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POP MUSIC

It's a Chick Thing

Nashville's fallen for the Dixie Chicks, three young musicians who've worked their way up from street level.

November 22, 1998|MICHAEL McCALL | Michael McCall is a freelance writer based in Nashville

NASHVILLE — The Dixie Chicks enjoy bursting preconceptions. Because they're young, blond and call themselves chicks, country music's hottest new act has skeptics wondering if they're yet another prefab group foisted on the public. Maybe the Country Fried Spice Girls?

No way.

The members of the Texas trio are, in fact, experienced performers and capable instrumentalists--qualities that sometimes surprise both fans and doubters.

"We like proving ourselves," says singer-guitarist Natalie Maines, who replaced the group's original lead singer in 1996. "We like it that people get a kick out of the idea that we're blond and we can really play instruments. People find that humorous, and that's OK with us.

"We know people say things like, 'Wow, that girl looks like Julia Roberts and she plays the heck out of the banjo!' As long as they can see we are for real and we can play, we don't mind the rest of it."

Right now, the Dixie Chicks are the hottest act to hit country music since the rise of Shania Twain in 1995. After three hit singles--"I Can Love You Better Than That," "There's Your Trouble" and "Wide Open Spaces"--the trio's major-label debut album already has sold more than 1 million copies since its release in the spring.

The Chicks--whose "Wide Open Spaces" album recently reached the Top 10 on the pop charts--also were the surprise of the recent Country Music Assn. Awards, winning the group of the year honors and the Horizon Award, which goes to the artists who've shown the most growth.

The timing couldn't have been better for country music.

With even the most consistent country stars suffering from dwindling sales of records and concert tickets, the Chicks have given Nashville renewed hope that the popularity gains of the early '90s can be sustained.

"The Chicks have tapped into that audience that first started listening to country music during the growth spurt of a few years ago," says Allen Butler, president of Sony Music Nashville. "This band is reaching young listeners, those that wouldn't normally buy country albums, and they're appealing to the core country music fan."

If it seems as if the Dixie Chicks were born to be stars, the reality is much different. When Butler signed the trio to Sony's Monument Records, colleagues questioned his sanity.

"The Chicks were seen as a fun, quirky club band," Butler says. "I was asked, 'They've been around forever--why sign them?' There wasn't anybody in Nashville who wasn't aware of them. But they'd gone through some changes, and the time was right."

The success of the Dixie Chicks has become a triumphant story that underscores the values of hard work and perseverance. Considered too offbeat for the mainstream for nearly a decade, the group never gave up. Now, with a key personnel change and a resulting shift in musical direction, the band finds itself as country music's newest, brightest stars--an overnight success story nearly 10 years in the making.

"We don't mind if people think we've come from nowhere," Martie Seidel says. "Because once they've become fans, they'll delve deeper in and will be surprised to find we've been around awhile and that we've had a lot of experience doing this."

*

Two of the three current Dixie Chicks formed the group in 1989. Emily Erwin was a 16-year-old high school student and her sister Martie was in her first year of college when they joined with singer-bassist Laura Lynch to perform acoustically on the streets of Dallas. (A fourth member, guitarist Robin Lynn Macy, left amicably in 1992.)

The two had been recruited by Lynch, who was 12 years older than Martie Erwin (Seidel is her married name). Even by then, the Erwin sisters were experienced performers. Seidel began playing fiddle at age 5; her sister was playing the banjo by 10.

"We came out of bluegrass, so we could play," Seidel recalls.

Lynch wanted to start a band that played old-time western swing, cowboy music and bluegrass. She dressed the group in colorful western wear, hung a rubber chicken from the neck of her acoustic bass and dubbed the band the Dixie Chickens. The name was inspired by an old Little Feat song, "Dixie Chicken."

People kept shortening the name to the Dixie Chicks, and the group soon followed that lead.

"If we had known we were going to get beyond the street corner, we probably would have thought about the name more," Seidel now says with a laugh. "But every time we thought about changing it, our fans wouldn't stand for it."

In the early 1990s, the band became a popular concert group, especially in Texas. Ross Perot adopted them as his favorite band, hiring them to play at corporate functions, big family parties and even campaign rallies during his presidential bid.

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