Dixie Chicks Revisited: Fly

Last night, the Dixie Chicks kicked off the North American leg of their MMXVI tour, their fourth headlining tour across the United States. Sixteen years ago, they launched their first, in support of their second major label release, Fly.

Spawning eight singles and selling more than ten million copies, Fly solidified the superstar status of the Dixie Chicks, winning multiple trophies at every major industry award show, including Entertainer of the Year at both the CMA and ACM awards. Today, we look back at Fly.

Kevin John Coyne’s Take:

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“Honey, as far as I’m concerned,” Natalie Maines sings against a wailing country arrangement,  “the tables have turned.”

Fly is the second and last Dixie Chicks album that works within the conventions of mainstream country music, but its brilliance is in its subversiveness. On Fly, the Chicks revel in the traditional sounds of country music while gleefully undermining the patriarchy that historically defined the genre. On “Goodbye Earl,” they reinvent the murder song used to punish cheating wives and put it to good use against an abusive ex-husband, poisoning him to death after the restraining order failed to keep Wanda safe. (A common occurrence that goes widely unreported.) “Sin Wagon” borrows its title from Sandy Olsen’s most prudish moment in Grease, but it’s a strong declaration of independence and liberation, regardless of societal expectations of a woman’s proper behavior. And when “Heartbreak Town” details the cruelty of Nashville’s innocence-shattering music industry, it’s the woman’s dream that’s led the young family hundreds of miles away from home, not the man’s.

Truly, the biggest difference between Wide Open Spaces and Fly is that the women control the narrative. While the earlier album was frustrating in its subservience and centering of the male as the primary reason for living, this one has the women in charge, whether they’re looking for love (“If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me,” “Cowboy Take Me Away”) or letting it go (“Let Him Fly”, “Hello Mr. Heartache.” It’s no wonder that for the first time on record, Natalie Maines is a fiery powerhouse. This is who she really is – who all the Chicks really are – and they finally have the material to match their fierce and forceful feminist selves.

Leeann Ward’s Take:

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The second major label album from the Dixie Chicks exceeded the incredible potential  and mastery that was heard on Wide Open Spaces.

While the first two singles, “Ready to Run” and “Cowboy Take Me Away”, were strong songs that I have come to appreciate later,  they didn’t hook me at the time. It was their third single, the brash “Goodbye Earl” that made me stop and take notice and started me on the road to officially becoming  a fan. Not only did it tackle domestic abuse in a ridiculous, though satisfying way, it was unshakably catchy.

Even more than Wide Open Spaces, Fly hosted songs by cream of the crop songwriters like Marcus Hummon (“Ready to Run”, “Cowboy Take Me Away”) Matraca Berg (“If I Fall You’re Going Down with Me”), Dennis Linde (“Goodbye Earl”), Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller (“Hole in My Head”), Darrell Scott (Heartbreak Town”) and Patty Griffin (“Let Him Fly”). Furthermore, the Chicks had more of a hand in writing as well, in including Emily and Natalie co-writing “Sin Wagon”, one of my very favorites on the album.

What is ultimately so impressive about Fly is that it managed to reflect the innocence of Wide Open Spaces as well as hint at what was to come on the groundbreaking Home, all the while being fresh and progressive in its own right. The album has both its tender  and even thought provoking moments, but it is a whole lot of fun as well.

Jonathan Keefe’s Take:

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Popular music is littered with the careers of acts who couldn’t quite figure out how to follow-up a star-making debut album, but the Dixie Chicks avoided that fate by carefully considering what worked about Wide Open Spaces and refining it. The pop hooks are bigger and more brash, the first-rate musicianship is more prominent, the songwriting and the song selection (Jim Lauderdale! Patty Griffin!! Darrell Scott!!!) are both deeper and more focused: The trio took stock of their considerable strengths and built upon them with a real sense of clarity and vision. The resulting album, Fly, isn’t just the strongest of this incarnation of the Dixie Chicks‘ four studio albums, it’s one of the finest and most essential albums of the 1990s.

