Dixie Chicks Revisited: Home

Recorded in Texas during their standoff with their record label, Home threw out the rulebook completely. The closest the Natalie Maines-led Dixie Chicks ever came to a pure bluegrass album, Home showcases acoustic instruments and pure twang throughout.  A surprise release after they patched things up with Sony, Home was their fastest-selling album up until that point, selling more than 700,000 copies in its first week alone.

Home also serves as the dividing point between the Chicks and the country music industry. Three big hits, including “Travelin’ Soldier,” which was #1 when Maines made her comments about President George W. Bush, powered the album to sales of six million copies and a sold out worldwide tour. Within a week of that comment, they were banned from country radio. After winning the CMA Vocal Group Award in 2002 on the strength of lead single “Long Time Gone,” they would never win another CMA or ACM award again.  Home also did well at the Grammys, becoming their first set to earn them three of those golden gramophones, including their third consecutive Best Country Album trophy.

Today, we look back on Home.

Kevin John Coyne’s Take:

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Home isn’t just the highwater mark of the remarkably distinguished career of the Dixie Chicks. It is the finest country album of the century.

Bold in its singular sound and deep in its selection of songs, Home is defiantly pure and relentlessly focused, a reflection of the newfound maturity of the Chicks themselves, who have transitioned from country music’s spunky kid sisters to their elder stateswomen in the span of just three albums.

In addition to writing some solid songs of their own, the Chicks selected the strongest material of their career by way of Patty Griffin (“Truth No. 2,” “Top of the World”), Bruce Robison (“Travelin’ Soldier”), and Darrell Scott (“Long Time Gone.”) They turn in definitive versions of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” and Radney Foster’s “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams),” which fit in seamlessly with their self-written material, including a stunning instrumental number called “Lil’ Jack Slade.”

Home is their first album that truly showcases them as both a vocal trio and a band. Whereas their previous two albums mixed the voices of Martie Maguire and Emily Robison as backup vocalists, Home records them as a vocal trio, with three part harmonies that are chillingly powerful at times. Even better, you know when the sisters are playing, too, with their fiery instrumental prowess showcasing traditional country instruments as if they were blistering rock guitar solos.

Home is one of those rare albums that can be played from start to finish without skipping over one track, even though you’ll be tempted to replay each individual song as soon as it ends. Better to just put the whole thing on repeat, because country music rarely, if ever, gets better than this.

Leeann Ward’s Take:

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The Dixie Chicks’ Home is one of the elite few albums that managed to bridge the gap between various types of music listeners. Just in my own circle of friends and acquaintances, the album was popular with people who loved hard core country music and decidedly pop country music. It even reached people who didn’t like any form of country music at all.

The thing about Home, however, is that it wasn’t a generic album that seemed destined to  be inoffensive and pleasant to everybody’s ears. Even at a time when they were on top of the world and on top of the charts, they threw all caution to the wind and made the type of album that should have toppled their chart topping status. With only their third album, they took a chance that had to have made their record company quite nervous and made an acoustic, no drums, often super bluegrass-y album, which wouldn’t seem like something that  would be embraced by people with polar opposite types of music  tastes.

The Chicks were able to pull all of this off on the strength of Natalie Maine’s commanding voice and the equally commanding songs that they wrote and chose for the project, not to mention the unapologetic production  helmed by Lloyd Maines and executed by ace instrumentalists.

With its best songs written by Patty Griffin, Radney Foster, Darrell Scott, Bruce Robison,  Marty Stuart, Gary Nicholson, Tim O’Brien and the Chicks themselves, the album is full of fun, warmth and talent. Furthermore, it is deserving of being the best country album of the decade, not to mention that it contains the best single of the decade with “Long Time Gone.” Home is a culmination of factors that represents an album that exudes confidence in every way. Moreover, it is a timeless album that still sounds fresh today, even 14 years after its release.

Sam Gazdziak’s Take:

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Forget “Album of the Year,” The Dixie Chicks’ Home is one of the best albums from the last 30 years of country music.

