Underwood, Lambert, Musgraves, Clark: Today’s Female Version of the Highwaymen


Eight Second Angel boots is proud to honor the roots of country music and the hard-working, independent women who played a part in making country music what it is today. 

Anything boys can do, girls can do better.

Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson are four of the most prolific country stars in history. After solidifying their own remarkable solo careers (forever changing the mainstream music scene) and working together in varying capacities, the gritty storytellers joined forces and created a super group commonly referred to as The Highwaymen. When their debut entry “Highwayman” proved to be a massive hit (topping the country singles chart in 1985), they released an album by the same name, which also became a hugely successful and career-defining milestone. They followed the single with a cover of Guy Clark’s “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” a bonafide Top 20 hit.

The quartet would later release Highwayman 2 (in 1990) and 1995’s The Road Goes on Forever (produced by Don Was). Despite their early success, these two discs never quite reached the same heights as the first go ’round. But regardless, all four singer-songwriters demonstrated that pushing the country music envelope doesn’t have to come at a cost for the future of the format: their legacy stands as some of the finest work ever created in Nashville. To this day, Cash, Jennings, Nelson and Kristofferson are legends who dared to challenge Music Row, stretching the boundaries with real stories about devastation, life and loss.

Flash forward to 2015, and a similar thing is happening in the mainstream but not by the men. There are four outstanding females who are and have been challenging the norms since they got their start. They’ve reached into their well-spring of powerful emotion and experience and offered a captivating alternative to what terrestrial radio often dishes out. Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves all appeared on singing competitions (“American Idol” and “Nashville Star,” respectively), but that doesn’t mean their music hasn’t crashed through the mainstream like a two-ton wrecking ball. Brandy Clark has built her house through her songwriting, landing cuts on many A-list superstar albums (more on that below), and like her contemporaries, she has a resounding perspective that has set her apart from any other aspiring female singer. All four powerhouses have risen to the top in their own ways, and without them, the format wouldn’t be as interesting.

Carrie Underwood

For her part, she’s far more “pop” sounding than the other three talented females here, but her breadth and expansive sonic elements and topics are just as remarkable. Now having notched 10 years in this business, which is an outstanding feat on its own merits, Underwood has charted some of the most genre-defying and intriguing material of all time. Songs like “Wasted’ (from her Some Hearts debut), “Just a Dream” and her cover of Randy Travis’ “I Told You So” (off 2007’s Carnival Ride), “Blown Away” and the southern gothic-inspired “Two Black Cadillacs” (from 2012’s Blown Away), and her most recent No. 1 hit “Something in the Water” (a baptism tale, lifted from her first-ever greatest hits compilation) poke the thematic flame and have ignited hopeful optimism into where country music is headed next. Her jump-start on the hit singing competition American Idol in 2005 led to some harsh comments about her intentions and paying her dues, but at this point, none of that matters. Underwood, with a deep love for tradition (she often performs at the Grand Ole Opry) and a critical eye for the future, has forged a path that not only draws younger listeners into the fold but stands by what country music is all about: grounded storytelling.

Miranda Lambert

She is fortunate enough to have country radio’s loyalty, only one of two females that have had notched notable success with connecting unmistakably with the wider general country music listening crowd. Her fighter mentality is steeped well into her catalog, bolstered by such powerful cuts as “Kerosene” (from her debut album of the same name, released in 2005), “Gunpowder & Lead” (off the 2007 follow-up Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), “Mama’s Broken Heart” (from 2011’s Four the Record) and 2014’s “Little Red Wagon” (Platinum). Of course, she can write with the best of them, too, cultivating a songbook that includes some of the most emotional and poignant moments in the modern era: “Famous in a Small Town,” “More Like Her,” “White Liar,” “Dead Flowers,” “Dear Diamond,” “Bathroom Sink” and “Holding on to You” among her best work to-date. Her rowdy, do-what-you-please exterior also marks her as an unconventional torchbearer. But that is certainly what makes her special, too, as she incorporates a grittier, more Texas red-dirt product that has brought a delightful edge to our radio speakers. While her latest Platinum record might be far more mainstream-appealing than her previous work, she continues to clutch country’s roots close to her bedazzled cowgirl boots. “Old Sh!t,” “Babies Making Babies” and “Sunday in the South” are particular tracks that do well by combining bluegrass, western wing and a distinctive vocal into a contemporary package.

Kacey Musgraves

She owns her own crazy, as she advises on her song “Biscuits,” a mid-tempo jangler about living life to your own accord. Much like “Follow Your Arrow” and “Step Off” (from her Grammy-winning Same Trailer, Different Park) and her iTunes-only release “The Trailer Song,” Musgraves has a penchant of saying exactly what everyone needs to hear. Unlike Lambert and Underwood, she sets about approaching mainstream in a barn-burning way, by uncovering the truth of small town life, growing up, dealing with romance and loss and the real world. Led with her plucky debut Top 10 radio single “Merry Go ‘Round” (a darkly-lit piece shining on traditional family values and jarring societal norms), Musgraves doesn’t play by anyone’s rules but her own. She borrows significant influences from John Prine, Lorretta Lynn and to a lesser extent, Dolly Parton. She doesn’t allow radio’s machinations to dictate her writing; she’s grown her own “daisies” with the way she uses lyrics to strike the heart and pierce the ears in way no one (absolutely no one) has ever done before. While her impact on the popular culture is still in its infancy, she’s already been heralded by the media, the Academy and the general public as a refreshing smack in the face. Of course, her left of center attitude and way of doing things may not be for everyone, but the exact same things were said of the original Highwaymen.

Brandy Clark

She’s the “newbie” on this list, but that doesn’t detract from her impact in just a few years. With cuts by The Band Perry (“Better Dig Two“), Lambert (“Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Two Rings Shy”), and Musgraves (“Follow Your Arrow,” “Dandelion”), Brandy is a tour de force of songwriting talent. Her singer-songwriter perspective certainly leans Lambert-Musgraves in the stylistic template, but she offers a more layered and alternative perspective. 12 Stories, which garnered her a Grammy nomination for the all-genre Best New Artist category this, is an eclectic patchwork quilt of 12 different stories, as told through the female lens. She doesn’t shy away from clawing at the pressures of the modern woman, often revealing the devastating but organically truthful reality. Her lead single “Stripes” (a crazy-eyed tale of one woman’s experience with a man’s infidelity), “Get High” (yes, a salute to marijuana but it deals with coping with her boring life and “long list of things to do”) and “The Day She Got Divorced” are astute passages in the blue-collar, Middle America lifestyle. It might be too soon to call Brandy a true “Highwayman,” but you can’t ignore how much her music and songwriting is changing country music.

Underwood, Lambert, Musgraves and Clark are as important as any iconic female before them. When you set them beside The Highwayman, though, you can see just how their catalogs have redefined contemporary culture in a way that doesn’t dismiss the past but instead brings the past to the future. No other acts in mainstream country are doing what they are doing at this moment in time. While their male counterparts have hit the beach for late-evening parties on tail gates, this quartet have instead examined the human existence in harrowing and honest ways. All four have crossed paths in some fashion, too: Underwood teamed up with Lambert on last summer’s “Somethin’ Bad“; Lambert has previously recorded a Clark song, “Mama’s Broken Heart” (which is co-written with Musgraves); Underwood has written a song with Clark for forthcoming album, expected later this year; Musgraves and Clark have a long-standing songwriting partnership. But, can you imagine all four ladies joining forces on a song or better yet an entire album?

Image Source: CMA, PR Photos