth the price of admission.

(And, for a bonus, here’s Lzzy Hale wiping the stage with Eric Church at the CMT Music Awards.)

Leah Flanagan

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Flanagan is an Australian artist that received a great deal of support (re:  playing her music) on SiriusXM Radio Margaritaville (quite honestly, SiriusXM is a great spot to find new music that isn’t getting played on terrestrial radio) for her album Nirvana Nights and the tune “September Song.” Flanagan’s music is quite an eclectic mix of genres, all pulled together by her voice and lyrics. To my knowledge, she’s never has toured in the United States, a pity to be honest; she would bring a different style to the U. S. music scene.

Kacey Musgraves

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She may not be an artist that is hidden from the world, but Musgraves is one of the best country artists – hell, let’s go for it, overall artists – out there today (and that comes from someone who isn’t necessarily a country fan). A two-time Grammy winner, it just seems that nobody wants to give Musgraves the proper attention that someone of her talent deserves. Her album Same Trailer Different Park ran the gamut of musical stylings (my personal favorite, “Blowin’ Smoke,” had a definitive blues styling to it), which might keep her from being pigeonholed into the country genre.

Beyond that, Musgraves isn’t afraid to touch some sensitive issues with her music, something that country music isn’t known for. Questioning religion, acceptance and tolerance of gays and lesbians and drug usage are all subjects she’s touched on, rare in today’s music industry that prefers its artists to be sanitized (like the waste of space known as Taylor Swift) so little Suzie doesn’t get any wild ideas.

Blackberry Smoke

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If you prefer your rock n’ roll with a bit of a Southern flair, then this is the band for you. They do harken back to those 70s powerhouses like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet and Blackfoot and they will get you tapping your foot. My personal favorite is the song, “Leave a Scar,” but also noteworthy are “Wish in One Hand” and “Six Ways to Sunday.”

Trombone Shorty

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For those of you who like your music instrumental, Trombone Shorty is someone to check out. From the melting pot that is New Orleans, Trombone Shorty combines musical styles like a delicious gumbo and the only thing that might stop your listening pleasure is getting too full of the funkiness. His biggest commercial success to this mark in his career is the song “Hurricane Season,” but there is plenty of other work that make him worth a listen. Like Musgraves, he’s young – only 30 (Musgraves is 27) – so we should be hearing from him for some time.

Rodrigo y Gabriela

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Acoustic guitar never sounded as good as when this Mexican duo pick them up. While Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero did stay pretty close to their Mexican roots with their breakthrough hit “The Soundmaker,” they will stretch out and incorporate other musical styles into their music. Of late, they have also been expanding to a full band outside of just their own guitars, so the future could be bright for this duo.

Gary Clark, Jr.

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Finally, if you have the desire to hear someone simply shred a guitar, Austin, TX’s Gary Clark, Jr., is the man. Long a mainstay of one of the most competitive music scenes in the world (Austin is PACKED with people that are or could easily have been the best in their respective fields of music), Clark broke through with his album Blak and Blu and the song “Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round” that demonstrated the screaming power and skill of his guitar work. He also is an accomplished blues player, as recognized by his Grammy win in 2014 for Best Traditional R&B Performance.

Will these performers be recognized 25 years from now? Will they be forever ensconced in the hallowed halls of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland? Hell, nobody knows and that’s part of the fun. It is a thrill to simply enjoy the music and the ride and see where it takes us. So the next time you think that there’s “no good music” anymore, either take a listen to these artists or get out there and look for some on your own…the journey is definitely worth it!