Since I started this blog in 2004, I’ve written quite a bit about the Dixie Chicks, my favorite country band. It may surprise readers to learn that when they first broke out on to the scene, I wasn’t particularly impressed. Their first Sony album, Wide Open Spaces, sounded cookie-cutter country to me. I liked Fly quite a bit more, however, and was impressed by how they pushed the boundaries of conventional country on that set.
But it wasn’t until 2002’s Home that I became a die-hard fan. That brilliant acoustic set remains my favorite album of the decade, and the standard against which I Judge all contemporary country albums these days. Four years and a lot of controversy later, they resurfaced with the country-rock set Taking the Long Way, which showcased their songwriting talents and California country influences to great effect.
Narrowing down 25 favorite tracks of the Dixie Chicks wasn’t easy, but I certainly enjoyed revisiting their work in the process. This list doesn’t include any material from their pre-Natalie Maines independent albums, which are entirely different animals but are worth seeking out, if only for a historical perspective of one of the most successful country bands ever.
“Wide Open Spaces”
Wide Open Spaces, 1998
The song that made the Dixie Chicks superstars is still one of their most charming performances. They can clearly relate to the girl in the song who is leaving home for “wide open spaces”, and the wide-eyed, innocent enthusiasm of their performance is especially sweet to listen to today.
Taking the Long Way, 2006
Contrary to popular belief, Taking the Long Way is not a polemic. The songs on that Grammy-dominating album are far more introspective, dealing largely with the passage of time and the compromises we are forced to make along the way. “Favorite Year” is about looking back to young adulthood and remembering when you thought you were going to change the world, and hoping that the person who you shared your dreams with still holds sacred the memories you made together. There’s a near-resignation in Maines’ voice as she sings, “We search for someone else to blame, but sometimes things can’t stay the same.”
One of the saddest songs they’ve ever recorded. A woman looks back alone, thinking of the love that she let get away because she listened to the advice of her pride and “so-called friends quick to advise.” Now, she lives a solitary life, but every night she “dreams of wandering through the home that might have been” and every day she wakes again “in a house that might have been a home.”
“Stand By Your Man”
Tribute to Tradition, 1998
The primary reason that “Stand By Your Man” was seen as an anti-feminist statement was Tammy Wynette’s teardrop vocal. It’s a classic record, but it’s easy to understand how people can listen to it and think, “doormat.” The Chicks transform the song in to a Texas shuffle, but the more significant change is in tone, as Natalie Maines’ confident vocal says anything but doormat. Listen to the snark in her voice as she sings, “If you love him, be proud of him, ’cause after all, he’s Just a man“, and you’ll wonder how anybody ever thought “Stand By Your Man” advocated for something less than full gender equity.
How do you continue chasing a dream when you know that it’s making the ones you love suffer? In this Darrell Scott-penned classic, cynicism about the music industry collides with the hopeful optimism that you just might be one of the lucky ones that beats the system.
Taking the Long Way, 2006
“Anger plays on every station,” Maines laments, speaking from first-hand experience. But rather than focus on the external pressures of the outside world, she revels in the comfort of the “easy silence” that her loved one makes for her as he “keeps the world at bay” for her.
The title was inspired by the drive-in scene in the movie Grease, when Olivia Newton-John’s Sandy angrily storms off from John Travolta’s Danny after he tries to put the moves on her in his “sin wagon.” Maines insisted that the band write a song with that title, and it’s one of their best up-tempo romps.
Top of the World Tour, 2003
They proudly introduce this as a Bob Dylan song when they perform it live, but it’s clear from the arrangement that they learned the song from Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions. Amazingly, they manage to make the song rock out more than Crow did, even while incorporating more country elements along the way.
Their most recent country radio hit is a stunning achievement in storytelling, courtesy of songwriter Bruce Robison. My father was a Navy veteran, and whenever this video would come on CMT, he would stop whatever he was doing, raise the volume and listen intensely.
Taking the Long Way, 2006
While attempting to deal with a grandmother suffering with Alzheimer’s disease, a full stock is taken of the laughter and life that once filled the silent house that she now occupies. It’s not so much about mourning for the past as it is about finding a way to preserve it for the future so it isn’t lost forever. The decision made on how to do so takes the form of a solemn promise: “I will try to connect all the pieces you left. I will carry it on and let you forget.”
“Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”
Radney Foster wrote this heartbreaking lullaby for his young son when his ex-wife moved him to France with her new husband. For the years that followed, his son listened to the song every night before he went to bed. Foster’s original recording is hauntingly beautiful, and the Chicks elevate it with their tasteful instrumentation and ethereal harmonies.
“Voice Inside My Head”
Taking the Long Way, 2006
It’s never quite clear whether the lost child being mourned for in this song was given up through adoption or abortion, but the pain and loss being communicated here is so intense, it works either way. It might be Maines’ most powerful vocal performance to date, as she wails “I want, I need, somehow to believe in the choice I made”, and swears to the lost child that “I’ll never forget what I’ve given up in you.”
The Chicks take Stevie Nicks’ mysterious and abstract classic and turn it into a roots song. The backporch instrumentation and old-time harmonies make it sound more Carter Family than Fleetwood Mac, and a song that never made a lot of sense now sounds like a collection of simple truths.
Katrina Charity Single, 2005
They close their Taking the Long Way set with a smoother version of this song that features impressive guitar work by John Mayer. But there’s a raw intensity to the original charity version of “I Hope”, which was released to raise funds for Katrina victims. When they performed this on the telethon, it felt like their first public performance in eons, announcing that not only were the Chicks finally back, but they were a heck of a lot older, wiser and even a little wearier than when we last saw them.
This dark comedy classic garnered a lot of media criticism for the glee that Chicks seemed to be taking in Earl’s downfall, despite the fact that Earl had “walked right through that restraining order” and put Wanda “in intensive care.” Yes, Mary Ann and Wanda took justice into their own hands, but at that point, the justice system had already completely failed to protect her.
“The Long Way Around”
Taking the Long Way, 2006
The Chicks condense their entire history into a little over five minutes, covering everything from their days traveling Texas roads in a pink RV to sparring with the leader of the free world on the national stage. They find a common thread through all of these experiences, celebrating that they’ve taken the road less taken, even though it’s always been the long way around.
“Lil’ Jack Slade”
Their independent albums featured several instrumentals, but “Lil’ Jack Slade” is the only one that’s been included on any of their major-label releases. It’s hard not to wish for more of them, as this bluegrass breakdown is irresistibly catchy and satisfying, fitting perfectly into the sonic landscape of Home.
“Not Ready to Make Nice”
Taking the Long Way, 2006
As cathartic a record as I’ve ever heard. It quickly became an anthem for anybody who chose to stand on principle, even if it means losing something that you care about. The political interpretation of this song has been done to death, but I’ve always suspected the target of their ire here is the country music industry that turned the knife, rather than the political forces that inserted the blade.
This tender ballad is the finest moment on their solid Fly collection. The intimacy of the production perfectly matches the vulnerability of Maines’ vocal, as the struggle to move on from a serious relationship is heightened by the realization that the man left behind has managed to do so quite easily.
Taking the Long Way, 2006
It’s a sonic treat hearing Martie Maguire’s fiddle played in a Celtic style. There’s a glass-of-Guinness Irish pub quality to the entire track, as the Chicks rue beautiful relationships as they come to a bitter end. The first two verses have them confronting their own guilt about a friend dying before they made clear how much they loved him, while the final verse takes on the fair-weather friends who were nowhere to be found when it it all hit the fan: “You had a good time drinking all of our wine after the show”, Maines notes, as she wonders “What happened to the ones we knew? As long as I’m the shiniest star, there you are.”
“Long Time Gone”
The Chicks threw down the gauntlet with this stunning single in 2002, their first release since settling their lawsuit against their record company. As they reentered country radio after an extended absence, the climate had changed completely, with most women railroaded off of the dial and pale imitations trying to claim the Outlaw legacy for their own. “They sound tired but they don’t sound Haggard. They got money but they don’t have Cash.” The Chicks simultaneously rue the lost spirit of classic country music while resurrecting it at the same time through their own work.
“Lubbock or Leave it”
Taking the Long Way, 2006
This is as close to punk as country music gets. Maines’ ferocious vocal is matched by the fiery fiddle and banjo provided by Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, as they collectively shred the hypocrisy that they see surrounding them. “Throwing stones from the top of your rock thinking no one can see the secret you hide behind your southern hospitality,” Maines seethes through clenched teeth, while the band rocks out behind her. It’s a tour de force that condenses all of the frustration and anger of the years that preceded it into one killer record.