The album balances its moments of perfectly-crafted escapism (Celtic-inspired opener “Ready to Run,” the ribald “Sin Wagon,” “Some Days You Gotta Dance”) with songs of palpable struggle and heartbreak that laid bare exactly what they hoped to fly away from. Whether that was a doomed relationship (“Cold Day in July,” “Without You”), abuses both physical (“Goodbye Earl”) and emotional (Griffin’s “Let Him Fly“), or the longest of long-shot dreams (Scott’s stunning “Heartbreak Town”), Fly proved that not only were the Dixie Chicks in it for the long haul, career-wise, but that they were going to elevate contemporary country through their sheer force of will and the unrivaled quality of their work.

Sam Gazdziak’s Take:

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The Dixie Chicks started courting controversy with Fly by taking on semi-taboo topics (murdering an abusive husband? The shock! Singing about mattress dancing? The horror!). More importantly, they started setting themselves apart from the rest of the country music pack.

Even in an era of country music that was arguably higher quality than today’s wasteland, the Dixie Chicks found that magic formula between popularity and critical acceptance. Choosing songs from an all-star list of writers (Richard Leigh, Patty Griffin, Mike Henderson, the late, great Dennis Linde) and writing a few excellent songs of their own, they applied their considerable musical chops and vocals to them with expertise. Between their singing abilities, musicianship, song selection skills and songwriting abilities, the Dixie Chicks simply brought more pure talent to the table than anyone else in country music.

9 Comments

  1. KJC says that in Fly, “women control the narrative” – maybe why my daughter – not a country music fan – always liked the Chicks.

    liked the Grease link – haven’t seen the movie in a very long time.

    Favorites: Some Days You Gotta Dance, Goodbye Earl, Cowboy Take Me Away, Sin Wagon, Hello Mr. Heartache, Ready to Run

    Still prefer the Suzy Bogguss version of Cold Day in July from her 1992 Voices in the Wind album.

  2. Full disclosure: My favorite version of “Cold Day in July” has always been and always will be Joy Lynn White’s.

    But I think the Chicks did “Tonight the Heartache’s On Me” better than White did.

  3. I listened to JLW’s “Cold Day in July” on you tube. I’ll stick with Suzy’s version. Agree that Chicks trump JLW on
    “Tonight the Heartache’s on Me”.

  4. This was a defining time for the Chicks, in my opinion. They really did push the envelope in a lot of ways with the songs on Fly, especially with Emily’s driving banjo on “Sin Wagon” and the rural black comedy of “Goodbye Earl”. This also served to drive up their stock with audiences beyond the country music establishment, since a fair amount of their sound owes a little bit to the California country-rock sound of the 1970s (IMHO).

  5. Cold Day in July and Cowboy Take Me Away are two of my favorite country music songs ever. Also, I think the first time I heard the Chicks was when I saw the movie Runaway Bride and Ready to Run was the title track. This album was the first album of theirs I bought and I remember how huge it was. At that time it felt like there were only two albums out in the Country Music world: Lonestar’s Lonely Grill (Because Amazed was such a huge hit) and the Dixie Chicks’ Fly.

  6. I’m not as big on Fly as many of you; I like it, but I put it behind Home (my favorite in their catalog) and Wide Open Spaces. Having said that, I do love Cowboy Take Me Away, Sin Wagon, Goodbye Earl, Let Him Fly, and Cold Day in July. I just don’t really feel a need to listen to any of the other songs.

    Looking forward to the others in this series.

  7. Interesting that “Cold Day In July” was one of the few well-known songs that never made their extremely comprehensive “Essential Dixie Chicks” compilation. I always thought that was a glaring omission…

    I think the Chicks’ version just slightly has the edge on Suzy’s.

  8. On the great “Cold Day in July” debate, my preference is easily for Joy Lynn White’s version. I’ve noted many times her influence on Natalie Maines’ phrasing, and the timbre of White’s voice has always struck me as well-suited to that song. I’d put the Chicks’ version just ahead of Bogguss’– I’m a huge fan of Bogguss, but I don’t think all of her phrasing choices on that cover work. Something about it always sounded just a bit off to me. That said, I do genuinely like all three versions of the song.

  9. This was the first version of “Cold Day In July” that I ever heard, so it remains the definitive one to my ears. I hadn’t even heard of Joy Lynn White until reading about her music here. So I’ll likely never be able to shake Natalie’s vocal on the song. In comparison, Suzy Bogguss is too ‘pretty’ a singer for this song, at least to me.

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