By Michael Devers

(LSM June/July 2010/vol. 3 – issue 4)

Grabbing some time to speak with the sisters Erwin (Martie Maguire and Emily Robison) used to be no big deal. That was back during a century that began with the number “1” when the DIXIE CHICKS were just the Dixie Chicks — a scrappy little band of gals from Texas who roamed the country in a pink RV, worked their butts off on the club and festival circuit, and once even opened up for another scrappy little Texas band called the Groobees, of which I happened to have been the bass player (we gave them their own soundcheck and everything).

Courtesy Columbia Records

Courtesy Columbia Records

In the century that begins with a “2,” though, everything has changed. The Dixie Chicks became a history-making group, reintroduced the banjo to country music, sold tens of millions of records worldwide, won the Grammy triple crown (Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Album of the Year), and leapt from country band to cultural flashpoint in March of 2003 after Natalie Maines’ onstage comments about President Bush to a London audience became a headline in the news cycle.

As a result of the inevitable fallout from that event (their team spent many hours fielding communication from the fringe element on both sides of their battle, ultimately culminating in death threats and FBI involvement), the iron fence constructed around all three members of the Dixie Chicks is tall, strong, and well guarded. All access to them is strictly controlled and highly regimented, with a series of gatekeepers in place. Although this seemed a bit strange to me, having several years prior participated in a drinking/bowling game with the girls in which anyone throwing a strike was rewarded by slamming a beer and “riding the pony” (not as fun as it sounds — we basically climbed on top of the ball return and pretended we were on the bull at Gilley’s), I understood. I got it.

All of this means it’s hard to grab time to speak with Maguire and Robison, even when they’re in the midst of promoting not the Dixie Chicks, but rather their brand new side project, the Court Yard Hounds. But with a lot of patience (and more than an inside assist from my friend Adam Odor, who helped engineer the album), I was finally able to land a little phone time with both sisters. There was no time for catching up about old times, but they were friendly, chatty and forthcoming about (mostly) all aspects in regards to both their new “baby band” and the Dixie Chicks, who will resurface briefly this summer for a handful of dates opening for the Eagles.

The Court Yard Hounds’ eponymous debut was born during a dormant period for the Dixie Chicks. While Maines invested in family time out West, and fiddle/mandolin player Maguire worked on a solo bluegrass project in Austin, dobro/banjo player and recent divorcee Robison focused her cathartic energy in San Antonio, writing and recoding demos. Once Maguire heard the material, she put her own album on the back burner and insisted her sister find an outlet to share her songs with the world — even if Maines wasn’t ready to return to the road and the notoriously shy Robison had to sing them all herself.

While the Court Yard Hounds album and especially Robison’s lead vocals are a bit more reminiscent of a visit to the Tuesday Night Music Club than a night at Home, the delivery exudes the confident skill and subtle expertise that comes when you’ve spent the bulk of your lives performing music. Penned mostly by Robison, the songs on the album cover the searching and healing of a post-divorce period. I had interviewed the other half of the Robison break-up for the cover of Lone Star Music magazine a few issues back and learned that Charlie’s divorce record was mostly written while he lived in San Antonio’s Exchange Building, and in fact was originally titled The Exchange Building. As my interview with the Court Yard Hounds moved to the topic of the album’s songs, I threw Emily a hot potato. Her arms did not move. It flew over her shoulder and landed on the floor with an audible thud, splattering everywhere and generally making a mess. She didn’t even blink.

It made for an awkward pause during the interview that quickly passed, but it was in that moment I realized it’s Robison & Maguire’s ability to remain focused and musically enthused through any distraction thrown their way that has enabled them to soldier past the myriad highs and lows of the past decade. Combine that with one of the hallmarks of most high achievers — an immunity to critics, from the bitingly negative all the way to the fawningly exuberant — and it’s easy to see why, with each day that passes, the Erwin sisters move from anxious to confident as the Court Yard Hounds leave their protective territory and step out into the world.

Before Wide Open Spaces was released, you both worked your butts off for a decade in order to become an overnight success. Is there something invigorating about the opportunity to do it again?

Martie Maguire: You’re one of the only ones who realizes that that’s where we are — that it is fun going back and remembering those good old days, getting back to those really intimate gigs where you’re connecting with people again. The bigger you get the more you feel a little disconnect, a little more sheltered by the people around you, by the audience being bigger. Even going back to South by Southwest felt like, you know — the butterflies of the beginning days, of trying to reach people a fan at a time.

When you started working on this record, you put a solo bluegrass record you had started recording on the back-burner. Was there a sense of urgency to get the Court Yard Hounds project up and running?

Martie: No, not really. I think that was just a little more exciting. The prospect of doing something with my sister and the songs she was sending me.