“Am I the Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way)”
Wide Open Spaces, 1998
This Maria McKee composition is hidden near the end of Wide Open Spaces, and Maines’ gives it a searing reading that far exceeds the power of McKee’s tepid original recording. “Now my sense of humor needs a break,” she confesses. “I see a shadow in the mirror, and she’s laughing through her tears. One more smile’s all I can fake.”
“Truth No. 2”
Originally slated to be the fourth single from Home, “Truth No. 2” is the Chicks at their best: fantastic picking and fiddling, incisively-written material (courtesy of Patty Griffin), and Maines up front singing the heck out of it. Maguire’s high harmony part on the second verse is goosebump-inducing.
“Top of the World”
This epic Patty Griffin song closes their 2002 set, and it’s a masterpiece. Maines takes on the voice of a man who has just died, and is looking back on his life from beyond the grave. He is trying to come to terms with the cruel way that he treated his wife, as he wished he loved Jesus the way that she does.
His fear is that he’s closed his own door to heaven through his selfish ways, but he’s more concerned with trying to reach the woman he still loves and show her what he now knows is the truth. The things he left unsaid are artfully described in the chorus, as “a whole lot of singing that’s never gonna be heard.” The final verse speaks volumes with its description of the most mundane of memories: “I wish I’d have shown you all of the things I was on the inside. I’d pretend to be sleeping when you’d come in in the morning. To whisper goodbye, go to work in the rain, I don’t know why, don’t know why.”
Just when the song seems to be over, the music begins again, and is slowly joined by ominous strings that create a sense of foreboding. Maines then lets out a spine-chilling wail that releases all of the sadness and loss that had been shared in whispers up until that point, a vocal that is so powerful it’s otherworldly, just like the narrator of the song itself. It’s a performance that resonates long after the music fades, one that makes those receptive to its message examine their own actions before they share the grim fate of the man in the song.
Very nice list. I love all of those songs, but my one complaint is why “Lullaby” from Taking The Long Way didn’t make it. It’s one of my favorite Chicks songs, mostly because it’s just a gorgeous song.
Besides that, amazing list about an amazing group of artists.
I totally agree with ur list!!!
I <3 Dixie Chicks!! :)
This is an awesome list! I’m kinda surprised you included one of my fave Chicks songs…”Am I the Only One (Who’s Ever Felt this Way)” it’s my favorite song off of Wide Open Spaces and their live version on the Top of the World Tour cd is amazing!
Again, great list!
HOW do you put these together?? LOL!
I’m always impressed when you do these cuz I would have no idea where to even start.
Bless your heart. :-)
A wonderful list, Kevin.
I fell for the Chicks on their “Fly” tour when the snow started falling from the arena rafters during “Cold Day in July.” That whole concert was magical. (And I would put that song on my list.)
Just this morning, I needed a song to pump me up prior to a 10K race. “Some Days You Gotta Dance” did it.
“Top of the World” is a bold choice for No. 1, but I concur.
“Not Ready to Make Nice” is one of the few songs that makes me need to dry my eyes.
I like “Lullaby” but gave its slot to “Godspeed”, which I enjoy quite a bit more.
The Chicks do a great job on “Cold Day in July” but I prefer Joy Lynn White’s recording of it. It doesn’t help that I’d heard White’s and Suzy Bogguss’ takes on the song for seven years before hearing the Chicks do it.
I think they did “Tonight the Heartache’s on Me” better than White did, though.
1 Thank Heavens For Dale Evans
2 Past The Point Of Rescue
3 Tonight The Heartaches On Me
4 Long Time Gone
5 I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart
6 Little Ol’ Cowgirl
7 Wide Open Spaces
8 Cowboy Take Me Away
9 White Trash Wedding
10 Travelin’ Soldier
I’m a little surprised not to see anything at all from the two best albums the Chix ever made – their first two
I can see you disagreeing Paul, but not being surprised, certainly not after reading CU for the past couple of years. You must’ve seen the contents of my list coming from as far away as I saw your comment about the exclusion of their indie albums.
I’ve heard their first albums without Natalie and they are okay, but uninspiring overall.
Great list, Kevin. I too love “Godspeed” better than “Lullaby”, though I also like the latter.
Leeann! Welcome back!
Thanks, Kevin. I had a great weekend.
I actually have more to say about this list, but I’m too tired to write intelligently tonight. It will happen tomorrow.
