[1 July 2010]
PopMatters Features Editor
This disc, while comprised of 12 extraordinary songs by one of the very best pop bands of the last 15 years, makes absolutely no sense. Who wants this record? Featuring no new material at all, absolutely nothing from their first three (Natalie Maines-free) albums, and four songs from their most recent (and best-selling) release, it certainly wasn’t designed to remind new fans of the early stuff they might’ve missed. Clocking in at under 50 minutes, this sure isn’t an exhaustive examination of the Dixie Chicks and their actually impressively diverse material. Moreover, due to the ostensibly “green” but mostly just cost-saving approach taken by the Playlist series to which this owes its existence, the disc comes unencumbered with any booklet, any information on the tracks (such as who wrote them, who played the instruments, etc), or anything extraneous at all (unless you are listening to it on your computer where you can click on a PDF with this stuff). I am basically mystified.
Still, let’s say you don’t know the Dixie Chicks, and need a place to start. This is, I suppose, possible. In that case, Playlist is actually a pretty fantastic collection of tunes. It is way too short (if CDs are 80 minutes long, and you have a ton of good material, and you are compiling a “playlist”, wouldn’t you try fill the thing to the brim?), yet it has got not one even halfway bad song on it. If this is your entrée to the Dixie Chicks, you will be won over.
The early, much more hay, material from Wide Open Spaces and Fly displays the refreshingly un-Hollywood approach that set the Chicks apart from their contemporaries. Indeed, they have always spoken to the country music fan who knew and loved the songwriter-focused approach of people like Nanci Griffith, Rodney Crowell and Patty Griffin (whom they cover, almost imitate here, on “Let Him Fly”), but they’ve done this without failing to speak to the (many more) people who come for the catchy melodies and sassy performativity. The Dixie Chicks, though given a heck of a lot of credit, might not be given enough respect for their highwire approach to popular country music in an era mostly defined by vapid schlock and flag-waving bullshit. Essentially, the question is: Has there been a more impressive crossover success in the past 15 years than the Dixie Chicks?
This genre-busting was fully realized on their justly revered 2006 “comeback” record Taking the Long Way. Produced by rock and hip-hop icon Rick Rubin, and featuring a variety of songs penned by folks decidedly on the other side of the Nashville/Austin divide (Sheryl Crow, Gary Louris, Mike Campbell, Neil Finn, Pete Yorn), this kiss-off to the folks who ditched them, following their supposedly un-American activities, remains a stunner. It bodes well for the future of the band that this “very best of” collection gets stronger with each track, building toward the ultimate expression of their F-U to the parochial pop country jingoists, “Lubbock or Leave It”. A clever riff on the way Buddy Holly went from devil-encouraging rock’n’roll sellout to hometown hero (“I hear they hate me now / just like they hated you / maybe when I’m dead and gone / I’m gonna get a statue too”), this rockabilly masterpiece is perhaps the Dixie Chicks’ defining moment. Should you buy this “playlist” to get it?
Let’s face it. Considering we’re talking about one of the single biggest acts of the past 10 years, it is far more likely that you already have one of their records, or are at least familiar with their unavoidable radio staples. You do not need this specious “best of” at all. Just buy their albums. They’re all good.