Courtesy Columbia Records

Courtesy Columbia Records

I really started having a freak-out moment. She was sending me songs over a long period of time. On a couple she would send me, she would say, “I’m thinking about pitching this to another artist,” and I would wake up in the middle of the night and get on e-mail and say, “Do not pitch this song. You can’t give this song away!” I felt like she was hocking the family jewels. I really would wake up bolt upright in bed and write her. I knew there was something there. I felt a real connection to the music, partly because she is my sister and I knew what she was going through. I was not comfortable with the fact that anybody else would be singing these songs. Maybe Natalie. I thought, “Natalie needs to hear them or Emily needs to sing them.” Then the more she kept sending me these songs, I said, “Emily, you’ve got to sing these songs.”

I never dreamed she would be willing. Even from childhood, she was the shy girl playing the banjo with her head down. She always wore caps. So it never dawned on me that she would have the balls to actually do it. I’m really proud of her that she has.

Emily Robison: (Laughs) Family jewels AND a balls reference!

Was this conceived as a one-time project? Where do you see it going?

Martie: It’s too early to know. We’re already talking about what we’re going to write and do on our next project so we definitely don’t see it as a moment in time. We see it as an on-going thing. As long as it’s fun and makes us happy, I think it will continue. It’s hard to say what the future brings. Right now it’s a matter of trying to get as many people to hear this album as possible, and that’s the goal on the horizon. I think we can do both [Court Yard Hounds and the Dixie Chicks]. We could start a third band!

Emily: What I think I came away with in the last few years is that time is so short. You need to do what makes sense, what feels good. I think Martie and I always want to be playing. If the Dixie Chicks aren’t active, then we’ll be doing this. And like you were saying, Martie did her fiddle album. I think it’s always important to be fulfilling that creative side of us. It’s what makes us happy.

The last track on the album is called “Fear of Wasted Time.” Would you say it’s emblematic of the entire project?

Emily: Sure. That one was written with our stepsister in mind, but it definitely reflects a lot of our own feelings as well. It’s about doing things when you have the want and the time to do them and not letting that time pass you by. I think that song is very autobiographical.

You say you’re already thinking about the next project. Is that a result of the floodgates opening during the process of making this record?

Emily: Yes and no. There’s a lot of stuff we didn’t get to that we were interested in exploring, but there was only so much time and maybe something was only a quarter of the way thought through and we were already on to another song. So there’s bits and pieces of a lot of different things still left over. It was easy making this album because … umm, I don’t know why. It just seemed to kind of fall into place. So I think the prospect of finishing these songs and writing again seems like a lot of fun. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a lot of work. I think we’d be happy to get back to that sooner rather than later.

I understand that your record label is very excited about this project, which is to be expected. But what are your personal expectations for this album?

Martie: We definitely hope that a lot of radio stations will play it, not just KGSR! When you do something like this, you start with the tiniest expectations, and you get over that hurdle and you get to the next one. It’s our English manager that keeps saying [Martie goes into a flawless Simon Renshaw impersonation], “You’re a baby band. You shouldn’t be asking for that, you’re a baby band!” And we’re like, “Shut up, Simon. We know that, but we’re not staying at the La Quinta, okay?” We have to keep in check constantly where we are.

Emily: There are a few people that are going to be really mad at us.

Did he try to talk you into breaking the pink RV back out again?

Martie: Oh my God, that’s looong gone. That’s somebody else’s nightmare to deal with. But when we were at the top of our game after Fly, we were really groovin’ and getting lots of radio play, and then we decided to make a bluegrass record with Natalie’s dad producing. We’ve never really been smart business women in the way that we look at, for example, “How do we get those sales numbers up there?” and “How do we get this to go to the top of the charts?” We feel like that is a real creativity killer. We don’t write mission statements. We don’t think about all of those things.

Success for me right now is the fact that we made this record and we’re actually doing something that initially was really scary. It’s fun, exciting, and scary at the same time. I’m less and less scared every day and each time we put our foot on stage as the Court Yard Hounds, so that’s waning — that fear. But that’s why people do things. That’s why people bungee jump. The thrill of the scary and exciting prospect of something.

What did you think of the reaction to the live debut of the Court Yard Hounds at this year’s SXSW?

Emily: It was awesome. At first I thought I would be more nervous, because it was out of our home turf, but everyone in the audience and beforehand at sound check were a lot of familiar faces and it made us feel so welcomed back. I think an overall sentiment for those few days was, “We’re so glad you’re playing music again. We’re so glad you’re doing this and taking a chance.” It was so supportive. You could see it in the people’s faces when you were playing, that they were so psyched to be there, and I think it was very contagious to us. And I had a lot of fun playing because our band is killer. I already feel like we’re so gelled as a group, even though we’ve only really played some showcase shows. We’ve yet to really go out and tour, which we will this summer, but it’s just so much fun that I don’t get as nervous.

The advance copy of the record I received didn’t have any credits. Were the songs mostly written by you, Emily?

