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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4 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.

  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.

  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.

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