No making nice in Chicks' latest


May 23, 2006


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."

But in 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 radio.

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."

Compared to 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.

The sound is pure country

Red-state radio 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, Emily Robison.

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 Make Nice."

Still, the 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.

'Never giving you up'

But the 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 you up."

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."

Alas, the 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.

The Dixie 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.