As the Dixie Chicks embark on their first U.S. tour in ten years, the Country Universe staff will look back at one of their classic albums every Thursday. This week, we kick off with their major label debut.
Released in 1998, Wide Open Spaces established the Dixie Chicks as superstars right out of the gate. It produced five top ten hits, including three #1 singles, and sold more than twelve million copies in the United States alone. It remains their biggest selling album to date. But is it among their best?
Leeann Ward’s Take:
By 1998, country music had noticeably shifted from the neo-traditionalism of the early nineties to more pop driven country. So, it is striking how unapologetically country Wide Open Spaces sounded in the time of crossovers. With steel guitar laden tracks aplenty, along with Natalie Maines’ unique and powerhouse voice, the harmony driven album from the innovative trio was an exhilarating blast of fresh air.
Wide Open Spaces had strong and successful single releases, such as the cheeky “I Can Love You Better” and “There’s Your Trouble,” along with the thoughtful “You Were Mine” and the title track. However, as it often is with the best albums, some of the best songs are unreleased gems, including compositions from respected songwriters like Radney Foster, J. D. Souther, Maria McKee and Bonnie Raitt.
Even though the Dixie Chicks had already existed in name for several years, their first album with Natalie Maines proved to be the boost that they needed to propel them to major label success as well as a household name. If there ever was an album that showed so much potential and mastery all at once, it was Wide Open Spaces. The young trio masterfully mixed confidence with innocence, which is palpable throughout the album. Since it’s impossible to hear this album outside of the context of their subsequent work, it’s hard not to note and even marvel that such a strong debut was just the beginning and that the best from them was still yet to come.
Recommended Tracks: “Never Say Die,” “Let ‘Er Rip,” “I’ll Take Care of You,” “Am I the Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way)”
Jonathan Keefe’s Take:
Recommended Tracks: “Am I The Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way),” “You Were Mine,” “Wide Open Spaces,” “Tonight the Heartache’s On Me”
Ben Foster’s Take:
The Dixie Chicks’ major-label debut establishes their immediately-recognizable signature sound, introducing mainstream audiences to the formidable instrumental talents of the Erwin sisters and to harmonies anchored by Natalie Maines’ commanding lead vocals. The album demonstrates an already solid song sense, paying tribute to the group’s eclectic influences, while Martie and Emily’s composition “You Were Mine” previews the songwriting talent that would be fully showcased on future projects.
The album includes a couple of nods to radio – Top 10 singles “I Can Love You Better” and “There’s Your Trouble” are clearly meant to go down easy – while Blake Chancey and Paul Worley’s production carries a perceptible sheen of mainstream polish. Wide Open Spaces is an album that comes across as consistently competent and enjoyable on its own merits, while lacking the status quo-challenging impact that would characterize the group’s later work. The real feast was yet to come, but what a tasty appetizer.
Recommended Tracks: “Wide Open Spaces,” “You Were Mine,” “Am I the Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way)”
Sam Gazdziak’s Take:
For a band that was essentially starting over with a new lead singer (Natalie Maines) and a completely new sound (contemporary country), Wide Open Spaces was an excellent starting point for the Dixie Chicks 2.0.
Even in an era that leaned much more toward traditional country than today’s version of country music, the Chicks stood out on radio with catchy, uptempo songs that were unapologetically filled with fiddle and steel guitar. Maines’ vocals were a far cry from the polished pop-country sounds of many other female vocalists, helping them stand out even further.
They were already showing their ability to choose songs from some of the best writers around — Kostas, Radney Foster, George Ducas, Tia Sillers and Maria McKee are among the ace songwriters on this album. Overall, it’s as close as the group ever got to being middle of the road. Wide Open Spaces doesn’t quite fall under the category of “Essential Country Music” like some of their later work, but it helped introduced the Dixie Chicks as a band that required your attention.
Kevin John Coyne’s Take:
Country music gets really, really excited when a new act surfaces that flaunts their traditional leanings. Sometimes those new acts become legends, like Randy Travis. Other times, they fade away quietly, like Gretchen Wilson. (Chris Stapleton enthusiasts, take note.)
While the genre’s leading ladies were crossing over, the Dixie Chicks came on the scene waving the traditionalist flag, and were warmly embraced, with this set beating out Shania Twain’s Come On Over for Best Country Album at the Grammy Awards. I thought they were a bit overrated at that time, and I personally didn’t warm up to them until Fly. So of the four albums we’ll be looking at, I was most interested in revisiting this one, and seeing if there was something I missed the first time around.
Turns out that I didn’t miss much! Over the years, I’ve listened to this album the least, but it’s still overly familiar because I knew so many of these songs before the Chicks recorded them. I’d heard these songs first by Radney Foster (“Never Say Die”), Joy Lynn White (“Tonight the Heartache’s on Me”) and even Olivia Newton-John (“Loving Arms.”) To their credit, I think that they do all three songs more effectively than the first versions I’d heard, and “Heartache” in particular is as good as their later work.
Wide Open Spaces is almost sterile in its professionalism, and the best moments are the ones where they break through the restraints of the milquetoast nineties production. “Wide Open Spaces” and “Let ‘Er Rip” even resemble the fearless feminists that would throw Earl in the trunk and go toe-to-toe with the President of the United States. They also absolutely shred Maria McKee’s “Am I the Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way),” which is on par with their takes on Patty Griffin’s catalog.
Recommended Tracks: “Am I the Only One (Who Ever Felt This Way),” “Wide Open Spaces,” “Tonight the Heartache’s on Me”