Wide Open Spaces (1998, Monument; 2016 vinyl reissue on Sony Legacy)
Fly (1999, Monument; 2016 vinyl reissue on Sony Legacy)
Home (2002, Open Wide/Monument/Columbia, 2016 vinyl reissue on Sony Legacy)
Taking the Long Way (2006, Open Wide/Columbia, 2016 vinyl reissue on Sony Legacy)
“It’s been two long years now since the top of the world came crashing down
And I’m getting it back on the road now
But I’m takin’ the long way, taking the long way around …”
— Dixie Chicks, from “The Long Way Around”
By Richard Skanse
It was 10 years ago this May that the Dixie Chicks released Taking the Long Way, and damned if that isn’t a hard truth to wrap one’s mind around. Sure, time flies, even children get older and records get older, too, but still …
What Dixie Chicks fan — or committed hater, for that matter — doesn’t remember exactly the way they felt the first time they heard “Not Ready to Make Nice” like it was only yesterday? Whichever side of the Chicks divide you stood on at the time, if you had any opinion whatsoever about the band, then the impassioned words Natalie Maines sang in that song made every hair on the back of your neck stand on end with either an electric surge of “hell yes!” pride or an icy chill of “back-at-cha, traitor!” vitriol. And odds are, hearing even a few swelling notes of that song today a decade down the line — and even longer since the equally dramatic turn of events in 2003 that spawned it — still triggers the exact same Pavlovian response. Back in November, when the Dixie Chicks announced their “DCX MMXVI World Tour” — including their first headlining dates in the United States since the end of their “Accidents & Accusations” tour back in 2006 — message boards and Facebook walls buzzed not just with excited fans, but a fair number of folks compelled to chime in just to let everyone know that they still weren’t ready to forgive those unpatriotic “Dixie Twits,” a band that “nobody even cares about anymore, anyway.”
But as it turns out, plenty of people still do care — enough at least to warrant the recent addition of several new cities a month away from the tour’s first stateside stop in Cincinnati on June 1. And although the Dixie Chicks aren’t supporting a new album this time around — unless one counts the April 15 reissue of all four of their major-label studio albums remastered on vinyl, a first for all of the titles save for 2002’s Home — it somehow doesn’t really seem like nostalgia stoking the demand so much as a shared understanding (or at least hope) between fans and band that this particular story is far from finished. And contrary to the misperception those who haven’t kept up with that story might have, this current tour is not a “reunion,” given that Maines and sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Erwin have actually played together a number of times over the last decade, including a headlining tour of Canada and Europe just three years ago and a few notable benefits. The Dixie Chicks even shared a bill with themselves — i.e., along with Natalie supporting her solo debut, Mother, and Martie and Emily as the Court Yard Hounds supporting their second album, Amelita — as part of a celebration honoring Natalie’s father, famed producer and pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, at Austin’s Moody Theater back in 2013. Individually, Maines (accompanied by Mother’s co-producer, Ben Harper) and the Court Yard Hounds held their own well enough alongside the evening’s other stellar performers (Joe Ely, Terry Allen, Terri Hendrix, Carolyn Wonderland, and Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis). But when they finally came together as the Dixie Chicks for six songs at the end of the night, their everything-in-its-right-place chemistry was undeniable — and every bit as walloping as the all-star finale for Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.”
That chemistry was there from the very start of the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie-era run, too, even though it would take a little while — ok, one album — before the quality of the bulk of their material caught up with their talent. Compared to the three records that came after it, the Chicks’ major-label debut is arguably the relative runt of the bunch, but that doesn’t mute any of its considerable charms. In fact, revisiting Wide Open Spaces (on fancy new vinyl or any other format) for the first time in years offers up far more surprises than any album this BIG has any right to. Some records fly far under the radar when first released but grow in stature and influence slowly over time on their way to becoming cult favorites — but this hardly qualifies as one of those. Originally released on Jan. 27, 1998, the album was certified triple-platinum by year’s end and a whopping 12-times platinum by February 2003, making it one of the top five best-selling country albums of all time and one of the biggest blockbuster releases in any genre of the last two decades. In addition to topping Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, the record spawned three No. 1 country singles (and two more in the Top 10), scored two Grammys, and perhaps most impressive of all, pretty much single-handedly brought the long-shunned banjo back to country radio. The seismic reverberations of that little coup can still be heard today, 18 years after Wide Open Spaces and 13 since chickenshit program directors ignominiously purged the trio from playlists nationwide over a casual Bush diss that would barely register on the scale of “not my president” hate that’s been spewed daily on conservative talk radio for the last eight years. You may not hear the Dixie Chicks themselves much on country radio anymore, but lord almighty, is that landscape ever lousy with banjos now. But what sounded revolutionary the first time “There’s Your Trouble” hit the airwaves has long since been codified into the mainstream algorithm.
