Considering that the Dixie Chicks have been– at least since 2003– as well-known for their outspokenness as for their music, it was striking how quiet they were during their live show in Louisville on September 22nd.
Sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer, in fact, never spoke at all during the show, while frontwoman Natalie Maines kept her audience banter limited to a handful of scripted niceties, some well-timed one-liners, and just a couple of longer asides, only one of which made reference to the backlash that followed her comments about then-president George W. Bush. The backdrop video montages included only two attention-grabbing moments– a series of headlines from the O.J. Simpson case ran behind “Goodbye Earl,” while a mock-up that included the entire clown-car of 2016 presidential candidates from both parties played behind “Ready to Run”– and those passed by entirely without comment. Bringing the stage lights down to black after nearly every song, the trio simply didn’t have as much to say as their reputations might have led some to believe they would.
The Dixie Chicks are fortunate enough, then, to have a catalogue that is powerful enough to let their music do the talking.
The band’s set-list was evenly balanced across their four studio albums, with an emphasis on their proper radio singles rather than less-familiar album tracks. Supported by a first-rate five-piece band, the trio reworked the arrangements to several songs to give them greater heft that would fill an arena that was nearly at its capacity. The plugged-in version of “Long Time Gone” might have sounded blasphemous to some, but it gave the song a contemporary update that in no way undermined its potency. The first chorus of “Cowboy, Take Me Away” was accompanied only by thundering bass drums that landed halfway between The Lumineers and Imagine Dragons, while Maines’ electric guitar and snarling vocal performance gave the first verse of “Sin Wagon” an effective punk spin.
What’s always distinguished the Dixie Chicks from so many of their contemporaries is that they are exceptional musicians. Maguire and Strayer may not have said anything during the show, but their instrumental breaks– and a killer Bluegrass instrumental number– drew the crowd’s loudest applause. That’s how the Dixie Chicks were able to strike perhaps the genre’s best balance between its traditional bona fides and its pop aspirations. Maguire’s fiddle work on the outro of “Top Of The World” and Strayer’s banjo licks on “White Trash Wedding” were every bit as distinctive as Maines’ powerhouse deliveries of “Not Ready to Make Nice” and “Truth No. 2.”
To that end, it was notable that the crowd’s enthusiasm waned on some of the numbers from Taking the Long Way on which Maguire and Strayer took a more passive role. “Lubbock or Leave It,” given an even harder-edged arrangement than on its studio version, was a showcase for the ace backing band, while Maguire stood near the back of the stage and looked bored during the dreary “Easy Silence,” which also featured a “lyric video” of on-the-nose nature imagery as its backdrop. “Not Ready to Make Nice,” performed during the encore, rallied the audience, but not even that would-be anthem had the crowd singing along as loudly as “Goodbye Earl,” “Landslide,” or “Wide Open Spaces.”
Hearing these songs more than fifteen years after the Dixie Chicks’ commercial peak, it’s remarkable how their resonance has in no way diminished and no less remarkable how warmly the trio was received, given the divisive political climate in this contentious election year. Kentucky is a deeply red state that seems to get redder with every passing year, but it was clear that, on this night, the quality of the Dixie Chicks’ music trumped politics. No one so much as batted an eye when, during “Sin Wagon,” Maines sang, “When it’s my turn to march up to glory/I’m going to have one hell of a story/That’s if she forgives me.” Here in Kentucky, that felt like a little feminist victory in and of itself.
It’s also easy to take for granted how superior the Dixie Chicks’ songs were– and are– to the material currently at country radio. Before the show, the DJ in the merchandise area played Luke Bryan’s “Country Girl (Shake It For Me),” and he actively begged people in the crowd to show some enthusiasm. They did not oblige. It highlighted the ways country radio has marginalized huge swaths of demographics who clearly still crave the type of smart, thoughtfully crafted music that the Dixie Chicks produced. Here was a massive crowd that skewed overwhelmingly female and just as overwhelmingly over 30, and they were singing along loudly to songs of substance and wit and were willing to shell out $40 for a tee-shirt. Compare that to the paltry sales numbers for an act like Chris Lane, who had a #1 radio hit but can barely move 5,000 total albums. Clearly, there is a disconnect between the artists Nashville is doubling-down on and the type of music that fans outside of their exceedingly narrow, reductive demographic research are eager to hear and to buy.
Unfortunately, the show gave little indication that the Dixie Chicks might be heading back to the recording studio any time soon. They performed just five songs that weren’t included on their albums and did not even branch out into songs from Maines’ solo album, 2013’s Mother, or either Court Yard Hounds album.
Their rendition of Beyonce’s “Daddy Lessons” has been making the rounds on YouTube for months, and with good reason– genre purists have bristled at the idea that the song had at least one “country” circle on its Venn Diagram of overlapping influences, but the Dixie Chicks transformed it into a right and proper hoedown. “Nothing Compares 2 U” served as a tribute to the late Prince, and it was a reminder that Maines’ ballistics-grade voice has lost none of its power since the trio’s debut. They’ve covered Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi” on previous tours, and their performance here was similar in its arrangement and top-notch quality to the version from Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions. The show ended with an epic-length rendition of Ben Harper’s “Better Way” that finished with all three members of the trio banging loudly on a tin trash can.
But the best of the set’s covers was one that Maines introduced by saying that songwriter Patty Griffin didn’t yet realize was a new song that she had written for them. Their rendition of “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida” from Griffin’s American Kid demonstrated how the Dixie Chicks’ sound could easily evolve to fit within a contemporary landscape. With a prominent rhythm section that propels its world-weary narrative, the song incorporates some of the rock influence from the Taking the Long Way era into a performance that still foregrounds the trio’s technical skill. It honestly wouldn’t sound the least bit out of place alongside singles like Eric Church’s “Record Year,” Carrie Underwood’s “Dirty Laundry,” Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush,” or Chris Stapleton’s “Parachute” on country radio.
Even knowing that radio support would be the longest of long-shots were the Dixie Chicks to record new material, the tiniest of hints toward new music was perhaps the most exciting take-away from an extraordinary show that found the Dixie Chicks in full flight.
- The Long Way Around
- Lubbock or Leave It
- Truth No. 2
- Easy Silence
- Some Days You Gotta Dance
- Long Time Gone
- Nothing Compares 2 U
- Top of the World
- Goodbye Earl
- Travelin’ Soldier
- Don’t Let Me Die in Florida
- Daddy Lessons
- White Trash Wedding
- Bluegrass Medley
- Ready to Run
- Cowboy Take Me Away
- Wide Open Spaces
- Sin Wagon
- Not Ready to Make Nice (Encore)
- Better Way (Encore)