31 August 1999
It’s hard to imagine, but the Dixie Chicks existed before the outspoken and dynamic Natalie Maines joined the group. Current bandmates and sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison co-founded the ensemble back in 1989 with two others and became popular on the bluegrass circuit, putting three albums to wax between 1990 and 1993. During these years the group was already experimenting with the seeds of the contemporary country and bluegrass blend that became their patented signature, much to the displeasure of fellow founder Robin Lynn Macy who left the group. Enter Natalie Maines and stardom was just around the corner.
Maines added that charismatic frontperson that the band needed and her musical chops were the equal of the accomplished Maguire and Robison. Indeed, the Dixie Chicks’ enduring importance may well be what they have done for the visibility of female instrumentalists in a highly male dominated field. Maines may be the one that gets the bulk of the press, but Maguire and Robison’s consummate playing is the foundation of the band and the image that it projects is perhaps more powerful than even Maines’ colorful personality. These “chicks” have never been pretty fronts for men, but are among the finest pickers in the biz. Maguire came in third at the 1989 national fiddle championships and Maines scored a full-tuition scholarship at the prestigious Berkelee College of Music.
And yet there was some doubt among the Nashville suits about the commercial viability of an all-woman group in country music. Someone either sniffed a gimmick here that would sell or, hopefully, was simply won over by the sheer excellence of their music because when they landed that deal, they hit big and fast, selling 12 million copies of 1998’s Wide Open Spaces and nabbing two Grammys in the process.
Fly followed quickly on Wide Open Spaces’ heels, meant to maintain and build the artist’s momentum, something it succeeded at wildly as Fly is packed to the gills with stadium fillers. The album sold 10 million copies, won them two more Grammys and generated two #1 singles in “Cowboy Take Me Away” and “Without You”. Fly maintained elements of bluegrass style with its emphasis on virtuoso musicianship and layered harmony singing, while adding pop friendly guitars and attitude into the mix, as well as mainstream country staples like pedal steel guitar and songs about everyday lives.
The Dixie Chicks managed the feat of sounding completely new—never easy to do—while upending Nashville traditions. It’s rare for artists to play their own backing on major label albums coming out of Music City. Even George Strait’s superb Ace in the Hole Band usually has to sit on the sidelines while the studio players step up to the recording mikes. The Dixie Chicks use some additional players to fill out their sound on recordings, but the bulk of the playing comes from the artists themselves, operating as a true team of equals and they went platinum doing it.
Fly was loaded with hits, from the Celtic influenced “Ready to Run”, the expansive classic country yearning of “Cowboy Take Me Away”, the risqué barnstormer “Sin Wagon”, and the Fried Green Tomatoes-esque “Goodbye Earl”. These songs explore love and longing, but with a real sense of empowerment and strength, never despair or victimhood. Popular culture and the music business badly needed such strong women back in 1999 and we still need them today. Thankfully, the Dixie Chicks are still growing strong 10 years on. Sarah Zupko
7 September 1999
69 Love Songs
When 69 Love Songs was released in 1999, the buzz could not have been greater. In addition to winning over the college radio crowd, the album charmed the press, garnering glowing reviews and a rare “10” rating from SPIN. Its influence at the time was palpable, especially as 20-somethings were introduced to Nina Rota, Ferdinad de Saussure, and Pantone color charts. The album encouraged contemporary vocalists to gender-bend their lyrics and songwriters to take on any subject matter with innocence, genre experimentation, and even, in the case of “The Night You Can’t Remember”, heroic full rhymes.
A decade past the album’s release, its impact has only begun to be revealed. Unlike other indie bands that generate hype and then fade into nowhere or face a backlash, the Magnetic Fields held strong with 69 Love Songs. While the aforementioned over-hyped indie bands generally only influenced one another, it seems musicians everywhere were touched by 69 Love Songs. Among the artists covering the titular love songs are Mary Lou Lord, Peter Gabriel, and Kelly Hogan (whose version of “Papa Was a Rodeo” is perhaps the best Magnetic Fields cover yet). Moreover, Stephin Merritt has set a dazzling precedent for men working between theatrical and pop traditions, and he may well also be responsible for the dubious ukulele craze of the past few years. Erin Lyndal Martin
12 September 1999
Between the Bridges
Sloan was always way more popular in Canada than they ever were in the United States. But the power pop band released a string of excellent, critically adored albums in the ‘90s that at least granted them the cult following they deserved. Arguments can be made in favor of each of these albums, but for my money, 1999’s Between the Bridges nudges out Navy Blues, One Chord to Another, and Twice Removed as their best. Between the Bridges flows together like a rock opera, as songs blend into each other and themes return throughout the course of the album—this despite the band having four distinct songwriters. If there is a concept behind the album, it’s autobiographical, as it charts the band’s beginning in Nova Scotia (“The N.S.”), their flirtation with American success and eventual failure (“So Beyond Me”, “Losing California”), and their return home to Canada (“Take Good Care of the Poor Boy”).
But the clever sequencing wouldn’t matter if the songs didn’t hold up, and the album is chock-full of great ones. “So Beyond Me” is a gem, with tight harmonies and a soaring melody, and a bridge/outro that combines both. “Don’t You Believe a Word” is a big, beautiful slice of AM radio-style pop, with coy lyrics and singing from Jay Ferguson. “Sensory Deprivation” is possibly Andrew Scott’s most exciting hard rocker, with a big, meaty riff and huge vocals. “Losing California” has the album’s most infectious chorus and a kickass dual-guitar solo, while “The Marquee and the Moon” is a powerfully catchy piano-based song that uses its change-of-pace 6/8 time signature to great effect. In a more rock-friendly time for mainstream music, Between the Bridges could’ve been huge. But in the boy band pop and nu-metal dominated late ‘90s, it never had a shot at showing up on the charts. Chris Conaton