Week 33: Dixie Chicks, Badass Motherfuckers
A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.
It only took 31 words of stage banter to change Dixie Chicks’ lives and careers forever. When frontwoman Natalie Maines told the audience at a 2003 concert in London, “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President Of The United States is from Texas,” she never could have imagined the political firestorm her comments would ignite. Nor could she have envisioned just how vilified she’d become.
In another context or another genre, Maines’ comments would have been met by yawns of indifference. The audience for the typical hip-hop show during the second Bush era, for example, was liable to grow enraged and apoplectic if an artist didn’t make derisive, heavy-handed comments about the president. Ah, but circumstances had conspired to create a perfect storm of controversy. For starters, Maines was making her comments on foreign soil. In the fevered imagination of Dixie Chicks detractors, that alone rendered Maines’ comments borderline treasonous. Those who objected heard what they wanted to hear in Maines’ comments. They interpreted her folksy condemnation of W as a confession she was ashamed to be an American and ashamed to be a Texan and hated the troops for good measure.
Maines’ banter-heard-round-the-world unleashed a massive wave of resentment toward Dixie Chicks that had been building up since 1998’s Wide Open Spaces. Nashville tends to look askance at female artists who don’t fall into a few prefabricated roles, but Maines wasn’t a glamour girl like Shania Twain or Faith Hill or a masochistically faithful doyenne of domesticity like Tammy Wynette or Kitty Wells. Maines was more a spunky little sister: independent, funny, and gutsy.
Dixie Chicks introduced a new paradigm into country music: a massively successful all-female band. Nothing scares men quite like strong, independent women succeeding in traditionally male realms. In that respect the band’s name was brilliant. Who could possibly be threatened by wholesome-looking Southern gals calling themselves Dixie Chicks? That’d be like a male group calling itself the Nashville Dudes. Nobody is scared of the Nashville Dudes.
Maines’ comments similarly struck a nerve because of the band’s enormous, unprecedented success. How dare a Grammy-festooned act that consistently went multiplatinum say anything bad about any aspect of a nation and culture that had treated it so royally? To the country music establishment, it must have looked like the gals were in danger of getting above their raisin’. They clearly needed to be taken down a peg or several dozen.
Sure enough, Maines’ comments incited the most vicious, widespread backlash in pop music since John Lennon said that, according to historical reports, he was taller than Jesus. Dixie Chicks’ albums were ritually bulldozed in organized protests. Their songs not-so-mysteriously disappeared from country stations’ playlists. The group received death threats. A massively successful act used to selling out huge venues found itself playing to half-empty houses. The group was booed at awards shows. A trio with two diamond albums to its name sold a comparably paltry 2 million copies of its first post-controversy album.
Nothing would ever be the same for Dixie Chicks. History had cast them in the unlikely role of culture warriors. Yet nothing in Wide Open Spaces, their first album with Maines as lead singer, suggests a group that would someday become the most hated act in the history of country music.
Dixie Chicks existed long before steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, who played on the group’s albums, suggested his singing daughter might be a good fit for the band. The group released three pre-Maines albums: 1990’s Thank Heavens For Dale Evans, 1992’s Little Ol’ Cowgirl, and 1993’s Shouldn’t A Told You That. But Wide Open Spaces was the cultural big bang that thrust Maines and multi-instrumentalists Emily Robison and Martie Maguire into the mainstream of American culture.
Wide Open Spaces offers both smooth, polished professionalism and an invigorating jolt of youthful energy. It was the trio’s big chance and oh, sweet blessed Lord were they ready, moving effortlessly from the tear-in-the-beer pathos of “Tonight The Heartache’s On Me” to the infectious sass of “There’s Your Trouble” to the anthemic bigness of the title track, a soaring celebration of leaving home in search of adventure.
“Let ’Er Rip,” in which the eternally feisty Maines taunts a wishy-washy boyfriend into saying goodbye, may just be the spunkiest, most upbeat song about getting dumped in the entire country music canon. And, like much of the album, it finds a fresh angle on hoary subject material. Wide Open Spaces may have technically been Dixie Chicks’ fourth album, but it nevertheless sounds like a great debut.
“Goodbye Earl,” from Dixie Chicks’ 1999 smash Fly, served notice that the Chicks had a lot more on their minds than making nice music for the nice people. It’s no exaggeration to argue “Goodbye Earl” is one of the most subversive songs to become a pop and country hit. It is, after all, a happy, toe-tapping sing-along ditty about wife-beating and pre-meditated murder, a feel-good song advocating vigilante justice and a homemade death penalty for domestic abuse. “Goodbye Earl” is essentially a short film in song form, a Thelma & Louise for country radio. In it, Maines sings about a small-town girl who marries a brute named Earl who begins beating her not long after their wedding. She takes out a restraining order against him but, as Maines sings empathetically, “He walked right through that restraining order and put her in intensive care.”
