I meet a great deal of people in this city who claim to be fans of county music, and most of the time I find that they’re referring to people like Taylor Swift, Toby Keith, Zac Brown, Kenny Chesney, and Keith Urban. Listen, I’m not here to judge; play what you like and don’t apologize. I think that’s what this column is all about. However, it’s a stretch to call any of that stuff country music. It’s formulaic pop, derived from country, that’s packaged and sold to mainstream America, the only dividing line being the occasional fiddle or slide guitar.
Modern country music is essentially split down the middle between pop, like the aforementioned artists, and the alt and neo-outlaw scenes. People like Hank Williams the Three, Drive By Truckers, Ryan Bingham, etc. While mainstream country is split fairly evenly between male and female artists, outlaw country is decidedly male dominated. I think it suits the aesthetic better to have a dude talking about chugging Jack and shooting people. (Unless you’re Mamie White) Mainstream country takes all comers, but females in this genre are often associated with the diva archetype; your Dollys, Martinas, Faiths, etc. These are women who can sing, look good on stage, brighten up Sunday night football, and not much else.
Enter the Dixie Chicks. I know what you’re thinking, so let’s just get it out of the way. The biggest country band of all time. The biggest female band of all time. Martyred by the media and millionaires a couple hundred times over. 27 million albums sold. This isn’t exactly an obscure little bluegrass collective. However, I find that there’s a stigma involved with claiming to like this band. It’s hard for a 20-something male in the American midwest to say these words out loud, “I’m a Dixie Chicks fan.”
Perhaps the association from their early efforts is too much to ignore. Wide Open Spaces painted the Chicks as a band for young girls, searching for something between Lilith Fair and Aaliyah that they could totally identify with, and braid their hair while listening to. It worked, because the year that album came out, the Dixie Chicks sold more albums than every other country artist combined, and they actually joined Lilith Fair.
What initially got me was their song Long Time Gone, off of their 2002 album Home. It’s a song about how mainstream country radio had abandoned the tradition and soul of the music. The Chicks are big fans of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, etc. You know, all that ‘cool country’ that is acceptable to like in places like Portland and Wicker Park. I grew up listening to those guys, and to hear the biggest country band in the world take their main supporters to task about the awful music they’re forcing upon the country music public was just astounding to me. I was blown away by the audacity, and it was then that I took the time to listen to some of their records. Pardon the cliche, but it was a life-changing moment.
The Dixie Chicks - Long Time Gone (live):
I’m going to gloss over all the controversy surrounding what they said about the president. Basically it happened, and has nothing to do with why I like this band. However, as a result of their unpopularity, I was able to snag a ticket to one of their shows in Chicago at a fraction of the face value, and ended up sitting very close in a huge venue all by myself to see the Dixie Chicks live in concert, and they were fucking enchanting. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a live act that was so incredibly ON POINT in concert. I’d made it my job to familiarize myself with their catalogue before I went to the show, but had gone way beyond that. I knew every riff, every little drum fill, all the harmonies and interplay between banjo, guitar, and fiddle, and obviously the lyrics to almost every song. I was over prepared, and my inclination was that I would be disappointed on some level. Who could possibly pull this shit off in concert?
The Dixie Chicks exceeded my wildest expectations. Props go to their sound guys, because I was able to pick up everything they were doing on stage. Perhaps it was my level of sobriety, (relative to how I usually showed up at concerts) or the fact that I wasn’t with a friend, but for 90 minutes I stood there in awe of these three girls, who were playing the shit out of their instruments and singing straight into my soul. Natalie Maines has one of those voices that works so much better live than on record (which is a huge compliment as she’s brilliant on their album work), and to this day when I hear some of the songs they performed that night, I superimpose her improvisations over the audio track. It was that remarkable.
Dixie Chicks - Long Way Around (live):
Their response to all the controversy and bullshit was 2006’s Taking The Long Way, which is a phenomenal album, and it won the Grammy. Not Ready To Make Nice is far and away the best response, by a band, to any public backlash or industry blacklisting I’ve ever heard. It’s happened to quite a few artists over the years, and most respond by either falling in line, or making some knee-jerk reactionary pile of shit that just seals their fate. Rick Rubin produced it, so it’s gotta be hot fiyah. Around the same time the band was dealing with the backlash from their London concert, the film Shut Up And Sing was being made, and if you get a chance to see it you should. It’s a great look at the struggles the Dixie Chicks went through, and a fantastic look at their personalities and musical philosophies.
The Dixie Chicks are a rare example of a band whose music I love, while simultaneously loving everything they’re about. I’m not really a political kind of guy, so most of that I could give or take, but the things they have to say about the disservice that mainstream country radio does to their listener base are very important to me. They also hate Toby Keith which earns points in my book. I think it takes a lot of courage to call out the institution that’s made you rich and popular, and on top of that they’re totally correct. Country music has strayed so far from its roots that it’s basically unrecognizable unless you dip into the sub-genres, which is ridiculous. This is one of the few true brands of American music, and should be heard in its pure form.
It may seem as if I’m basing most of my fanaticism on one live performance, but I truly am a fan of their three latest albums. Their cover of Landslide is by far my favorite rendition. I think The Dixie Chicks are the most authentic mainstream country act in twenty or thirty years, and without them I probably wouldn’t have delved into some of the subgenres that I’ve come to love so much. They’re incredible live performers and one of my favorite bands, and I wish they’d put out another album before they stop being so attractive.
Dixie Chicks - Sin Wagon: