As the pre-release
publicity has made abundantly clear, the seventh studio album by the
Dallas country-pop trio the Dixie Chicks is a proudly defiant
statement nicely summarized by the title of its first single: "Not
Ready to Make Nice."
concentrating on the handful of references to the controversy that
began in March 2003 when lead singer Natalie Maines told a London
audience, "We're ashamed the president of the United States is from
Texas," reviewers are overlooking a musical declaration that's
almost as bold, at least by the conservative standards of country
There always has
been a dose of '70s Southern California pop via the Eagles and Linda
Ronstadt in the group's mix, but these influences are stronger than
ever on "Taking the Long Way," which arrives in stores today.
The Dixie Chicks
entered the studio with songs they co-wrote with Sheryl Crow, Gary
Louris (Jayhawks), Neil Finn (Crowded House) and Dan Wilson
(Minneapolis alternative rockers Semisonic and Trip Shakespeare),
among others. They tapped producer Rick Rubin (whose credits range
from the Beastie Boys to Johnny Cash) to record them with a crack
session band including Chad Smith (drummer for Red Hot Chili
Peppers) and Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell (keyboardist and
guitarist, respectively, with Tom Petty's Heartbreakers).
After helping to
make the Dixie Chicks the best-selling female group in history,
country radio boycotted them after Maines' initial bout of
Bush-bashing. While she apologized at the time, she rescinds her mea
culpa in the current issue of Time, saying, "I don't feel he is owed
any respect whatsoever."
diatribes against Bush on recent albums by Neil Young and Pearl Jam,
her comments are pretty innocuous, but the country radio freeze-out
continues: According to Billboard, the new album's first two singles
failed to crack the Top 20 on the country charts, and they're about
to drop out of the Top 50.
is pure country
programmers may cite musical rather than political reasons for
failing to play "Taking the Long Way," but if you actually listen to
the disc, that justification is as phony as claims of WMD in Iraq.
While the production avoids the Nashville trends of frilly schmaltz
and multitracked gloss, it's hardly radical or off-putting; there's
nary an overdriven guitar, much less a sampler or a burst of
feedback. Despite the song doctors' divergent pedigrees, the tunes
are solidly in the modern country mold, and the focus is fixed on
the group's longstanding musical signatures: the soaring
country-choir harmonies, the backporch fiddle-playing of Martie
Maguire and the deftly picked guitar, banjo and dobro of her sister,
What's more, the
heartfelt, plainspoken sentiments of the lyrics are about as
old-school red, white 'n' blue as you can get. Rather than upping
the anti-war rhetoric, the musicians simply question their critics'
overreactions, which they view as downright un-American. "How in the
world can the words that I said send somebody so over the edge that
they'd write me a letter sayin' that 'I better shut up and sing or
my life will be over?' " Maines plaintively asks in "Not Ready to
controversy doesn't dominate the album, and taken as a whole, the 14
songs celebrate values championed in all great country music:
family, faith, the power of love and, above all, the right to think
for oneself. The title track celebrates the disdain for conformity
that has always been part of the Western spirit, though the trio
shifts the setting from the frontier to the suburban strip mall. "My
friends from high school/Married their high school boyfriends/Moved
into houses in the same ZIP code where their parents live/But I
could never follow," Maines sings.
giving you up'
alternative she and her bandmates seek is hardly some revolutionary
Bohemian ideal. "I hope for more love, more joy and laughter," the
Dixie Chicks croon in the gospel-flavored "I Hope," while the almost
unbearably sweet "Lullaby" is an ode to family values in the form of
these mothers' pledges to their seven children: "How long do you
want to be loved?/Is forever enough?/'Cause I'm never, never giving
Shunned by the
country establishment, the group clearly hopes to find a new
audience. "I'd rather have a small following of really cool people
who get it, who will grow with us as we grow and are fans for life,
than people that have us in their five-disc changer with Reba
McEntire and Toby Keith," Maguire says in the Time story. "We don't
want those kinds of fans. They limit what you can do."
biggest problem with "Taking the Long Way" is that the group doesn't
turn its back far enough on Nashville, and things are still entirely
too tame, polite and "nice" for any real artistic fireworks. It may
be too much to ask the Dixie Chicks to make an album as immediate
and genuinely alternative as recent efforts by Neko Case or Jenny
Lewis, but I wonder how powerful these songs might have been if
Rubin had employed the same stripped-down settings he used for
Johnny Cash's "American Recordings," which stand as some of the most
powerful country albums ever. Of course, country radio didn't play
those discs, either.
Chicks launch their Accidents and Accusations Tour in July, swinging
into the United Center here on Aug. 15. Tickets go on sale in June.
Purchase of the band's new CD at Target stores beginning today will
include a password to buy up to four presale tickets for most shows
on the tour.