YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Pop Music | POP MUSIC

Lone stars rise on the Left Coast

Isolated after what they call `the Incident,' the Dixie Chicks looked West, physically and musically.

May 21, 2006|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

WARS are rarely won with words, but they usually begin with them. Natalie Maines was on a concert stage in England, more than 5,000 miles away from the cotton fields of Lubbock County, but the Lone Star state heard the hometown girl when she took a poke at President Bush. "Just so you know," the Dixie Chicks singer said, "we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." That was on March 10, 2003, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, and as the crowd cheered, a concert reviewer for the London Guardian dutifully took down the quote. For Maines, it had been a bit of topical banter, a toss-off comment, but back home it was received as a formal declaration of war. In the 1,168 days since, there has been no cease-fire.

"Most sane people thought it was like a flash and then it was over," Maines said after a recent rehearsal in Los Angeles. "They don't realize how insane it got and how it still is." This week, the Chicks will release an album, "Taking the Long Way," and it is impossible to separate its music and messages from "the Incident," as the band refers to the comments made by Maines at the Shepherds Bush show three years ago. The first single from the album is "Not Ready to Make Nice," a simmering statement of defiance -- this time Maines isn't speaking off the cuff.


And 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.


There were death threats (including a harrowingly specific one in Dallas that authorities took very seriously), and the day-to-day vitriol level was so high that Maines, a lifelong Texan, moved to an L.A. beach house. The music of the Chicks has moved west also; with the new album, the trio of Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire recorded in Los Angeles with producer Rick Rubin, whose career has been defined by rock, hip-hop and the austere Americana of Johnny Cash's twilight albums. Although their music remains grounded in bluegrass banjo and country fiddle, this album is clearly informed with a rock road-song sensibility. It's the sound of boots on big city sidewalks.

The spiky independence of the Chicks has always made for bumpy relations with Nashville. Despite a resume with cheeky hits such as "Goodbye Earl" and the radio-ready ballad "You Were Mine," the trio was always more Texas maverick than Nashville player or, as Robison said with a sly chuckle, "We weren't going to all the celebrity softball tournaments." And, after the Incident, they instantly went from the peak of country success into a dark banishment. They were yanked from the airwaves and booed at industry award galas. Country famously turned its back on the Chicks in 2003; now they're having their say.

"We never recorded a song because it was going to be a hit, but we definitely would hear a song and think, 'Oh, people are going to like that one,' " Maines said. "This was the exact opposite. We just assume no one is going to like it at this stage. It was all for ourselves. It was the first record we've done where I would have been OK if nobody liked it. That would have destroyed me in the past."


Tighter harmonies

ON a recent afternoon, at a rehearsal studio on Sunset, the Chicks ran through songs from the new album preparing for their Accidents & Accusations Tour, which kicks off in Detroit on July 21 and visits Staples Center on Sept. 14. The three were perched on chairs facing one another, surrounded by a dozen musicians warming up to the new material.

For any visitor, the most striking sound is the one most expected from the Chicks -- their harmonies can veer from honey to hickory within a single song and, with the new music, their unified vocals sound more sinewy than sweet.

Robison said "Silent House," about an aging matriarch losing both memories and time, is "a direct nod" to Simon & Garfunkel with its high intersections and harmonies that overlap and cross. That resulted from their time together under fire. "We're closer now. We had to close ranks, it was a natural byproduct of what happened. Everything seems more important now." Robison (who plays guitar, banjo and dobro) and Maguire (fiddle, mandolin) are sisters and, along with two other women, they founded the Chicks in 1989.

The quartet was a purer bluegrass affair, and the Erwin sisters, as they were known then, gave the Chicks the intense players needed for that genre. In 1995, the sisters took the Chicks in a new direction: They brought in a new lead singer who was the daughter of Lloyd Maines, a renowned steel-pedal player who had done sessions with the Chicks.

Los Angeles Times Articles