A sonic shift from their previous two albums, Home strips away the mainstream country polish and puts the focus firmly on the Chicks’ vocal and musical abilities. Martie Maguire and Emily Robison have always been excellent musicians, but this was the first album from the Dixie Chicks 2.0 where their fiddle and banjo were up front and center. The stripped-down setting also happened to be a perfect vehicle for Natalie Maines, who never sounded better than she did on “Landslide” and “A Home.”

From the toe-tapping opener of the Darrel Scott-penned “Long Time Gone” to their stunning take on Patty Griffin’s “Top of the World,” which closes out the album, every song is a keeper.

Jonathan Keefe’s Take:

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Country music was in a state of flux in 2002: the slick pop-country of Shania Twain and Faith Hill was still near its commercial peak, while Toby Keith was doubling-down on the persona of swinging-dick machismo that would characterize the mainstream’s overall tone in the coming years. In the midst of all of this, the genre had no idea whatsoever what to do with the runaway commercial and critical successes of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and the revival of Bluegrass and old-timey styles that came along with it.

All the while, the Dixie Chicks were quiet. Sony / Monument was still milking the last few singles from Fly, and the band became embroiled in a bitter lawsuit with their label about money they felt they had been shorted. Still, the consensus was that surely the Dixie Chicks, the country act with the best balance of critical cachet and commercial stats, would be the ones to lead the mainstream in a definitive direction with the release of their third album, right?

When the band finally re-emerged, it was clear that they weren’t interested in answering to or for anyone. The trio’s third album, Home, was preceded by a damning indictment of the state of the genre in the form of a banjo-driven, five-minute long, original-pronouns-retaining lead single, while the album itself paid little to no mind to ongoing trends. Home was the sound of a band refusing to make nice. Indeed, releasing “Long Time Gone,” the high water mark for the Dixie Chicks’ career and the finest country single of the 2000s, bar none, as a proper radio single remains the most confrontational political statement the band ever made.

The rest of Home, then, is something of a let-down from the glorious highpoint of its lead single and opening track. Though other moments come close— the Patty Griffin covers that bookend the latter half of the album, the cover of Bruce Robison’s gutting “Travelin’ Soldier,” the raucous instrumental “Lil’ Jack Slade”— the album doesn’t consistently play to the band’s strengths. Far too many of the tracks— Maia’s and Randy Sharp’s “A Home,” the heavy-handed “More Love,” Radney Foster’s “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams),” and the nearly monotone “I Believe in Love”— aim for seriousness and depth but instead come across as plodding and simply dull. Home too often tries to prove that the Dixie Chicks were serious artists, overlooking the fact that they’d already proven that countless times over. The ambition that drives the album leads to some career-best and genre-defining moments, but that same ambition also leads Home away from the Dixie Chicks’ trademark wit, sass, and pop smarts.

10 Comments

  1. It really does seem a pattern in the Chicks career that the country music establishment seems to get caught with their collective pants down around the ankles when it comes to these three women. Just on the basis of being women who play their own instruments, they totally rewrote, and arguably threw away, whatever rule book existed. And then to make albums that crossed over supposedly set musical boundaries while staying true to their own vision and not concerning themselves with market forces is a huge achievement in and of itself, especially with Home, which, because it was so bluegrass-slanted (especially on the hysterically funny and banjo-driven “White Trash Wedding”), probably shouldn’t have been a hit at all, let alone the monstrous hit it became.

    In retrospect, though, it should also have been a sign that they were never going to conform to anybody’s mindset, let alone Nashville’s, and never mind the fact they were from Texas. I myself identify with that concept of not conforming to what everyone else thinks.

  2. I completely took Home for granted when it came out. I had no idea that an album this immaculately crafted wasn’t the norm for the mainstream. I was obsessed with it, probably more so after the controversy for whatever reason. Home was when I finally saw just how artistically strong Dixie Chicks were. I don’t think I fully appreciated them until this album.

