There is a common misconception regarding the (Dixie) Chicks. It pops up in casual conversation as confidently, and frequently, as it does in the press about them. This is the idea that the group disappeared, canceled before cancel culture even began—forced into staunch, prolonged hiatus—immediately following the remarks made by lead singer Natalie Maines onstage in London back in 2003. (Tepid by 2020 standards, the frontwoman remarked that, along with disagreeing with the Invasion of Iraq, the Chicks were “ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.”)
The reaction was outsized, indeed. Death threats, radio boycotts, and burning piles of their CDs dominated the headlines. But the women never faltered—and they didn’t shut up. Instead, in 2006, they released the monstrously good Taking the Long Way. Produced by Rick Rubin and fueled by the outcry, the punchy set included the outfit’s then-defacto mission statement, “Not Ready to Make Nice.” And while many were screaming at them to go away, millions more turned out in support. This is, after all, the best selling female band in the United States. The collection debuted on top the country albums charts, the digital albums chart, and the all-genre Billboard 200 its week of release, eventually selling two-and-a-half million copies and earning a 2x platinum certification. At that year’s Grammys, it won five awards, including Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year.
Then they left. Tired from a hard won victory lap, and invested in spending time at home with their children, they stayed quiet for a decade. In 2016, they returned to sell out America's biggest rooms, and now, finally, there's new music in tow. The megawatt country trio of Maines and sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Erwin, make an equally victorious return this week in the form of the brutally honest Gaslighter, their first album in 14 years. Along with a new LP, they've also got an altered name; the group dropped the "Dixie" in a move to, as they said via a statement, “meet this moment,” referring to the Black Lives Matter movement that has captivated our nation all summer.
Betrayal at home, it would turn out, brought Maines back to her songbook. That may not be something the singer and songwriter can actually say in interviews, per the terms of her divorce from actor Adrian Pasdar, to whom she was married for seventeen years before their recent split, but she sure can sing it. Just how far will she go in song? All the way, baby. The boat (that boat) and the tights (those tights), the husband of her husband’s new girlfriend ringing her off the hook, the tears—the hurt; it’s all on bold display. In the title track, which also opens the album, Maines doesn’t just drag her ex, but also his dear old dad. “Repeating all the mistakes of your father,” the group taunts repeatedly in the chorus. Elsewhere, she wonders if that’s who will take over her ex’s tax bill now that she and her checkbook have kicked him to their Brentwood, LA curb.
The details are tantalizing, and to simply note that they’re certain to make headlines is to severely underestimate the Internet’s thirst for celebrity splits. When you consider for how long Maines has been this famous, her stone-faced willingness to share, and then share more, across each of the 12 tracks will leave you slack jawed. But to pretend it is that, and that alone, that’s the hallmark of worth for the collection would be reductive.
The magic of the Chicks is that they can create an album that feels both completely and classically them, while still pushing into the sounds of tomorrow. It’s a reality I’ve marveled at more than once, during my many-more-than-once listening sessions of the set. Nowhere is this more evident than on the absolute standout, “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”
The Chicks worked with a who’s who of current Top 40 hitmakers for Gaslighter, including Jack Antonoff, who co-produced and contributed musical playing to each of the cuts, Ariel Rechtshaid, frequent cohort of both Vampire Weekend and Haim, and Julia Michaels, whisperpop songwriter for Demi Lovato and Fifth Harmony. For this doot-do highlight, they and Antonoff teamed-up with Justin Tranter, mastermind scribe behind massive hits from Selena Gomez (“Lose You to Love Me”) and Britney Spears (“Do You Want to Come Over?”).
The resulting song’s programming, glinting with sheeny pop production and an uber-sticky hook, winks at today—and if terrestrial country radio with just playing the damn thing they’d have a massive hit on their hands. (As they have since 2003, The Chicks will do just fine without the format’s support thankyaverymuch.) But it never gets in the way of what this act does better than anybody else in the game: otherworldly harmonies, frantic banjo, ghostly violin, and a pervasive, lonesome lyrical resolve.
“You set off fireworks that evening,” Maines sings of a fateful night, where her dearest friend wed, twenty years ago. “With a flicker of untruth.” She should have seen it coming: “I was never safe, I was never safe, still not safe/You’d torch me any chance I get.” Such lines are stark in their admission, but so is the fact that Maines voice is never alone when she sings them. Backed by Maguire and Erwin, as it has been for now several decades, there is an unshakeable sense of shared burden—a devastating communion—that is hard to glean elsewhere in music.
By the end of the song, twenty years forward from twenty years ago and surrounded by a storm of drums, Maines finds herself at her best friend’s second wedding, “better off without your doom and gloom.” The triumph, as it were, is in the tiger’s stripes earned. “Guess from ashes we really can grow,” she remarks, finally hopeful for the future. “My wildfire’s comin’,” she warns, “Burnin’ the path that I’ve known/Watch me run with it.” It ends, warping a refrain of “Go it alone” into a powerful rallying cry. As it always has been with the Chicks, the very worst inspires the absolute best.
You Might Also Like