A little over ten years ago, the Dixie Chicks cleaned up at the Grammy awards. Taking home five trophies, including Album of the Year, it seemed like validation from the record industry at large for a group who a year earlier had wondered if perhaps their career was over.
The story is well known, and often told. A now fairly-innocuous sounding jab at President George W Bush during a concert, followed by mass-hysteria, boycotts of their albums, destruction of CDs en masse, and even death threats. They regrouped, teamed up with legendary rock and hip-hop producer Rick Rubin and concocted the fierce, genre-agnostic album ‘Taking the Long Way’. The centrepiece of the album was ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’, a defiant anthem standing by their refusal to apologise for voicing their beliefs from the concert stage, simply because they conflicted with those of many in their audience.
You would think this would be the starting point for any look at the group’s legacy. But a funny thing happened around the same time. While older fans hurled abuse and accusations of treason at Natalie Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, the tens (hundreds?) of thousands of girls who had lived their teenage years listening to and loving the Dixie Chicks music didn’t care. Three powerful women, who played with impressive instrumental chops, wrote swathes of their own material, sang about taking revenge on abusive boyfriends, had uncontrived attitude to spare and weren’t trying to masquerade as All-American Supermodels – it was like a rallying cry to every young girl who was looking for a powerful figure to inspire them in country music.
Around the time of the controversy, a young blonde just barely in her teens was angling for a record deal in Nashville. She’d grown up on the Dixie Chicks and Shania Twain. It’s hard to imagine Taylor Swift becoming the artist she was without the example of the three ladies from Texas. In 2011, Martie Maguire went to a Swift concert with her twin daughters and was stunned when the younger artist started playing a very familiar tune – ‘Cowboy Take Me Away’. She would later recall to the New York Times how the crowd sung loudly along to the then twelve year old hit.
They reached across the world. They were cool. You didn’t have to love country music to love the Dixie Chicks.
“Our cousin who’s from Canada came over to live with us for a while,” recalls Lizzie Ward Thomas, half of the English twin sister duo Ward Thomas. “She introduced us to all the country music and the Dixie Chicks really stood out to us. We loved the harmonies and musicianship and the authenticity of the storytelling. It made us want to write our own version of this style of music. That’s really what made us begin this career.”
Perhaps even more subversive that speaking out against a Republican President was the move the Dixie Chicks made in 2002 – releasing an album to country radio with no drums on it. It was period when artists like Keith Urban were stepping the rock energy up a notch and Shania Twain’s sixty-seven billion (approximate figure) selling Come On Over were blurring the lines between country and top 40 pop. The Dixies were at the height of their commercial powers – Ready to Run, Cowboy Take Me Away, Goodbye Earl, Wide Open Spaces, etc were just in their rear-view mirror.
Rather than making the traditional move of doubling down on the commercial mainstream, they returned to their rootsy… err… roots. ‘Home’ would these days be called an Americana album – blending various eras of country music with bluegrass instrumentation.
The song ‘Travelin’ Soldier’, a heartbreaking Vietnam era set song of love and loss, has become one of the most frequently covered songs in any busking stage, talent quest, singing competition, etc by an aspiring young country star. I worked on the Telstra Road to Tamworth for years and saw more covers of this than ‘Ring of Fire’ or ‘Friends in Low Places’.
The Dixie Chicks were one of the few artists to find a bridge between rootsy singer-songwriter music and mainstream country in the prime of their careers. Unlike great artists like Emmylou Harris or Rodney Crowell whose moved into the Americana world years after the peak of their mainstream careers, the Chicks were standing for a musical diversity in country radio in the prime of their hitmaking.
“I grew up listening to and covering the Dixie Chicks, particularly their song Lullaby, which I once played as the first dance at a friend's wedding!” says Imogen Clark, the Australian singer-songwriter whose own music owes a sonic debt to the Americana blend of ‘Home’ and the roots-rock edge of ‘Taking the Long Way’, the album on which ‘Lullaby’ appeared.
“I still think it's one of the most beautiful love songs I've heard. They always inspired me because, in a landscape which can be very male-dominated, they're three strong women standing their ground and saying what they believe in. They're great role models who never stopped working to get where they are today, and I'll always admire that.”
After the defiant mic drop of ‘Taking the Long Way’ and its dominance at the 2007 Grammys, the Dixie Chicks were not to be heard from as a group for many years. Natalie Maines released a Ben Harper produced solo album and became one of the most entertaining musicians on Twitter. She really dug the first season of the podcast ‘Serial’. Sisters Emily and Martie formed the rootsy duo Court Yard Hounds, recorded, released and toured. Babies were born.
While the legacy of the Dixie Chicks may not have been at the forefront of the minds of the women who comprised the group (the highest selling female group in American history, for what it’s worth), it was far from being forgotten.
You’d struggle to find a female country star whose career began in the last decade who doesn’t cite the Dixie Chicks as an influence. Imagine Miranda Lambert’s visceral revenge anthems without ‘Goodbye Earl’. Imagine the blends of percussive mandolins, fiddles and sibling harmonies with frisky pop melodies in the Band Perry or Maddie and Tae’s hits without ‘Sin Wagon’ and ‘Wide Open Spaces’.
The return of the Dixie Chicks as a going concern (aside from occasional often charity driven appearances through the years) in 2016 (after a test balloon of a Canadian tour a few years earlier) has been marked by a massive helping of ‘no-fs-given’ attitude. Not that the shows aren’t full of brash energy, nor have they been lacking in passion for the material. But at this point, the trio are clearly aware that they have nothing to prove other than that they can still hit the notes they laid down in the studio all those years ago.
There’s no new single to promote, they’re not trying to get back on country radio, they’re not plodding along with the sad ‘we-need-the-cash’ feeling that mars many reunion tours. They’re just old friends (and family) enjoying their time on stage together again, singing the iconic songs they’re proud of to multiple generations of audiences – from their original fans from back in the day reliving the glory of 90s radio country to swathes of Dixie Chicks devotees who have never had the opportunity to see them live before.
When the Chicks touch down in Australia to play arenas around the country and headline CMC Rocks QLD, it will be over a decade since they last performed in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s likely that they have never been as beloved as they are now. Many of the artists on the festival bill idolise them and grew up singing their songs.
Last November, the Dixie Chicks returned to Nashville for the CMA Awards, for the first time in many years. The occasion was to perform with Beyoncé, a genre-busting regal force in popular music who has inspired a generation of young woman. They performed ‘Daddy Lessons’ a funky Americana track from Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ album that the Dixies had been covering on tour.
The story of a father teaching his daughter to stand up to liars and abusers and not to fear taking action against such men… it could’ve almost been a track from ‘Home’ – two thirds of the way through the performance, the song suddenly switched to the Chicks own hit ‘Long Time Gone’, from that very album. It was instantly iconic, cool, inspirational and the only thing anyone was talking about the next day. You couldn’t have asked for a better reminder of what the Dixie Chicks represented… or why it was so great to have them back.