Emily: For the most part. Martie was working on her fiddle album and I was home just writing. That was my goal. I thought if I’m not going to be working actively in a band, I want to be home creating something. At the time I felt like the way I wanted to do that was through songwriting. I would write and write and write. Some of that was just for writing’s sake, and some things were more personal. That’s when I started sending things to Martie. I wanted her opinion on them because I trust her opinion. Once she started writing me back saying, “Don’t pitch this song, don’t give this song away, we should do something with it,” we started the idea of Court Yard Hounds. Then we started writing more together, and I would envision there would be more co-writing between the two of us on the next album. Number one, we know what we’re doing now, but number two, I’m not in a hole at home, post-divorce, crying in my beer.

Was the Exchange Building in San Antonio part of the “Skyline” you wrote about in the album’s opening track?

Emily: Yes.

(Really awkward pause)

Do you view this as your Phases and Stages?

Emily: It’s funny you say that. As we were making this I thought, “Should we have some sort of interlude that connects the songs, kind of like a Phases and Stages thing?” But I thought that might be too transparent as to what I was trying to do. I do feel like it’s a very inner-connected album. I like albums that are like that where all of the pieces fit together and they kind of tell a story. There are a few exceptions on this album, but I think subconsciously I channeled that in a way.

Did you approach the album vocally with a different mindset — going from backing in the Dixie Chicks to lead with the Court Yard Hounds?

Emily: Definitely. I think Martie and I, having been harmony singers, we’ve been taught and we’ve grown up “blending” our whole lives. That’s the key of the harmony singer, to blend and support the lead vocalist. I think it’s just a different muscle that you work, and as I did demos, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about being the lead singer, I was just trying to get these demos across. I realized I had to go to a different place in my voice to get these ideas across.

You say there will be more co-writes on the next record. Any chance of a Martie lead-vocal the next time around?

Martie: You don’t have the credits yet, but I sing “Gracefully” on the record. I sing one song and that’s probably the last you’ll hear of me.

Emily: No, it’s not. Yes, she will sing more!

Martie: I haven’t grown my balls yet.

This is getting ahead of things, but do you think there’s a possibility of an Emily vocal on the next Dixie Chicks record?

(Martie laughs, then apologizes to Emily for laughing at the question.)

Emily: I really don’t want to sing next to Natalie Maines, let’s just make that clear! It’s definitely what you would call apples and oranges.

Are you looking forward to a return to Lilith Fair this summer?

Emily: Definitely. It was such a great experience for us when we did it last time. I can’t believe it was 10 years ago. It’s mind-boggling that it was that long ago. It’s the collaborative nature of that festival that really interests us. Hopefully, it can be as fun as it was last time.

Will it be strange to shift back to Chicks-mode for the Eagles tour?

Martie: I don’t know. We’re at a place of real luxury to get to have so many songs that we want to play with the Dixie Chicks that people know. We’re already passing set lists around and it’s hard to decide what those songs are going to be when you only get an hour. I always hoped in the early days we’d get to a point in our career where we had so many recognizable songs that it’s hard to fit them in an hour. That’s a great problem to have.

Even though I’m so excited to play Court Yard Hounds music right now, I do miss the Chicks music. I miss “Cowboy Take Me Away.” I miss “Taking the Long Way” and “Easy Silence.” The list goes on and on of what I miss playing. So that’s a good thing too. We’re not tired of our own music. We promised each other we’d never do that.

We always took our time with things. We weren’t the kind of artists that toured every summer and put out an album a year. We didn’t do that kind of grind. We did our own grind in other ways, but we’ve never really gotten sick of ourselves.

I wanted to throw out a couple of questions now to get a baseline on the writer vs. artist side of the Court Yard Hounds. Whose version of “Hallelujah” do you prefer, Leonard Cohen’s or Jeff Buckley’s?

Martie: Jeff Buckley.

Emily: I’d have to say Jeff Buckley, but I probably need to go back and listen to the other version to honestly have a fair chance.

For Martie and Emily’s summer vacation — “Ol’ 55.” Sarah McLachlan, the Eagles or Tom Waits? 

Martie: We grew up listening to the Eagles. Road trips from Dallas to Pennsylvania every summer, it was Jerry Jeff Walker, the Beach Boys, the Eagles, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton. I’d have to say the Eagles for me.

Emily: Yeah, it’s a more nostalgic version.

Finally, “Traveling Soldier.” Dixie Chicks or Bruce Robison?

Emily: (Laughs) It’s a tie.

Martie: Emily brought that when we were looking for songs for Home. I. Just. Loved. It. I’d have to say Bruce’s version, because obviously that was the first version I heard. To this day, that is one of my favorite songs as far as songwriting goes and provoking a feeling in me. And the fact that we found that song and what happened later became so symbolic makes that song really dear to me. I think he’s an amazing songwriter.

I’ve saved the toughest question for last, and it comes from a mutual acquaintance of ours. Would you consider Adam Odor a handsome engineer or a very handsome engineer?

Martie: How about “hot and handsome”?

(Both laugh)

He’ll be happy to hear that.