Most reports on The Highwomen's self-titled debut album, out Sept. 6, point out that Jason Isbell co-wrote the "gay country song" "If She Ever Leaves Me" with group member Amanda Shires and Nashville songwriter Chris Thompkins. On paper, the Brandi Carlile-sung song sticks out in the relatively progressive year of 2019 for shattering country music stereotypes. In practice, it makes a bold point while standing on its own as a solid love song written by talented songwriters and performed by a modern day supergroup.
The Highwomen unveiled the song during its Friday (July 26) debut at the Newport Folk Festival. The set list included all album tracks, plus the group's cover of Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain" from upcoming film The Kitchen and a show-closing reprise of debut single "Redesigning Women."
Per the song's debut performance, it takes the typical barroom conversation with a lonely heart in a surprise direction. Carlile's character advises a man longing for a woman across the barroom that he's not exactly the gorgeous stranger's type. Problem being, "that's too much cologne/ she likes perfume."
"I've loved her in secret, I've loved her out loud / The sky hasn't always been blue / It might last forever, or it might not work out," Carlile sings during the chorus. "But if she ever leaves me, it won't be for you."
Before the song, Isbell explained the its backstory.
"Initially I thought this song would be one of heterosexual country love," Isbell said. "It occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, Brandi Carlile would sing this song, and it could be a gay country song. So then we wrote it from that perspective. And then, what I hadn't thought about was, we're going to have to take this song to Brandi Carlile. I'm not gay. Like, not all the way. So I thought this was is kind of like taking my civil rights movie to Spike Lee. But she loved our gay country song, and we love it, too."
The Highwomen's debut was produced by Dave Cobb and features Isbell and Carlile's twin bandmates Tim and Phil Hanseroth as backing musicians.