June 18, 2008
They went from being the one act everyone could agree on to the most controversial country band in history, but despite the changes in the climate surrounding them, one thing about the Dixie Chicks has always remained constant: their indisputable musical excellence.
The story of the Dixie Chicks begins in Texas, with two musically talented sisters named Martie and Emily Irwin. Martie was quite adept on the fiddle as a child, and when Emily started showing interest in the instrument as well, Martie pushed her younger sister into learning different instruments instead. By their teenage years, Martie was a skilled on the fiddle, mandolin and viola, while Emily specialized in the banjo and dobro.
The girls were eager to perform professionally, and in 1989, they joined up with fellow musicians Laura Lynch and Robin Lynn Macy to create a bluegrass band. Inspired by the Little Feat song “Dixie Chicken”, they called themselves the Dixie Chicks. With Macy on lead vocals, the band started playing for tips on street corners. Soon, they were performing in local clubs, and their reputation spread quickly across the Dallas area. They adopted a kitschy cowgirl image, wearing vintage western wear as they played their bluegrass songs.
By 1990, they had enough of a fan base to justify recording an album. Their first collection, Thank Heavens for Dale Evans, featured traditional bluegrass and western songs, including a cover of Patsy Montana’s “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” Martie was credited with many of the arrangements of the songs, and the quartet showed some musical ambition by transforming the Sam Cooke classic “Bring it On Home to Me” into a bluegrass number that closed the set.
The group’s popularity in Texas continued to grow, and after releasing the one-off 1991 single “Home on the Radar Range”, they went back into the studio to record their second album, 1992′s Little Ol’ Cowgirl. They inched closer to mainstream country on this album, though still demonstrating their musical chops, with Emily playing something called the “guitjo” on some of the tracks. Lead singer Robin Lynn Macy co-wrote some of the tracks, but after the album’s release she quit the band, reportedly in protest of the group moving away from its bluegrass roots.
Now a trio, they moved in a more contemporary direction with their third set, 1993′s Shouldn’t A Told You That. Laura Lynch took over almost all of the lead vocals, though the closing track “I Wasn’t Looking For You” has Martie singing lead, the only time that one of the sisters has ever been up front on record. The Chicks culled from some of the best alternative country and Americana writers of the day, including Radney Foster, Jamie O’Hara and Jim Lauderdale, and also cut a song co-written by rising writer Kim Richey.
Still, the album didn’t do much to raise the national profile of the Chicks, and despite their regional success, Nashville showed no interest. Martie and Emily felt that they needed to go in a bolder musical direction, and that doing so wasn’t possible with Lynch as their lead vocalist. After parting amicably with her, they started to search for a new lead singer. Lloyd Maines, a famed steel guitar player who had played on their second album, had passed on a tape of his daughter Natalie, and the sisters were blown away. In late 1995, Natalie Maines became the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks.
With her powerful, contemporary voice up front, the Chicks were suddenly a much more appealing band to Music Row executives. Sony Records signed them to a deal in 1997, and used them as the launching act for the revived Monument imprint. The Chicks insisted on playing their own instruments in the studio, a rarity for established country bands, let alone new ones. They also insisted that the banjo be featured prominently on the title track of their fourth album, Wide Open Spaces.
The album was released to critical acclaim, and after the lead single “I Can Love You Better” went top ten, the trio scored three consecutive #1 singles. Album sales were strong from the start, and in the fall of 1998, the Chicks won the CMA Horizon Award and were also named Vocal Group of the Year. The following February, they won a pair of Grammys, including a shocking win for Best Country Album over the heavily favored Shania Twain. Wide Open Spaces was also named Album of the Year at the ACM’s in 1999, and the CMA’s named the title cut Single and Video of the Year the following fall, where they received a surprise nomination for Entertainer of the Year, despite still being an opening act at the time.
As their breakthrough set moved toward eventual sales of 12 million, the Chicks prepared their follow-up set, the ambitious Fly. Whereas their first album for Sony had been a fairly typical mainstream country set, Fly pushed the envelope. The trio included songs by Austin songwriters Patty Griffin (“Let Him Fly”) and Darrell Scott (“Heartbreak Town”), sang pure honky-tonk on “Hello Mr. Heartache”, and fully showcased the breadth of Martie and Emily’s instrumental skills on “Sin Wagon.” That song was one of a few that the girls had a hand in writing, and it was a raunchy number that had Natalie hitting the town looking to “do a little mattress dancin’.”
The album was another huge hit with critics and sold more than ten million copies, producing eight hit singles, two of which became signature hits for the band – the wistful romantic song “Cowboy Take Me Away” and the dark comedy “Goodbye Earl.” The Chicks launched a hugely successful headlining tour, and they dominated at the industry awards, winning four CMA’s, three ACM’s and two Grammys for the project. They became the first country band in history to be nominated for the prestigious Album of the Year Grammy when Fly was cited in 2000.
However, a network special in which Dan Rather questioned the Chicks on the financial windfalls they weren’t receiving from their massive record sales led to the Chicks suing their record label for “systematic thievery.” As the legal tensions mounted, the Chicks withdrew from the public stage, though that was driven more by the families they were beginning than the legal drama. While nesting in their Texas homes, they decided they wanted to record an acoustic album. Feeling that they weren’t really signed to a label at the time, they recorded the album at home, co-producing with Natalie’s father Lloyd.
The set featured no drums and only acoustic instruments, and found the Chicks covering their favorite songwriters Patty Griffin (“Truth No. 2″ and “Top of the World”), Darrell Scott (“Long Time Gone”) and Bruce Robison (“Travelin’ Soldier.”) The Chicks titled the set Home, and had planned to release it through their fan club. But Sony settled their lawsuit, gave the Chicks their own label imprint Open Wide, and loved the side project so much that they chose to release it as the follow-up to Fly.
