Archive for the Dixie Chicks Category

The Dixie Chicks and Americana: It’s Time

Posted in Dixie Chicks on July 16, 2008 by AmericanaPulse

OK. Here we go. Time to stir up the pot a little bit. I know most of us can agree on John Hiatt and Alejandro Escovedo, but I’m going to try to spark some debate with this one. Ready?

I like the Dixie Chicks. I said it.

I think they’re talented, and they’ve proven they can be successful with a wide variety of sounds and source materials. I also think it’s time the Chicks were embraced by the Americana Community and accepted full scale on Americana Radio.

Before you run away without reading this, hear me out. Yes, the Chicks were once one of the most popular acts on commercial country radio. Yes, commercial country radio is typically a vast wasteland with no tangible redeeming qualities. Yes, the song that is arguably their biggest hit, “Goodbye Earl,” is one of those mainstream Nashville songs that contributed to my current low opinion of said commercial country radio. I know all the arguments against them. I used those same arguments for a long time myself.

Then something changed. In 2002, the Dixie Chicks released the album Home. My music director gave me the album to listen to, and I kind of rolled my eyes. The Dixie Chicks were mainstream… we were Americana. What was going on here? Then I read the liner notes and found that the Chicks wrote some of their own material, but also recorded songs written or co-written by Darrell Scott, Tim O’Brien, Marty Stuart, Bruce Robison, and Patty Griffin. I later found out that this wasn’t the first time the Chicks had used Americana songwriters on one of their albums. Scott, Griffin, Bonnie Raitt, Maria McKee, Buddy Miller, and Jim Lauderdale had all contributed to previous albums. Maybe there really was something here.

I put the disc in and was greeted with Scott’s “Long Time Gone,” a song about having fond memories of growing up in a small town, but having to leave when life calls you elsewhere. The lyrics were paired with a warm and inviting sound created by acoustic instruments… banjos, fiddles, and guitars. The lyrics even included a jab at the mianstream radio machine that had helped the Chicks to create their rabid fanbase and become the hottest act in country music.

“Listen to the radio to hear what’s cookin’,
But the music ain’t got no soul.
Now they sound tired, but they don’t sound Haggard.
They got money, but they don’t have Cash.
They got Junior, but they don’t have Hank.”

This was something that I could get behind. I didn’t care that the song rose to #2 on the Hot Country Singles Billboard Chart or that the video was in constant rotation on CMT. I played “Long Time Gone” on my Americana show. I played it a lot.

I played other songs too. Patty Griffin’s “Truth No. 2” was originally recorded for her album Silver Bell, but Patty’s label folded, and the album never got released. The Chicks, who had already had a hit with Griffin’s “Let Him Fly,” dove back into Griffin’s catalogue and recorded their version of “Truth” as an acoustic, almost bluegrass, number with soaring harmonies and prominent fiddle and banjo riffs.

The album was doing well in country circles. The second single, a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” went to number one. The third single, Robison’s “Traveling Soldier” was the stirring tale of a soldier who died on foreign soil told from the perspective of someone he left behind. The song struck a chord with fans during the early days of the United States’ war in Iraq. It rose to number one on the country charts where it sat as of March 10th, 2003 when Dixie Chicks’ lead vocalist Natalie Maines made her now infamous remarks about President George W. Bush. The very next week “Traveling Soldier” was off the charts completely. It was the fastest falling single in Billboard history.

Maines’ comments were seen as a lack of support for the U.S. military and its Commander in Chief, and a public betrayal of the right wing values of most of the people who make up country music’s core audience. The backlash that followed is well chronicled in the documentary Shut Up and Sing. The Chicks were banned from many radio stations, public CD burnings and bulldozings were held, concerts were cancelled due to slow ticket sales, and Maines began receiving death threats.

By the time the Chicks released the follow up to Home, 2006’s Taking the Long Way, they had fallen out of favor with many country music fans, industry supporters, and radio programmers. The first single, “Not Ready to Make Nice,” garnered some cursory play on country radio but quickly went away. Part of the lack of airplay had to do with a conscious decision byt the Chicks to ignore the demands of country radio and make an album that was based more in rock and adult alternative sounds. The ladies teamed with veteran producer Rick Rubin, former Jayhawk Gary Louris, and former Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson to forge a sound that made itself easily accessible to fans of other genres while still keeping a small hold on their country roots.

The album was mostly a critical success, but found a hard time gaining more than a minor hold on Country, AAA, and Americana charts. The Chicks’ music had no home.

This is where I think Americana Radio can come into play. Americana Radio is still a relatively new format that is still struggling to spread awareness of its existence and gain wider appeal. The format has been looking for a face… an artist it can get behind to boost listenership and get the word out that an alternative to corporate radio does exist. The format openly embraces the freedom of expression that the Dixie Chicks embody to the point that the Americana Music Association hands out a “Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award” every year at their awards show. The shoe seems to fit.

So I’m putting it out there to Americana Radio and Americana fans. Give the Chicks a Chance. You might be surprised. Here are the two tracks I highlighted from Home as well as two tracks from Taking the Long Way. You decide.

Dixie Chicks: Long Time Gone (Buy Album)
Dixie Chicks: Truth No. 2 (Buy Album)
Dixie Chicks: The Long Way Around (Buy Album)
Dixie Chicks: Lubbock or Leave it (Buy Album)