In light of all of the above, then, Wide Open Spaces should sound all but totally played out by now. But drop the needle onto side one, and damned if that invigorating shock of the new doesn’t still ring out loud and true right from the start — and full credit for that can be divided equally amongst the three smiley blondes striding merrily across the cover in what looks like a still shot from the opening credits of a Dallas-based knock-off of Friends. On the surface, the opening track and lead single, “I Can Love You Better” (penned by seasoned Nashville hit-man Kostas and Pamela Brown Hayes), is plenty peppy and fun but doesn’t seem particularly ground-breaking or revelatory. And in fact, with the exception of a few tracks obviously brought to the table by the Chicks themselves (including their own “You Were Mine” and the Susan Gibson-penned title track, both chart-toppers), a lot of these songs could have just as easily found their way onto the nearest spit-shined Martina McBride, Faith Hill, or Mindy McCready album. The key difference here was, sisters Martie Seidel (later Maguire) and Emily Erwin played every fiddle, mandolin, dobro, and yes, banjo lick on the record — an anomaly not just because they were women, but because that just wasn’t the Nashville way, period. As a general rule in that world, the talent’s there to sing, and all the picking ’n’ playing is left to the session pros. But Martie and Emily could already hold their own with the best in town, their chops honed to perfection not just over the course of nearly a decade of touring and recording in the Dixie Chicks’ earlier, independent incarnation as a strictly-acoustic and decidedly more traditional country and Western swing ensemble, but going all the way back to their teens and early childhood as Suzuki-trained prodigies of the Texas bluegrass circuit. Their respective instrumental talents would be brought even more to the fore on subsequent albums, but Wide Open Spaces still afforded them ample room to flex and strut their stuff, from the irresistibly buoyant fiddle and banjo leads driving the aforementioned “There’s Your Trouble” to the full-on, show-em-everything-you’ve-got rave-up on Bonnie Raitt’s “Give It Up or Let Me Go.”
But of course, it wasn’t just the novelty of two “chicks” playing the hell out of their own instruments on a major-label country album that catapulted the band from regional success to superstardom: There was also the crucial X-factor of new recruit Natalie Maines, a natural-born front-woman fresh out of Berklee with a powerhouse of a voice that could punch a hole through the back wall of a concert arena as easily as it could blow the roof of a honky-tonk dancehall. That was the instrument that brought spitfire sass and West Texas huevos to the Wide Open mix, spiking songs like “Let ’Er Rip” and Maria McKee’s “Am I the Only One (Who’s Ever Felt this Way)” with a swaggering measure of Joe Ely-worthy love and danger. And when harnessed into just the right, worthy ballad — like the Martie and Emily-penned “You Were Mine” — Maines’ voice could hit like an emotional wrecking ball.
As impressive (and wildly successful) as their “debut” was, though, every record the Dixie Chicks made after it left it in the dust — just as Wide Open Spaces itself did the three now very rare pre-Natalie/Sony records that preceded it. For the absolute completist, 1990’s Thank Heavens for Dale Evans, 1992’s Little Ol’ Cowgirl, and 1993’s Shouldn’t a Told You That — featuring singers Robin Lynn Macy (guitar) and Laura Lynch (bass) on the first two and Lynch alone on the third — are all fun and endearing in their own right, if you’ve got a couple hundred bucks laying around to burn on eBay. But all of the Dixie Chicks’ finest efforts were incubated under the hot light of fame, high expectations and, eventually, controversy. Fly, released Aug. 31, 1999 — just 18 months after Wide Open Spaces — was a strike-while-the-iron-is-hot gambit that could have crashed right into the trap of too much, too soon. Instead, it holds up as one of the best sequels to an out-of-the-gate monster hit this side of The Godfather II or The Empire Strikes Back.
