Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties: The Chicks, “Wide Open Spaces”

“Wide Open Spaces”

The Chicks

Written by Susan Gibson

Billboard

#1 (4 weeks)

November 7 – November 28, 1998

Radio & Records

#1 (2 weeks)

November 6 – November 13, 1998

The Chicks release their signature country radio hit.

The Road to No. 1

The Chicks were already off to a solid start with their first Natalie Maines-led studio album, with the top ten “I Can Love You Better” and the No. 1 “There’s Your Trouble” doing well enough to get the album to platinum sales.  The third single blew everything wide open.

The No. 1

“Wide Open Spaces” had such a powerful impact, and still does, because it was the first single to perfectly meld the Chicks’ image of female empowerment with a song aligned with those values.

By centering the story of a young girl leaving home, “Wide Open Spaces” became an anthem for their quickly growing fan base.  There had been some country hits that had spoken to the experience of young girls on the cusp of womanhood before – a “She’s in Love With the Boy” here, a “Letting Go” there – but there had never been a song just about them.  There’s no love interest here, and only a passing line references the departing young woman’s parents as she leaves them behind.

We’re struggling right now in mainstream country music because of the stories that aren’t being told, with few songs deviating from the perspective of the stereotypical country boy.  “Wide Open Spaces” was a huge step forward in 1998, and felt like a sign of greater things to come.

You can tell the story of that potential and how it all fell apart simply by telling the story of the Chicks.  Hearing them sing ‘Wide Open Spaces” now, there’s a undercurrent of melancholy that tempers the wide-eyed optimism of their original hit.

But the fact that it is the only song from their first album still regularly included in their set lists indicates the song’s enduring significance. It’s as essential a record now as it was 24 years ago.

The Road From No. 1

The Chicks will top the singles chart one more time in the nineties, with the next single from this album.  By the time it was sent to radio, Wide Open Spaces was triple platinum, on its way to 13 million sales and counting.

“Wide Open Spaces” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties

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11 Comments

  1. Certainly the Chicks had a lot of optimism on their side, with this song, its predecessor (“There’s Your Trouble”), and an album that was selling like gangbusters. And the fact that it was an all-female trio who played their own instruments was…dare I use this word…radical…made it even better. They also managed to attract audiences well outside of the country genre, many of whom, in the past, might not have been caught dead listening to it.

    Could they have gone on with this kind of “formula” had The Incident never occurred? It’s hard to say, in my humble opinion. They were not going to stay young forever, and I think the subject matter of their songs would have changed, not only to reflect that unalterable fact but also from a purely artistic standpoint. Musically, I think their use of ultra-traditional country instruments (banjo; dobro; fiddle; mandolin) and the rock influences would have continued to give them a steady fan base and steady sales for a long time.

    But then, being outspoken on an issue like the Iraq war at a time when country music had reverted back to right-wing politics on the basis of false patriotism made them virtually instant pariahs in that genre. Needless to say, things haven’t been the same, either with country music as a whole or The Chicks themselves as a group; and it’s the powers-that-be in Nashville that made this happen all the way back in 2003.

    • They’d already left this sound behind long before the controversy. I’m more curious as to where they would’ve gone if Home hadn’t been derailed. It was an acoustic bluegrass album that was their fastest-selling album to date when the controversy hit.

      1
      • The success of Home is just so mind blowing when looking at where mainstream country is today, isn’t it? I’m also very interested in what direction they would’ve taken their music after that album if things worked out differently. Even more, I often wonder where mainstream country itself would be today if they were never banished. I still sometimes get both angry and sad when I think of what that incident took away from us and what could’ve been, both when it comes to the Chicks’ careers and how much better off the genre would likely be if it had never happened. Again, so many interesting pieces can be written just by exploring that topic, alone!

  2. “Wide Open Spaces” is iconic. Even though historians can reach back and find earlier examples of women exploring independence, establish the lineage, and connect the dots, this felt like a reboot for country ladies. This monster hit rendered continuity inconsequential. The Chicks made it sound like it all started right here, right now.

    And for an entire generation of female country music fans, it did.

    The political fallout surrounding the Chicks robbed them of their opportunity to explore their own creative potential and guide their maturation. As stunning as their musical responses have been since, they have almost necessarily been forced into a defensive, reactive position.

    They have yet to regain the utter reckless and wild freedom this song so joyously celebrates.

    I agree that “Home” had mainstream country music pointed in a wonderful direction we struggle to even imagine today.

    • I don’t remember the Chicks being perceived as a reboot for country ladies. More like a culmination of the decade leading up to them. There were some old cranks who celebrated the Chicks at the time for being an antidote to those darn crossover women dominating the charts. But the young female audience at the time had the Chicks, Shania Twain, Trisha Yearwood, Jo Dee Messina, and Martina McBride in constant rotation.

      • It seems richly ironic in retrospect that the Old Cranks who celebrated the Chicks as a sort of “antidote” to the other womenfolk then instantly turned on them because of what Natalie said. “Shut op and sing”, indeed.

        1
          • …even more bizzare, considering the fact that those original commies had fallen apart already long before. at least since 1991, when the sowjet union dissolved and foes turned into pityful beggars for some years. compared to the mob that crucified the chicks, today’s talibans do almost not appear a lot more radical. the attack on the dixie chicks foreboding american events two decades later? politics, religion and the chicks – country’s unholy trinity of taboos. no wonder we got the bros.

        • And many of the same folks who complained about the women crossing over to pop in the late 90/s/early 00’s and crucified the Chicks in 2003 also gladly lapped up Bro-Country in the 2010’s and still continue to embrace much of the bland/lifeless southern pop done by most of today’s male artists. :p

  3. This song is iconic.

    Even though country music historians could identify older female country music artists who explored similar themes of independence and freedom, establish the lineage, and connect the dots, this song felt like a reboot for the ladies. It rendered country music continuity inconsequential. “Wide Open Spaces” declared things started right here, and right now.

    And for an entire generation of listeners, it did.

    The Chicks have yet to regain the recklessness excitement and wild joy of this song even though, as Kevin rightly points out, they had abandoned this sound before the political controversy. What was lost was the opportunity to ride an unprecedented wave of creative momentum and freedom. As brilliant and beautiful as their musical responses have been to that period of time, it has necessarily forced them into a reactive, responsive position. They have clearly established their foundation of stone, but they have not regained their place in the clouds.

    “Home” had mainstream country music, led by chicks, no less, pointing in an unimaginably exciting direction, all but impossible to imagine today.

  4. I agree with Kevin in that the Chicks were more like a result of what the other women in country did and achieved earlier in the decade. And while they weren’t always hard core pure country, I did always think it was pretty neat that they were a young and hip female group who mainly played traditional flavored country while dressing in the latest cool, young fashion styles. It was a great way of exposing traditional and more rootsy styles of country to the younger audience, imo. Of course their music and fashion styles matured by the time they released Home, but the young audience was still right there with them loving the beautiful bluegrass sounds they were making, and it was such a wonderful thing to witness. That a high quality bluegrass album by a high quality female group was the biggest selling album of the genre up until the controversy is just completely mind blowing when you look at the unfortunate place where mainstream country has been stuck at for the past decade or so.

    As for Wide Open Spaces, it has aged amazingly well and still sounds just as fresh, joyful, and inspiring today. To me, it was a great way of blending the traditional country roots of the group with Natalie’s pop and rock sensibilities. The music itself is firmly rooted in country with the acoustic guitar, fiddle, and steel mixed right in your face, but there is a bit of an alternative feel to Natalie’s vocals (especially during the verses) that I’ve noticed from day one, and it just works so well.

    While many songs about kids growing up and leaving home tend to make me sad and even depressed sometimes, especially the countless ones that came out during the mid 2000’s soccer mom era, this one has always been an exception because it’s full of youthful joy and optimism from beginning to end. It focuses on the daughter’s love for the wide open spaces and her dreams and excitement of moving out west someday, and the wide eyed wonder and excitement she had as a little kid is carried over to when she’s older and finally about to make her dreams come true. Instead of feeling sad about the daughter moving away, you root for her to get the life full of wide open spaces that she’s always wanted. The uplifting chorus featuring the bright and joyful harmonies by Martie and Emily also tells you that this is a song of hope, wonder, excitement, and endless possibilities. Even Martie’s fiddle solo is so cheerful and uplifting! I can also relate to it a bit, because I still hope to one day move to an area full of wide open spaces. :)

    I also always loved the music video since seeing it all over GAC in 1998 and 1999, and I especially love how the Chicks themselves are full of joy, optimism, and youthful charm all throughout the clip. These days, it’s truly heartbreaking to see them so happy and carefree during this video and also knowing what would happen to them just a short 4-5 years later. Btw, I really love all the beautiful mountain scenery featured throughout, as well!

    Like Lonestar’s “Everything’s Changed,” and Shania’s “Honey I’m Home,” “Wide Open Spaces” is another song I heard for the first time while my parents and I were in California in late August. We were driving through Orange County on the way back to the area we stayed where the Country Inn and Hof’s Hut were when it was on the radio. This is when the Chicks were really blowing up, and unfortunately, this is also right around when my parents started expressing their dislike for Natalie’s voice. It wasn’t really their songs or sound they had a problem with, but it was mainly Maines’ strong East Texas twang. Despite that twang, though, I always thought there was a bit of an alternative rock feel to her performance in “Wide Open Spaces,” as well, which I thought was neat. While my parents would grumble when most of their songs came on the radio, I, on the other hand, loved the whole package when it came to the Chicks, twang and all, and I ended up enjoying their songs in secret whenever I was in the car (that is, if they didn’t change the station). While my step dad didn’t like “Wide Open Spaces” at first while we were in California, he did seem to warm up to it some a while later, and he even sang out a bit of the chorus one time when I expressed my liking for being in the vast farm areas around southeastern Pennsylvania. :)

    While my mom and step dad weren’t Chicks fans at the time, it definitely wouldn’t take as long for my dad to warm up to them. It was actually around when “Wide Open Spaces” was out that he started expressing his liking for them, as well as this song. At least when I rode with him in his car, I always knew I could enjoy their songs in full without having to worry about the station getting changed, lol. “Wide Open Spaces” sounded just as great on those Fall afternoons during my 7th grade year, as it did in the late summer while in California.

    While Home is probably my most favorite Chicks album (if I had to choose), I also still have a super soft spot for their first two major label albums. I remember when picking up both Wide Open Spaces and Fly during the mid-late 2000’s, both just sounded so refreshing compared to what was on the radio at the time, plus all the singles from each album brought back wonderful memories of the late 90’s and early early 2000’s. This is also when I started realizing that not much, if any, of their songs were still getting recurrent airplay, despite them being so huge not so long ago. Besides the singles, my other favorites on the Wide Open Spaces album are “Never Say Die,” “Let ‘Er Rip,” “Loving Arms,” “Am I The Only One,” and “Once You’ve Loved Somebody.”

    While I also enjoy Taking The Long Way and respect what they’ve done since then (The modern pop influence on their Gaslighter album is not my thing, sonically, but I still respect most of the songs and actually love the title cut), and I completely understand how and why they changed direction in sound and material, I’m also one of those who misses the much heavier country influence of their first three albums, along with the fun and joy that came with some of their songs during their earlier years.

    Sigh….we really were robbed of much more possible great music from this wonderful group of ladies!

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