We Are the Daughters of the Silent Generations: On The Highwomen and the Exquisite Art of Losing

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Cynics will say country music is full of losers. Fans won’t be so quick to disagree. It’s nearly impossible to win in a catalogue of whiskey ballads and romance gone wrong. Everybody’s got something to lose when a whiny twang takes hold. There’s very little glory in country music — but when someone is winning, I assure you: they belong to a very specific crowd.

I know the wins and losses well. I spent some time working in social media for country music’s namesake network, and the winner/loser dilemma often played out like this: we busted our chops to build a nuanced digital brand and, without fail, every single week, our highest engagement came from a slow motion GIF of Keith Urban smoldering with sad eyes.

Let me be clear that Keith is no loser. He is Mr. Nicole Kidman. He’s a sweet family man and a solid hitmaker, but with every lonesome, lingering gaze, *we* were certainly losing. We were chasing numbers with awkward animation at the expense of truly creative work, and we rarely rolled the dice on genre underdogs.

In country music, an underdog is almost always a woman.

My (female) manager and I spent months trying to crack the code on how we could still “win” while not feeling like we were failing our feminist values. We’d hit our numbers. We’d take a breath. We’d pitch a female artist anthem. We’d earn the right. We’d put it in the feed. The numbers would drop, so we’d try again. With Keith. Or Blake. Or Luke. Or Kenny. Or Thomas. A constant feed of slow and lonesome men would stay a constant feed of slow and lonesome men. We had a few proven wins, of course, that would deviate from the norm (Reba meme, anyone?), but the one thing our all-female, split demo (18–25 social, 40+ linear) could agree on was a hollow man with a hell-of-a-lot of industry support was a winner, no matter who else was losing.

This is neither a new problem, nor one of the fandom’s making. We can break it down a bit by content and by culture. The female narrative throughout the history of country music has been one anchored to quiet suffering: for the love of rebel outlaws, for the mercy of fellow women with flaming locks of auburn hair. This isn’t to say that all female artists believe(d) in or subscribe(d) to the art of endless waiting, but in order to achieve some level of commercial success, they were/are certainly encouraged to follow a similar path of patient silence, while male counterparts recklessly shoot men in Reno just to watch them die.

It isn’t just lingering kitsch from another era of storytellers, either. The sound has certainly evolved, but the message is still relatively intact. Give something like Maddie & Tae’s “Girl In A Country Song” a spin for a brief contemporary summary. Women still wait, men still wander and there’s a distinct difference in who is allowed to be broken with greater complexity and allure. Yes, there is losing across the board in country, but a hierarchy of loss, no doubt.

So what are the tangible effects of losing as a loser? Shelf the narrative for a moment and look at the numbers. According to a recent Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study — led by Stacy L. Smith — only 16% of top 500 country song artists were female from 2014–2018, and only 12% of (popular/charting) songwriters. Factor in the average age of 29 for a commercially successful female artist (for a male, it’s 42) and consider this: Not only is a nuanced female perspective missing from country music — the female perspective itself is missing from country music.

So who do we look to?

Enter The Highwomen.

It would be foolish to reduce their work to a “winning” social asset. That’s how good Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby, Amanda Shires and Yola are when they join forces. I’m still unpacking the science behind this, but I’m confident that when they put their power together, my blood starts flowing in reverse. That’s the level of talent we’re talking about. It’s a modern masterclass in harmony and anti-hierarchy, wildly successful women working together and sharing the spotlight (while backed by friends like Jason Isbell, no less). It’s a collaborative religion of sorts. All of this and none of this is hyperbole.

What is most spectacular about the group, however, is that they aren’t only redefining the contemporary country landscape; they are, quite literally, rewriting classic country — and doing it in 3:42 flat.

In their namesake anthem, The Highwomen — a play on the Willie, Johnny, Waylon and Kris’ country supergroup The Highwaymen — take the reins and lyrically lead a revolution, updating the 1985 supremely synth “Highwaymen” classic, seamlessly stacking old bones into a haunting ballad for women who silently get and got lost in the art of losing.

Let’s do a bit of side-by-side blurbing:

I was a highwayman
Along the coach roads I did ride
With sword and pistol by my side

I was a Highwoman
And a mother from my youth
For my children I did what I had to do

I was a dam builder
Across the river deep and wide
Where steel and water did collide
A place called Boulder on the wild Colorado
I slipped and fell into the wet concrete below
They buried me in that great tomb that knows no sound
But I am still around
I’ll always be around and around and around and around and around

We are The Highwomen
Singing stories still untold
We carry the sons you can only hold
We are the daughters of the silent generations
You sent our hearts to die alone in foreign nations
It may return to us as tiny drops of rain
But we will still remain

When The Highwaymen lead the charge, life is divided into swashbuckling conquests. When The Highwomen lead, those who wait(ed) and work(ed) for little glory finally get to speak to what is often left in the wake of lonesome adventure.

The entire album follows suit, but “Highwomen” is a next-level triumph through and through. I’d call it a wildly moving act of reclamation — the ballad and the intent behind it — but it’s hard to liken it to a rediscovery. Has there ever been enough at stake to lose and find again? Can you measure a new sound with tools of yesterday?

Instead, I’ll call it a divine revision. It’s a close dissection of genre, past and present, and a nod to the fluidity of sacrifice. It’s a full exploration of female expectation and obligation, in content and in culture, and it is the most revelatory example of what it sounds like to speak to and for generations who have lost without consolation. Maybe country is full of losers, but this time, it’s worth something, and sacrifice has never sounded sweeter.

Of course, I can’t help but imagine what the winning GIF would look like.

Surely, it would move in the most spectacular ways.

Writer, Reader, Animorph

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