Debuting at No. 1 on both the country and pop charts and certified 10-times platinum, Fly doesn’t sound like Wide Open Spaces on steroids or even a safe victory lap so much as it does like the Dixie Chicks taking full advantage of their status as country music’s newly-crowned Queen Bees and running the whole show on their own terms. Everything about the album — from the performances to the myriad colorful and amusing group photos (more eye-popping than ever blown-up for the double-vinyl edition’s gatefold cover and record sleeves) — bears the mark of a band with an outsized personality and ability to match. And most all of the songs — five of them this time featuring one or more of the Chicks as writers — are flat-out terrific. Martie’s two co-writes with Marcus Hummon, the feisty, restless opener “Ready to Run” (whose Gaelic fiddle ’n’ whistle intro and coda stands as one of the band’s most distinctive musical signatures) and the sweeping “Cowboy Take Me Away” (inspired by Emily’s engagement and wedding to Texas songwriter Charlie Robison) are especially fine, while the Natalie, Emily and Stephony Smith-penned “Sin Wagon” is a riotous romp every bit as devilishly fun as its title implies. The outside material is also choice, with highlights including Matraca Berg’s exuberant “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me,” Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale’s snarly “Hole in My Head,” Darryl Scott’s gut-wrenching “Heartbreak Town” and of course, Dennis Linde’s wickedly funny “Goodbye Earl.” (Side note: If you haven’t seen the fittingly hilarious video for “Earl” in a long while — or ever — cue it up on YouTube for a reminder of just how confidently the Chicks tackled that medium, too.) End to end, Fly was so good, even its two duds were chart hits: The pretty but forgettable “Without You,” hands down the dullest single in the band’s catalog, still hit No. 1, while the more-grating-than-a-car-alarm junker “Some Days You Gotta Dance” easily crashed the Top 10. The Dixie Chicks, sky high and rising, were officially unstoppable. Or so it seemed.
As senseless as the impending fall was (well, at least it seemed and still seems senseless to the sensible), with hindsight, there was something oddly poetic about the fact that the Chicks went down not strapped to the flaming wreckage of some kind of errant musical embarrassment, but rather proudly sticking to their guns, each other, and far and away the finest artistic hour of their career. What’s easy to forget, though, is that that record — 2002’s Home — was actually born in the middle of an entirely different controversy than the one that would erupt a few months after its release in the wake of Natalie’s now infamous “We’re ashamed that the president of the United States if from Texas” quip at a March 10, 2003 concert in London. After wrapping their hugely successful headlining tour for Fly, the band spent the better part of 2001 and 2002 essentially on strike from their record label, at odds with Sony over a heated royalties dispute. But while industry insiders got their popcorn ready and placed bets on the outcome of the ensuing lawsuit crossfire, the Chicks themselves hunkered down in Austin with Lloyd Maines and quietly set to work recording what would become their masterpiece.
Although not quite the full-blown “bluegrass record” it’s oft been pegged as, Home was unabashedly acoustic down to its wood and wire core, with no drum kit in sight and nothing bearing the slightest resemblance to a pop-country safety single. And when the legal dispute with Sony was settled and the Chicks were rewarded with a better contract and their own imprint, Open Wide Records, doubtless more than one exasperated label exec heard the finished album and grumbled words to the effect of “What the hell are we supposed to do with this?” But the fact that Home, released in August of 2002, effortlessly landed three singles in the country Top 5 (including a lovely Americana spin on Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” that also cracked the pop Top 10) and was already certified 6-times platinum before the proverbial shit hit the fan spoke volumes about the band’s unerring creative instincts. And although it will likely always be branded as the record that marked the dramatic end of the Dixie Chicks’ reign at country radio, with their cover of Bruce Robison’s heartbreaking “Traveling Soldier” free-falling from No. 1 to No. 3 to gone within two weeks of “the Incident,” the quality of the music itself is unassailable. From the explosive acoustic fire storm of the opening “Long Time Gone,” a Darrell Scott-penned broadside against mainstream Nashville, straight through to Natalie’s utterly devastating ownership of Patty Griffin’s “Top of the World,” every song on the record showcased the trio in absolute peak form. Papa Maines’ impeccable ear for recording acoustic instruments certainly didn’t hurt, either, nor did the exceedingly high level of talent tapped throughout the sessions; as important as Emily and Martie’s playing had always been on the band’s records, the opportunity to throw down with the likes of Bryan Sutton (Kentucky Thunder), Adam Steffey (Union Station), Chris Thile (Nickel Creek), and Lloyd Maines himself on tracks like “White Trash Wedding” and the spirited instrumental “Lil’ Jack Slade” spurred them to a whole new level of assertive confidence.
So, too, it turned out, did the blowback all three women faced in the aftermath of Natalie’s Bush comment. While their record and ticket sales took a not-insignificant hit from the backlash, the Dixie Chicks finished their “Top of the World” tour with a fearsome sense of determined purpose that comes across loud and clear on 2003’s double-disc Top of the World Tour: Live (the one release from their Sony catalog not included in the recent batch of vinyl reissues.) The setlist still featured plenty of (loyal) crowd-pleasing hits from the first two albums, but rather than pretend like nothing had happened — no boycotts, blacklisting, admonishments to “shut up and sing” or outright death threats — the Chicks took defiant ownership of their overnight transformation into Conservative America’s new whipping posts and Freedom of Speech poster women. “This next song, when we put it on the album [Home], we didn’t really know what it was about — then we soon figured out exactly what it was about,” Natalie says on the live album by way of introducing Patty Griffin’s enigmatic “Truth No. 2,” which opens with the prophetic words, “You don’t like the sound of the truth / coming from my mouth.”
