The Chicks on dropping 'Dixie' from their name, and navigating country music as an all-female band

The Chicks, recently united, have become a touchstone for some of the biggest women in pop, from Beyonce to Taylor Swift.

The New York Times July 14, 2020 09:48:04 IST
The Chicks on dropping 'Dixie' from their name, and navigating country music as an all-female band

The women formerly known as the Dixie Chicks have survived the good old boys of country music, a legal battle with their record label, a feud with a president, and arguably the first attempted cancellation of the internet era. As they plotted their comeback — writing their first album together in 14 years — they decided to have a little bit of fun with their reputation. So they called up restaurants across the US with menu items named after the band.

The Chicks — they dropped the “Dixie” last month — huddled around the phone as their producer, Jack Antonoff, quizzed establishments about the conceptual underpinnings of their Dixie Chicken sandwiches, with their “unapologetically spicy” mayonnaise and “controversial” sauces. “They’re known for hating men,” one hostess explained. Antonoff asked her if he would be safer ordering a lunch associated with jingoistic country star Toby Keith instead.

“The Toby Keith sandwich,” the Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines, 45, said, “had a glowing description.”

When the Chicks retell the story of the great sandwich prank, they are thousands of miles apart — Maines patched into a Zoom call from Los Angeles, Martie Maguire from Austin, Texas, and Emily Strayer from San Antonio — but they are speaking as one, piling onto one another’s sentences. and leaning close into their webcams, as if they are all drawing from some central power source. It has been 17 years since their lives blew up, and now, they have sufficient distance from what they call “the incident” that they can peer down at the wreckage and laugh. By the time they get to Keith, Strayer, and Maguire are softly giggling and Maines is tossing her head back, scream-laughing.

In 2003, if you have forgotten, US troops invaded Iraq, and Maines offhandedly told a London audience, “We’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” The comment sparked a country radio boycott, album-burning rallies, and a squabble with Keith, who staged concerts in front of an oversized doctored photo of Maines embracing Saddam Hussein. The Chicks appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly nude, with some of the names they had been called printed on their bodies.

The Chicks on dropping Dixie from their name and navigating country music as an allfemale band

The Chicks

“The incident” also presaged the coming tide of celebrity activism, social-media cancellation and political harassment campaigns. But even as they were cast out of Nashville, Tennessee, the Chicks entered the pop stratosphere, and within a few years, they were the stars of a redemptive documentary, winners of a Grammy sweep and keepers of a kind of superpower — what Maines calls “a true ability to not care.”

For 14 years, they cared so little about the music industry that the US' bestselling female band of all time did not release any albums of new songs to sell. They had made Taking the Long Way, the smash 2006 album that rebutted their smearing by country music, inside a pressure cooker. “The stakes were so high,” Strayer, 47, said. “This song had to be perfect; this line had to be just-so.” When it was over, “I was tired,” Maines said. “I just wanted to raise my kids.”

In the years since, the Chicks dabbled in side projects: Maines released a solo album, Mother, and Strayer and Maguire wrote two albums together as the Court Yard Hounds. It was as if, by scattering their powers, they were working in a kind of stealth mode, making music under the pop radar. When I asked Strayer what was different about playing without Maines, she joked: “Probably the success of it.”

There is just something spellbinding about these three women singing as one. Their harmony is totemic — it is a sonic representation of sisterhood. (It helps that Strayer and Maguire are actually sisters.) In an industry that is never really loved them or defended them, they became a testament to female self-reliance. They move with the energy of witches who could not be burned. If you were already a fan of the Chicks, the incident made you love them harder, seeding their pop-feminist anthems with real-life gravitas.

In the time that the Chicks have been gone, they have not been forgotten. They have become a touchstone for some of the biggest women in pop: When Beyoncé played her stomping Lemonade track 'Daddy Lessons' at the 2016 Country Music Association Awards, the Chicks were right behind her, drawling 'Texas.' And when Taylor Swift needed backup on her hyper-emotional Lover ballad 'Soon You’ll Get Better,' she leaned on the voices of the Chicks.