So the protagonist and her best girlfriend kill the eponymous wife-beater via a plate of poisoned black-eyed peas and begin a happy new life for themselves running a roadside stand. “Goodbye Earl” invites the question, how do you make an upbeat song about the most downbeat subject matter this side of cancer-stricken children dying in the Holocaust? The track walks a tonal tightrope. The lyrics are grim until the redemptive third act, but Maines’ delivery, the upbeat bluegrass hootenanny accompaniment, and infectious background “Nah nah nah nahs” betray that everything will turn out all right for the gals. As if advocating the murder of wife-beaters weren’t explosive enough, the song doubles as a celebration of female bonding so intense and intimate it has unmistakably Sapphic undertones.
If “Goodbye Earl” smuggled suspiciously feminist ideas onto the country charts, “Sin Wagon” was about an even more explosive topic: aggressive female sexuality. Yes, “Sin Wagon” is all about fucking as Maines sings from the perspective of a hot-blooded young woman who seeks out a little “mattress dancing” after a break-up. By hip-hop or rock standards it’s a pretty tame, albeit maddeningly catchy number, but its mildly risqué lyrics were enough to keep it from being picked up by country radio (though even with airplay, it still charted at No. 52 on the Billboard Country Songs chart).
Dixie Chicks take a more demure, dreamy approach to romance on “Cowboy Take Me Away,” a massive hit that once again explores the yearning for escape and transcendence that courses through so many of its songs. It’s a theme that reappears on another standout track, the album-opening “Ready To Run.”
Dixie Chicks began as a fairly conventional bluegrass group rooted in the virtuosity of Maguire’s fiddle playing and Robison’s banjo mastery, but they embraced a more mainstream, pop-oriented sound once Maines came onboard. The group’s 2002 album, Home, was hailed as the band’s return to its bluegrass roots, though a group whose musical masterminds play banjo and fiddle isn’t likely to stray too far from bluegrass, especially given the trio’s gift for Louvin Brothers-style harmonizing.
“Long Time Gone,” the opening track, concerns a young striver who leaves her hometown looking for success in the bright lights of Nashville only to return home and embrace the simple pleasures of country life. The lovely cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” that follows foreshadows the group’s eventual musical shift away from country.
In an unfortunate bit of timing, Dixie Chicks just happened to be working Home’s third single, “Travelin’ Soldier,” when Maines made her explosive comments about how not everyone loved President Bush or approved of the war in Iraq. Suddenly, Dixie Chicks were country radio’s public enemy No. 1, though the momentum for the group’s best and most ambitious album was strong enough that it still sold 6 million copies anyway. A good illustration of the group’s growth can be found in its album-ending “Top Of The World,” a heartbreaking, six-minute-long lament from a dying man reflecting on a lifetime of regrets and missed opportunities.
The ferocity of the backlash against the Chicks split their career into two distinct stages: pre-backlash and post-backlash. Being vilified and blacklisted by the country establishment only served to radicalize and politicize the Chicks. Maines may have stumbled into notoriety and controversy, but there’s nothing accidental about Taking The Long Way, the group’s 2006 comeback album.
“Taking The Long Way Around,” the opening track, establishes a tone of quiet defiance as Maines reflects back on the conformity and quiet, sheltered lives of the friends she grew up with and her own unwillingness to kiss the right asses and say the right things for the sake of pleasing people she can’t stand anyway.
“Easy Silence” celebrates a partner for providing a quiet haven and sentient fortress of solitude that keeps the ugliness and noise of the world at bay. It’s a love song, but when Maines sings, “They form commissions trying to find the next one they can crucify / And anger plays on every station / answers only make more questions” the implications are clear.
But not quite as clear as they are on “Not Ready to Make Nice.” The title says it all, doesn’t it? On “Not Ready to Make Nice,” Maines channels rage and bottomless hurt into a staggeringly forthright song that grows in intensity until it’s almost unbearably intimate, as when Maines sings:
It’s a sad, sad story when a mother will teach her
Daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger
And how in the world can the words I said
Send someone so over the edge
That they’d write me a letter saying that I better
Shut up and sing or my life will be over?
Long Way is suffused by righteous anger. For this most personal of albums, the Dixie Chicks shared co-writing credits on every song for the first time with help from ringers like Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson, Linda Perry, and Sheryl Crow. Since country violently rejected Dixie Chicks, the band returned the favor by hiring Rick Rubin as a producer and moving into a more rock-oriented direction. At worst, this makes the group sound disturbingly like Sheryl Crow. At best, Long Way captures the sound of a band defining itself and finding its voice outside the sometimes-stifling confines of country.
Maines may have begun her career as country’s sassy little sister, but every little sister has to grow up eventually. Long Way doubles as a coming-of-age album from three of the least likely outlaws imaginable. In their own adorable way, these Chicks are totally, completely badass. At the very least, they’re way more badass than Toby Keith.
Up Next on Nashville or Bust:
Townes Van Zandt