    When I was compiling my favorite albums of the decade list in 2009 (I was still two years away from My Kind of Country), I made the sacrilegious decision to place this album at number 7 and their next release at the top. Home would’ve been at #1 but I felt their next release eclipsed it simply because they wrote the songs themselves (with co-writers, but still) and found their own unfiltered voice for the first time. At the time I said, of Home,: “Without much by the way of writing credits the CD feels less like an artistic statement and more a really nice covers album sung Dixie Chicks style. On its own, the CD acts as an introduction to 21st century bluegrass, but next to its brilliant successor, it seems puny and weak.”

    Would I use those words today? Probably not. They also did write more of the album then I gave them credit for in that commentary. But I stand by my assertion that their next album, which showcase their own voice for the first time, is the better project. Of late, I’ve listened to tracks from Fly (namely “Heartbreak Town”) more than anything from this album.

    Looking back now, with seven more years perspective, I still think Home is an incredible album in its own right. “Long Time Gone” has grown even more poignant in the wake of bro-country dominance. “Truth No. 2” has an incredible bite and “Top of the World” is their finest ballad to date. But I feel like they’ve outgrown the simpleness of this sound. Home feels kind of small and paired down whereas now they’re bold and daring. BUT as a document of where they were circa 2002, Home is a brilliant showcase.

    Please don’t get me wrong, though, and think I don’t love this album. I did then and I do now. That will never change.
    I just think, to my ears now, Home is too quiet. (The same goes for Nickel Creek’s This Side – what seemed daring and strange back then is now about as experimental as a co-write by the Peach Pickers).

    If I were rating it, I wouldn’t go as low as Jonathan did. I’d probably saw four and a half stars or A. It just isn’t the A+ album I thought it was back then, especially since they’ve shown how much they’ve grown as artists in the fourteen years since its release. It’s just not lyrically bold enough for me anymore.

  3. See, I think their next album is their worst. There are very few songs I listen to because the melodies are weak, and the production doesn’t sound ‘Dixie Chicks’ to me at all. It doesn’t even feel like Martie and Emily are on it.

    Home is my favorite DC album for sure. The singles are all classic, and album tracks like “Godspeed” are lovely.

  4. I understand how important and universally acclaimed the album is, but I agree completely with Jonathan K’s take: Home starts on a high note and spends the rest of the album trying to get back there. “More Love”, “I Believe In Love”, and “Tortured Tangled Hearts” all bore me to death, and while I agree with his standout picks (Chris Thile’s solo on “Lil Jack Slade” is awesome), the album as a whole doesn’t stick with me well.

  5. Listening to Home as I write this. There’s not much I can say in addition to what Kevin, Leeann, and Sam have said. This album is an absolute masterpiece from start to finish. I remember seeing the Chicks singing “Travelin’ Soldier” on the CMAs in 2001 and hoping like nothing else that they’d record it at some point. Made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, and still does to this day.

  6. I love the title HOME and how ‘home’ is a recurring theme on the album. From the narrator in “Long Time Gone” returning to her hometown to the narrator in “Travelin’ Solider” waiting for her soldier to come home to the narrator in “A Home” who lives in a house that isn’t a home to “Godspeed” where a father is sending love to his son in a different home and then the husband in “Top of the World” coming home after work but tuning his family out. Even though “Landslide” doesn’t have any real reference to ‘home,’ it’s a perfect fit for the album since it’s about how sometimes what you think is your foundation (your home) collapses around you and it’s then that you find out who you are. That is the real theme of the album as nearly every song is about someone who discovers their house isn’t really a home.

  7. one of the best albums from beginning to end in the last 20 years or so. Their version of “Travelin’ Soldier” is an absolute masterpiece, a classic, iconic…there aren’t enough words to describe it.

  8. I lean toward agreeing more with JK’s take. Love “Long Time Gone” – it’s the lead song in a playlist I made about 6 years ago of “Gone” (in the title) country songs. I like Travelin’ Soldier, Top of the World & Godspeed and a few others to a lesser degree. As JK says, some songs are plodding and dull and wit and sass have taken a backseat. I’ll take more current albums like “Cass County” and “12 Stories” over “Home”.

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