It would still take them a while longer to fully process the whole ordeal and put it into their own words, though — three pivotal years brilliantly documented in Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s acclaimed film, Shut Up and Sing. “The rest of our career just better not be over-analyzed like this because of this one episode,” a frustrated Maines grouses to her bandmates and manager in one scene while the whole team is still grappling with the magnitude of the fallout. But the fearless, nothing-left-to-lose record they returned with three years later could have only ever been made in that blast furnace.
In contrast to Home, Taking the Long Way is not a perfect record — or even a perfect Dixie Chicks record, a la Fly. The dramatic shift towards a more rock-centric production wasn’t all that surprising, given that the Chicks had already started drifting away from mainstream country — albeit in a decidedly different direction — on Home. But the transition here isn’t as smooth. Natalie, a force of nature unchained, takes to it all like a duck to water; but Martie and Emily, who grew up not only raised on bluegrass and country music but loving it in a way their singer apparently never really did, are a bit more outside of their comfort zone. At one point in Shut Up and Sing, Martie wonders aloud as to where and how they’re supposed to fit in and contribute in a way that makes musical sense — and she doesn’t look too reassured when producer Rick Rubin says something about how they’ll just put everything through whatever the “Dixie Chicks filter” is later. In the end, their playing is still very much in the mix, but not nearly as prominent as it was on the first three albums — and the busy arrangements and clashing styles inevitably result in a few awkward pileups. “Lubbock or Leave It,” for one, sounds like a banjo being tossed in a dumpster and hitting a heaping pile of electric guitars, a Red Hot Chili Pepper’s drum kit and probably a kitchen sink.
Then again, that particular song ain’t supposed to be pretty, let alone comforting. Although not every song on Taking the Long Way was directly or even indirectly informed by “the Incident,” those that were addressed it head-on with a vengeance that was startling even to the band’s faithful. “Bitter End” may have sweetened its withering buh–bye to country radio with a gently lulling melody, but “Lubbock or Leave It” — Maines’ searing kiss-off to her ultra-conservative home town (where one radio crank had declared his intent to strike not only her band from his playlist, but any track produced by her father) — is a full-throated rebel yell: “… this is the only place where as you’re getting on the plane you see Buddy Holly’s face / I hear they hate me now just like they hated you / maybe when I’m dead and gone, I’ll get a statue, too.” And as for “Not Ready to Make Nice,” well, suffice it to say that it wasn’t hurt feelings over lost album sales and radio spins that sparked that one: It’s a direct answer — and hit — to the likes of Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly, who’d dismissed the Chicks on air as “callow, foolish women who deserve to be slapped around.”
Like many of the best songs on the record, “Not Ready to Make Nice” was co-written with Dan Wilson of Semisonic (and Adele’s “Someone Like You”) fame. Other collaborators include Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, Sheryl Crow, Linda Perry, Neil Finn, and Pete Yorn. But the names that stand out most in the writing credits for every song are those of the three Chicks themselves, which accounts for why Taking the Long Way is their most explicitly personal record as well as their boldest. Every song feels utterly heartfelt and grippingly close to the bone, even the admittedly less memorable ones crowded together on the back end (all the knock-outs on this album come early). And the unforgettable first impression of lead single “Not Ready to Make Nice” not withstanding, it’s two of the other co-writes with Wilson that actually resonate the strongest. “Easy Silence,” whose opening verse would give the “Accidents & Accusations Tour” its name, is a flat-out gorgeous expression of gratitude for family and loved ones offering unconditional sanctuary from a world gone mad (“Monkeys on the barricades / are warning us to back away / They form commissions trying to find / the next one they can crucify.”) But best of all though — and not just on Taking the Long Way, but out of the band’s entire catalog — is “The Long Way Around,” which opens the record not with the hell-hath-no-fury wrath of women wronged and backed against the wall, but rather on an exhilarating note of triumph. It’s a celebration of sisterhood and perseverance, neatly capturing the shared experiences — low and high alike — from every twist and turn of their entire ride together, going all the way back to their pre-fame days of touring by pink RV. Call it “Wide Open Spaces” all grown up, written and sung by three women grown older and wiser and a lot more wary, but still game to lay “six strong hands on the steering wheel” and hit the road. Long may they run.