The Chicks on dropping Dixie from their name and navigating country music as an allfemale band

The Chicks

“Throughout my whole career, label executives and publishers would say, ‘Don’t be like the Dixie Chicks,’” Swift said in the Netflix documentary she produced this year, Miss Americana, which detailed her increasing willingness to speak out about politics. “And I loved the Dixie Chicks.” Once, when Maines turned up for a recording session at longtime Swift collaborator Antonoff’s studio, Grimes was just leaving — wearing a Dixie Chicks T-shirt.

They have now amassed so much cultural cachet that they could coast on it indefinitely, never again to write another line of music. “They could have sailed off into the sunset,” Antonoff told me. That they instead returned with a cleareyed album, he said, “is one of the most inspiring things to me, ever.”

When they finally came together to write again as a trio, they found that the music flowed with an unexpected ease. It only took them a few hours to build their lead single, 'Gaslighter,' from a word jotted in Maines’ notebook into a towering breakup anthem. Gaslighting is a kind of profound psychological manipulation, a weapon wielded to abuse and silence women. On first listen, the song sounds like it could be another political statement, a nod to their past and perhaps the US' present, but it is more intensely personal than that. “I mean, I see Trump in it,” Maines said. “But that is not who I wrote it about.”

When Gaslighter was released, in March, it sent fans scrambling to decode its seemingly autobiographical clues. One particularly evocative line — “Boy, you know exactly what you did on my boat” — instantly converted Chicks supporters into a squad of maritime sleuths. They noted that the Chicks had written the album, also called Gaslighter, as Maines weathered a stormy divorce from her estranged husband — an estranged husband who just so happened to have possessed a boat, the Nautalee, named after his wife.

Last summer, Maines’ ex petitioned a court to hand over the songs, arguing that they could violate a confidentiality clause in the couple’s prenuptial agreement. The music was saved — Gaslighter will be released on July 17 — but since the divorce was settled in December, the Chicks have been markedly silent on any real-life sources of inspiration for the album. Their lyrics, however, are talking. On a salty bop called 'Tights on My Boat,' Maines further clarifies the ship situation: “You can tell the girl who left her tights on my boat that she can have you now.”

Before Gaslighter, Maines was mired in an uninspiring songwriting period — Mother was mostly covers — but suddenly, she had much to say. “I was going through a lot of things personally, so I had a lot to write about,” she said. The Chicks had envisioned making the album with a kitchen-sink approach, using a rotating cast of producers, but “I was raw,” Maines said. “It was too hard for me to reveal myself to a lot of different people.” Once the Chicks invited Antonoff into the studio, he so disarmed the three of them that they asked him to shepherd the rest of the album.

Maines first encountered Antonoff years earlier, at Howard Stern’s star-bloated 60th birthday party. Antonoff, a fixture of indie-guy bands like Steel Train, fun and Bleachers, has also become an unlikely collaborator to pop’s biggest female artists, including Lorde and Lana Del Rey. At the party, as Barbara Walters mingled with Robert Downey Jr, Antonoff was most excited “to see a Dixie Chick in the wild,” he said in a phone interview.

Maines visited Antonoff’s studio a couple of times, and in 2018, she introduced him to the other Chicks over breakfast in the restaurant of the Sunset Tower Hotel. “He was a nerd,” Maguire, 50, said. “Is he fashionable because he’s willing to go so retro ’80s? Or is he just really out of touch? It was cute.” Antonoff possessed a little-brother energy that fit easily into the sisterhood. With Antonoff, Maguire said, “We felt comfortable sharing our dirty laundry.”

Their first studio session together quickly produced 'Gaslighter,' and the Chicks immediately decided to follow that sound. Maines was going to fly to Hawaii for a three-week vacation, but she refashioned it into a work trip. The Chicks assembled a menagerie of instruments and children and jetted off to Kauai, with Antonoff and recording engineer Laura Sisk in tow. On the island, they wrote over the sounds of pouring rain and screaming roosters. They had to shut off the booming air conditioner to record, so they played drenched in sweat, like marathoners. In their downtime, they shopped for ukuleles, swam in caves, and ate flavoured ice.

As they worked, “Laura and I were also sort of on a family vacation” with the Chicks and their broods, Antonoff said. One minute, they would all be eating barbecue in cowboy hats and novelty T-shirts, and the next, “We’d be combing through these heartbreaking lyrics about betrayal and grief.”