Smashing list. I think “Long Time Gone” would have to be my #1; line-for-line, I think it’s one of the most perfect recordings of the past decade, plus it was one of the few country songs in the mini-jukebox at my favorite diner back home (in the middle of a very un-country city), and playing it became something of a tradition every time I went there.
And yeah, hey Leeann!
I think the Chicks have had that California country-rock influence in their style from the moment Natalie took the lead vocal slot, especially because of the inclusion of songs written by Maria McKee and J.D. Souther. But it really blossomed on TAKING THE LONG WAY, demonstrating the connection between the Chicks and the classic country-rock sound of 1970s Los Angeles in a way most Nashville record productions fall hideously short of (IMHO).
Great list! I pretty much agree with the order and everything. “Top of the World” and “Truth No. 2” are awesome songs. TOTW still sends chills down my back when I listen to it. Home was such a great album.
my list would probably look quite differently. who cares?
the beauty of this particular exercise lies in the last three paragraphs, accompanying “top of the world”. thought-provokingly terrific like the music.
I have been looking forward to this list for a while…it was a great read! Although I have to say my top 25 are a little different to yours.
25. Lovin’ Arms
24. Hello Mr Heartache
23. Ready To Run
22. If I Fall
21. Heartbreak Town
20. Goodbye Earl
18. Am I The Only One
17. I Believe In Love
16. Easy Silence
15. Voice Inside My Head
14. Without You
13. I Hope
11. Lubbock or Leave it
10. Wide Open Spaces
9. You Were Mine
7. Taking The Long Way
6. Travellin Soldier
5. More Love: I love this song…Nat’s voice is amazing and I really enjoy Martie’s harmonies on the second verse.
4. Long Time Gone: I agree with everything Kevin wrote about this one.
3. Top of the World: Again…I agree with Kevin. She sings it with such passion…
2. Not Ready To Make Nice: This isn’t my second favourite song that they’ve recorded but I put it here because of the live performance of it. The energy is absolutely electric when they perform it. Amazing.
1. Cowboy Take Me Away: Just a brilliant song…might be harder to perform now given it’s backround and Emily’s recent divorce. But I can’t imagine they’ll take it off the set list as it’s such a signature song for them.
Good list Kevin. Songs missing from your list that would have made mine: “Lullaby”, “Let Him Fly”, “You Were Mine”.
“Top of the World” would top my list with “Long Time Gone” 1A. Nice catch on “Am I the Only One.”
Home is one of the landmarks of the decade, I agree, but Taking the Long Way fell short of that standard IMO. The indie albums are fairly good, and a couple of those tracks might’ve replaced some of TTLW on my list, but this is a neat portrait of their career. Kudos.
Okay, here are my random thoughts:
I’m glad to see their version of “Stand By Your Man” included on the list. Like everything Natalie sings, it has grit that is not in the original version, which seems to change the interpretation of the song.
I like the album version of “I Hope” better, because I can’t get passed the back beat thing that seriously annoys me on the charity version.
I really like your #1 choice, but “Long Time Gone” would probably top my own list. It’s the first song to make me pay attention to The Chicks. And because of my love for Darrell Scott, I probably would have moved “Heartbreak Town” into the top five.
Again, great list. I should make playlists of these FSBFAs.:)
Great job Kevin! I would have picked some different songs, but “Top of the World” would have been a the top of my list as well!!
I love “Easy Silence.” As the world gets busier and louder all the time I find that song comforts me and reminds me of the quiet moments with the people I love, and of those who can make my world slow down a little.
I’m a big Chicks fan and love most of these songs, but that one tops my list.
One you left off: “Everybody Knows” from Taking the Long Way, deserves a shout out. I find that to be one of the most honest songs I’ve ever heard. I love how it shows us all to be vulnerable, shows us all to have bad poker faces, shows us all to be hiding just a little bit (or a lot) in our lives from the people we know and love, how we all can feel like phonies some time. The harmonies are gorgeous. You hear the yearning for something more and the sad resignation as the chorus winds down. It’s an amazing song.
Great list, you did a really great job. I agree with Peter that “Everybody Knows” deserved a shout-out, but if I was presented the task of doing 25 fav singles from the Chicks, I don’t think I could do it. They have so many great songs.
TOTW is a masterpiece, so much so that it’s hard to listen to, not because it’s bad but because of how heartbreaking it is. I think one of the biggest crimes by country music was them not embracing that song.
Nice call, Peter. “Easy Silence” is probably my fave from TTLW, with “Everybody Knows” second.
Remarkable list. I only got around to reading it today (I am always behind the curve) … I had almost forgotten how much I love these songs.
Glad to see my favorites towards the top, ‘Mississippi’, ‘Truth No. 2’, and especially ‘Am I The Only One’. The only thing I would have added is ‘Once You’ve Loved Somebody’.
Top Of The World is by far my favorite Dixie Chick song if not the my favorite song in the past decade.
Wow! This is as close as any of these “25 Lists” have come to matching my own. Also, it’s so refreshing to read comments about what really matters (the music) instead of bashing their political views. I love almost every track on Taking the Long Way and it’s nice to see “Heartbreak Town” and “Without You” on your list. I would also like to mention the songs that first attracted me to their music: There’s Your Trouble, Ready to Run, I Can Love You Better and You Were Mine. Thanks again Kevin!
“Top of the World” is just amazing. Everything about about it is just mind blowing. The video is just as good.
well the dixie chicks are my favorite band of all time and all genres so this list is the one i was most interested in!
i love your list and i kind of agree with the positions although i would add Lullaby in my top 5 because it means so much to me. i’d also add Cowboy Take Me Away and You Were Mine. Still i’m impressed by ur taste!
I couldnt agree more with #1
I so wish country radio would just get over the “controversial” aspect of the Dixie Chicks, and just appreciate them for the fantastic artists they are. Besides, I think the freeze-out has thawed considerable in the past seven years. There are still plenty of people who love the Chicks, and are dying to hear them on country radio again. I’m one of them.
Well Ben, our country radio station plays them sometimes. However, they also play Kid Rock, Bon Jovi, Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood. I have never heard a single song by Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Dolly Parton, Tanya Tucker, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash or any other “real” country act. The Chicks still get radio play from non-country radio stations. Plus, they probably get played in non-American stations as well, considering that they probably don’t care about the incident.
I think comparing the country airplay for the Chicks to the other artists that you mention is like comparing apples to oranges. At least comparing artists in the same generation would make some sense.
I do hear the Chicks on the radio once in a very great while, but it is quite a rarity. I wish they were still having hits on the charts today.
Interestingly enough, almost all of the artists you describe as real country artists – Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Dolly Parton, Tanya Tucker, Willie Nelson, – received backlash by traditionalists for not being country enough at one point or another.
Great list :) First, I have to say, it’s quite a feat to pick 25 songs of the Chicks and stick to it. I don’t think I could narrow down my top 25.
The only inclusion I really disagree with is “Favorite Year”. I’d definitely take that off and “Cowboy Take Me Away” would be in my top 5. I’d also have “You Were Mine” in my top 10. Maybe take out….alright, I don’t know WHAT to take out, maybe “Stand by Your Man”? Let’s just make it 26, lol ;)
In choosing his 25 favorites by the Chicks, I think Kevin covered a wide spectrum of songs on all five of the albums they have done with Natalie, not to mention all the styles in their music, from Texas honky-tonk and bluegrass to sociological pop and Southern California-influenced country-rock. This isn’t the easiest thing to do with any artist or group.
Natalie’s “Bushwhacking” aside, in the end I think the Chicks will be remembered for being a group that broke a lot of the standard country music rules and stereotypes, not only in being an all-female group that played their own instruments, but being willing and able to write and sing what they wanted, even if the conservative and constricted playlists of country radio wouldn’t allow it. That takes a lot of nerve to do; and I don’t think any mainstream country act has been either willing or able to do it in their wake.
Kevin and all,
One that you should check out that I’ve only ever heard on Austin City Limits when the Chicks performed in 2001 is called “Walk Down that Lonesome Road”. No instruments, but wow does it pack a punch (imho).
Great list, Kevin! The Chicks music was one of my first introductions to country music. I can vividly remember playing the heck out of their first album when I was around 10-12.
My list would probably look like this:
1. “Wide Open Spaces”
2. “Top Of The World”
3. “Cowboy Take Me Away”
4. “Heartbreak Town”
5. “Let Him Fly”
6. “Without You”
7. “There’s Your Trouble
8. Travelin’ Solider”
9. I Can Love You Better”
10. “Once You Love Somebody”
11. “You Were Mine”
12. “The Long Way Around”
13. “Not Ready To Make Nice”
14. “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me”
15. “Long Time Gone”
16. “Don’t Waste Your Heart”
17. “I Hope”
19. “Goodbye Earl.”