Lost amid the controversy of Cardi B’s provocative “WAP” lyrics and risqué dance moves — and a disastrous drop in viewership — was a monumental country music achievement at the Grammy Awards this past Sunday.
With less than a sliver of mainstream radio support, “Crowded Table,” a song performed by the all-female, super-group The Highwomen, captured a prestigious Grammy for Best Country Song for songwriters Lori McKenna and band members Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby.
In an era when female vocalists struggle for airplay and Carrie Underwood is annually denied Entertainer of the Year honors by the Country Music Association, it is refreshing to see the breakout success of this amazingly talented mixture of singers, songwriters and musicians.
“I am in complete shock. I am so thrilled,” stated an overjoyed Carlile, in response to the victory. “We just wanted to see women in country music embraced, platformed…..What a complete, astonishing honor. Oh my god. Thank you.”
Each member of the critically acclaimed group has a unique backstory.
The formation of the group was the brainchild of fiddler Amanda Shires.
The 39-year old Texas native went to a pawn shop with her dad when she was 10 years old and emerged with a cheap fiddle that she struggled to learn to play. After taking lessons, she became so skilled she was invited to join The Texas Playboys, founded by legendary Bob Wills.
After migrating to Nashville, she released four independent albums between 2005 and 2011 and was named Artist of the Year in 2012 by Texas magazine.
In 2013, she married future superstar Jason Isbell, a frequent performer at PK’s in Carbondale before “breaking out,” and became a member of his band The 400 Unit.
In the studio in 2016, Shires told producer Dave Cobb she would like to pay tribute to The Highwaymen, a foursome of country music icons Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson that released three albums between 1985-95, by putting together a powerhouse group of all women.
At the time, Cobb was the hottest name in music, having produced signature albums for Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson. He said any project of this nature would need Carlile’s participation. Her services were secured in a brief phone call.
Carlile has been building an enormous fan base since storming onto the Seattle club scene in 2004. She gained national acclaim in 2007 with sophomore album “The Story,” produced by T Bone Burnett.
Her music has continuously evolved and is difficult to categorize. In 2015, fifth album “The Firewatcher’s Daughter,” reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Rock Album chart. She won three Grammy Awards in 2019 for her work with Tanya Tucker’s come-back country album “While I’m Livin’.”
Shires was listening to the radio trying to discover potential members for the band when the voice of Maren Morris stopped her dead in her tracks. When Morris agreed to join, the nucleus was truly something special.
Another Texan, Morris made a bold statement on the country music world in 2015 when debut single “My Church” rocketed to No. 1 and earned her a Grammy for Best Country Solo Performance. Since then, she has won five CMA awards and three Academy of Country Music trophies.
Officially founded in 2016 and with a trio of members locked in, the fourth member of the group was supposed to be a rotating position occupied by names like Margo Price, Sheryl Crow and Chely Wright.
However, that all changed April 1, 2019 when the band was playing the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville as part of the 87th birthday tribute to Loretta Lynn. It was there Natalie Hemby was announced as the final official member of the band.
Hemby is one of the most successful songwriters in Music City, She has written six No. 1 singles, including “Pontoon” and “Tornado” for Little Big Town and a trio of chart toppers for Miranda Lambert, including “”White Liar,” “Only Prettier” and “Automatic,” which was the CMA Song of the Year in 2015.
The Grammy won by “Crowded Table” is actually issued to the songwriters, which makes McKenna a big part of the celebration. The 52-year old Stoughton, Ma. resident is not your typical country music celebrity.
McKenna, a mother of five that has been married more than 30 years, watched the Grammy’s from her couch with her pets. Her attitude is low keyed, but her accomplishments are not. This is her third Best Country Song Grammy. She also won in back-to-back years, inking “Girl Crush” for Little Big Town in 2015 and following up in 2016 with “Humble And Kind” for Tim McGraw.
She has written hits for major stars like Reba McEntire, Sara Evans and Keith Urban. Her material has also been covered by Americana giants Wade Bowen, Sunny Sweeney and Brandy Clark.
VINCE HOFFARD can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (618) 658-9095.
Vince Hoffard can be reached at email@example.com or 618-658-9095.