The Chicks didn’t expect the album to do well, but it ended up the fastest-selling album of their career. They received their strongest reviews to date, scored a major crossover hit with “Landslide” and by the time they won three Grammys for the collection in February of 2003, the album had sold five million copies in only a few months. The Chicks announced a massive international tour on the same day that they sang the National Anthem at the Super Bowl, and tickets sold out in only two days.
Meanwhile, the United States and England were preparing to invade Iraq, and on the day that the Chicks played London, the largest anti-war protest in English history had just occurred. That night, after performing “Travelin’ Soldier”, Natalie Maines said the fateful words, “We’re on the good side with y’all. We don’t want this war. We don’t want this violence, and we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.”
And then, all hell broke loose. The American news wires caught wind of the story, radio boycotts followed, and the Dixie Chicks went from being the all-American band to the most polarizing group in the country. The music hadn’t changed, but it became the first casualty of the uproar, as their #1 single “Travelin’ Soldier” dropped off the charts completely in the two weeks that followed. The Chicks dealt with death threats on the road, and their names were roundly booed at the country award shows that they stopped attending. Maines issued a half-hearted apology to the office of the president, but the group stood their ground on the war and refused to apologize for their beliefs.
The group issued a live CD and DVD chronicling their tour, but aside from a few appearances on the Vote for Change Tour in 2004, they remained out of the public eye. As their families expanded, they met with producer Rick Rubin, who wanted to produce their first post-controversy album. He thought it was important that they write the entire album, which was something they had never done before. Over the course of two years, they wrote and re-wrote songs, collaborating with Dan Wilson of Semisonic, Sheryl Crow and Linda Perry, among others.
The controversy liberated them to reveal themselves on record, and the album that was created, aptly titled Taking the Long Way, found the Chicks singing candidly about infertility (“So Hard”), spousal abuse (“I Hope”), fair-weather friends (“Bitter End”) and family illness (“Silent House”).
The Chicks also directly confronted the controversy for the first time, on the cathartic first single “Not Ready to Make Nice.” The song was played heavily on country radio at first, but died out quickly once the message of the song sank in. Despite it not being a radio hit, the song was a smash, becoming a top-selling digital single and helping Taking the Long Way sell more than half a million copies in its first week. The Chicks made the cover of Time magazine, and the album finished the year in the top ten of all genres. Meanwhile, the Chicks completed their third international tour, and were featured in the documentary Shut Up and Sing, which focused on the aftermath of the controversy and the writing and recording of the album that grew out of it.
Given that it was the best-reviewed country album of 2006, and that the Chicks had already won eight Grammys, it wasn’t a surprise that they received five more nominations. The Chicks made history when they actually swept all five categories, winning two country Grammys and all three of the general races: Album of the Year for Taking the Long Way and Record and Song of the Year for “Not Ready to Make Nice.” They are the only country act in history to sweep the big three, and the stunning victories renewed interest in the album, pushing it past double platinum in the weeks that followed.
Since their big night at the Grammys, the Chicks have again retreated from public view, aside from a few performances with the Eagles in 2007. Maines guested on the new Neil Diamond record, and the band is reportedly writing songs for their next album, the musical direction of which is a complete mystery. Meanwhile, while country radio doesn’t play them anymore, the sounds that they brought back to the forefront have remained. The young acts that they have influenced are beginning to break through, most notably Miranda Lambert, who also shares a manager with them.
After proving that an all-girl band can play their own instruments and keep it country, and still outsell and outshine all of the men, the Dixie Chicks have now shown how a band can stick to its guns and chart a successful course without depending on radio. Whatever the future brings, they’ve already secured their place in country music history.
- “Wide Open Spaces,” 1998
- “Cowboy Take Me Away,” 1999
- “Goodbye Earl,” 2000
- “Sin Wagon,” 2000
- “Long Time Gone,” 2002
- “Landslide,” 2002
- “Travelin’ Soldier,” 2003
- “Not Ready to Make Nice,” 2006
- Wide Open Spaces (1998)
- Fly (1999)
- Home (2002)
- Taking the Long Way (2006)
- ACM Album (Wide Open Spaces), 1999
- ACM Top New Vocal Duet or Group, 1999
- ACM Top Vocal Duo/Group, 1999 & 2000
- ACM Album (Fly), 2000
- ACM Entertainer, 2001
- ACM Top Vocal Group, 2001
- ACM Video (“Goodbye Earl”), 2001
- CMA Horizon Award, 1998
- CMA Vocal Group, 1998, 1999, 2000 & 2002
- CMA Single (“Wide Open Spaces”), 1999
- CMA Video (“Wide Open Spaces”), 1999
- CMA Album (Fly), 2000
- CMA Entertainer, 2000
- CMA Video (“Goodbye Earl”), 2000
- Grammy: Best Country Album (Wide Open Spaces), 1999
- Grammy: Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group (“There’s Your Trouble”), 1999
- Grammy: Best Country Album (Fly), 2000
- Grammy: Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group (“Ready to Run”), 2000
- Grammy: Best Country Album (Home), 2003
- Grammy: Best Country Instrumental Performance (“Lil Jack Slade”), 2003
- Grammy: Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group (“Long Time Gone”), 2003
- Grammy: Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group (“Top of the World”), 2005
- Grammy: Album of the Year (Taking the Long Way), 2007
- Grammy: Best Country Album (Taking the Long Way), 2007
- Grammy: Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group (“Not Ready to Make Nice”), 2007
- Grammy: Record of the Year (“Not Ready to Make Nice”), 2007
- Grammy: Song of the Year (“Not Ready to Make Nice”), 2007