“This is our first show, y’all, and we are f—ing terrified,” said Brandi Carlile, shortly into the live bow of the Highwomen at the Newport Folk Festival Friday. It did all feel a little fresh, if undoubtedly much more so to them than us, since the members of this country supergroup were surely more acutely aware than the crowd that the whole concept had gone from a germ of an idea to a full band lineup, completed album and concert debut since the odometer turned over on the first of the year. No need for terror: They sounded like they’d been performing their first single, “Redesigning Women,” since, well, “Designing Women.”
“We just had a new song come out yesterday called ‘Crowded Table,’ and I’m so glad we have a crowded table right now,” said Natalie Hemby, who rounds out the quartet lineup alongside Maren Morris and Amanda Shires. The Newport stage was slightly more crowded Friday as they brought out two of the forthcoming debut album’s guests, Sheryl Crow (pictured above with the group) and Yola, to a stage already laden with bold-face names — another one of whom was Shires’ husband, whom she introduced as “Jason Isbell Shires,” as a featured Highwomen-man.
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There was a sort of Highwomen preview that dribbled out over an adjacent stage, as Crow played her own set on the Fort stage and brought out Carlile for two songs (“If It Makes You Happy” and George Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness”), followed by Morris for one, then Isbell (who dueted with Crow on Bob Dylan’s “Everything is Broken,” a just-released teaser from her upcoming collaborations album). Crow admitted she was front-loading her set with guests because they were all about to do a slightly overlapping set over on the Quad stage as the Highwomen, which she urged her crowd to attend, but not too promptly.
There was plenty of shuttling between stages to go around, as minutes before Carlile participated in Crow’s set, she appeared on the Harbor stage for a duet with one of her idols, Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls. For a few collaborative sets there, you could almost have mistaken the Newport Festival for a adjunct of Carlile’s annual all-female-headliner Girls Just Wanna Weekend — a feeling that may only be compounded Saturday night by a mystery jam that will purportedly include a lot of the women who’ve been participating in the festival and a major surprise guest who hasn’t.
“The thing about being in a supergroup is it’s hard knowing who’s supposed to talk between the songs,” Carlile quipped at one point. Taking up the slack, she announced: “Now is as good a time to come out of the closet as any. I’m gay, y’all.” That was actually a segue into discussing the new album’s “If She Ever Leaves,” with Carlile pointing out “Jason and Amanda noticed that there was a void in the area of gay country songs.”
“Initially I thought this song would be one of heterosexual country love,” said Isbell, once someone found a mic for him to add some exposition. “And then one day I was on the elliptical…”
“On our anniversary, as you do, on our anniversary,” added Shires.
“On our anniversary, because I’m a cowboy, and that’s my steel horse,” continued Isbell. “And it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, Brandi Carlile will sing this song and it can be a gay country song. So then we wrote it from that perspective, me and Amanda and her friend Chris Tompkins up in Nashville, Tennessee. And then what I hadn’t thought about was, we’re gonna have to take this song to Brandi Carlile, and I’m not gay — like, not all the way.”
“Not on Sundays,” explained Shires.
“And so,” added Isbell, “I thought this is kind of like taking my civil rights movie to Spike Lee. But she loved our gay country song, and we love it too.”
Other topics taken up among the new material is the subject of having an only child. Hemby, a hit Nashville songwriter who has only occasionally performed and now describes herself as both “a suburban mom” and “the Cinderella” of the band, brought up the subject of varicose veins before discussing having a daughter “who is always like, ‘Mom, I want a baby sister. Do you think Santa Claus can hook us up?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, just see if he can get me some new ovaries and we’ll talk about it.’ Anyway, she’s my only kid and I wrote this song with Amanda, who also has an only child, and we also wrote it with Miranda Lambert, who does not have a child. We’re like, how are you writing this?”
Carlile explained the origin of another new song, “Heaven is a Honky Tonk”: “I was spending some time with Kris Kristofferson around Joni Mitchell’s 75h birthday” (where they shared a duet at a concert in her honor), “and Kris Kristofferson was introduced to the world here at the Newport Folk Festival… (He’s) one of the greatest poets that ever lived. He’s so beautiful in his old age. There’s some things that he’s forgetting, but he’s doing it in the most joyful way that you can imagine, and he inspired me endlessly. And so does Willie, and so do the Highwaymen. And so we wrote this song as a way to tribute the Highwaymen — those that have gone before and those that we may lose someday, but that we love, and we think there’s going to be a big-ole-ass party in heaven when that happens.”
The set started out with their version of the Highwaymen’s theme song, with Yola, an up-and-coming African-American singer, notably taking the “freedom rider” verse in the newly refurbished lyrics. That song kicks off the forthcoming album, and ias Carlile pointed out at the end, “We played you our whole album in order, basically” — with the exception of an additional cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” (see video, below), introduced at what would be the side-flipping point on an LP, plus a closing reprise of “Redesigning Women.”
The group will makes its TV debut on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon Tuesday night. Their album hits Sept. 6.