The Chicks on dropping Dixie from their name and navigating country music as an allfemale band

The Chicks

Divorce, cheating, achy breaky hearts: these are the staples of country music songs. There is an unmistakable twang to 'Gaslighter,' even if it is tuned to a pop frequency — Antonoff calls the sound a fusion of Texas country and Beach Boys surf. Musically, Maines said, country still has its grasp on the band. “For some reason, we will always be in the dollar country bin at the record store,” she said. “Obviously, we have harmonies, and we have a banjo and a fiddle.” But culturally, politically, spiritually, they have been estranged from the genre for decades, an arrangement they finally sealed last month when they dropped the “Dixie” from their name.

Strayer and Maguire had dubbed themselves the Dixie Chicks in 1989, before Maines joined the band, as a kitschy nod to the Little Feat song 'Dixie Chicken.' “We were literally teenagers when we picked that stupid name,” Maguire said. By 2003, the Chicks had soured on it. “We wanted to change it years and years and years ago,” Maines said. After being trashed by the good old boys of the American South, “I just wanted to separate myself from people that wave that Dixie flag.”

The inertia of their success under that name always stopped the Chicks from taking action until recently, when they realised how hurtful the word was outside the context of their own experience. Last month, Strayer came across a Confederate flag on Instagram labeled “The Dixie Swastika,” and she thought: “I don’t want to have anything to do with that.”

At the beginning of their career, the Chicks were doubly dismissed. They felt marginalised in music because they were a country act, and marginalised within country because they were women.

“They accepted us because we made them a lot of money, but they didn’t get us or like us,” Maines said, joking of the Sony chairman: “We didn’t get invited to Tommy Mottola’s wedding.”

When Wide Open Spaces went platinum for Sony in 1998, “I had this dream,” Maines said. “You’d hear all these stories of, like, the cast of ‘Frasier’ all getting cars,” she explained, and when Christmas rolled around, she eagerly opened the package from her record company to find an array of scented soaps. “Our contract was so piddly,” Maines said. “I was calling our manager, like, ‘Why can’t they at least send us a TV? They make TVs.’”

“Well,” Maines said, “the big TVs did arrive.”

One of the greatest indictments of the country music industry is that after the Chicks churned out country hit after country hit, rising to become an unparalleled success story for the genre, and bringing a huge new audience with them, country music did not want them. In recent years, the status of women in the genre has only devolved. In 2015, a radio consultant compared female country acts to “the tomatoes of our salad” — a garnish. Despite the emergence of countless powerful, gifted women in the genre, radio — still the all-important arbiter of taste in Nashville — seems to think that playing one woman an hour is more than enough.

In 2016, the Chicks had sworn off the country machine forever, “and then Beyoncé called,” Maines said, and when Beyoncé calls, you say yes. When they arrived at the CMAs, they found the scene had not evolved. “They treated us very weird backstage,” Maines said. As Strayer’s daughter played with Blue Ivy, the Chicks sensed a backlash brewing. Alan Jackson was so affronted by the performance that he walked out, later tweeting using the hashtag “#KeepinItCountry.”

A vocal contingent of aggrieved viewers flooded the internet with messages trashing the performance. “For them to disrespect her that way,” Maines said of Beyoncé, “was disgusting.” It was a classic Dixie Chicks situation — a high point for their careers, and a new low for country music.

Country is more than a genre — it is a culture steeped in conservatism, masculinity, and whiteness. When CMAs viewers complained that Beyoncé was “not country,” it meant the same thing as when Billboard removed Lil Nas X’s 'Old Town Road' from the country chart. After a 14-year wait, The Chicks have improbably returned at another flash point, and this time, they feel free to say what they mean.

The Chicks on dropping Dixie from their name and navigating country music as an allfemale band

The Chicks

When the group announced its name change last month, casting Dixie from their lives for good, supportive fans jockeyed for attention with conservative commentators on Twitter, who lashed out with an almost programmatic outrage. The Chicks staged dramatic readings of the most absurd takes over Zoom.

“I used to care way too much what people thought,” Strayer said. “I really have a don’t-give-a-(expletive) part to me now, which I didn’t have before.” That time when it was actually risky for an artist to make a political statement — it seems so long ago. “I criticise the president,” Maines said, and here her voice lifted into her trademark Texas howl: “Every single day!”

Amanda Hess c.2020 The New York Times Company

All images from Facebook.

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