What has it always been about the Dixie Chicks that has made them basically the only country music act that I have ever enjoyed enough to purchase their entire catalog? Oh, I’ve enjoyed old school talents such as Waylon and Willie and Johnny Cash, certainly, but when it comes to so much of the country music that became popular during my youth and beyond, nothing could really interest my ears. It’s that whole Nashville Hollywood sound that has been commented on so many times before. The need to constantly have crossover success while draining the life out of any country originality that may have been there to begin with. This theory is probably best supported at this very moment in time with the recent release of Shania Twain’s Up album, a two-disc affair that contains the very same set of songs performed across both discs—one disc in a pop vein and the other in a “country” style.
So certainly folks could point their fingers at the Dixie Chicks and blame them of having immensely popular crossover success. After all, their 1999 album Fly debuted on both the Billboard Pop and Country chart at #1. Of course, other acts had crossed over with success before the chicks, most notably the always-inane Garth Brooks who hopefully learned his final lesson when his Chris Gaines debacle tanked. No, Garth, it just didn’t work. It seems your fans are more ready to accept you as a goofy Peter Pan wannabe during your live shows than some mythical pop star with a silly looking wig and flavor saver under your bottom lip.
But here’s where I think the difference lies with the Dixie Chicks: They and their producers have always seemed to have a great knowledge for both tasteful pop and country music. Unlike Shania, who is now a “diva” (yawn), and Dixie Chicks clones SHeDAISY who always seemed to be more of an S Club 7 take on country than anything else, the Chicks have won countless fans because they deliver the goods time and time again on such a believable basis. Their previous two albums Wide Open Spaces and Fly never sounded like the Nashville cats took complete control of the reins and molded the group into the next here today-gone tomorrow flavor. Instead, the Chicks cultivated a rich musical palette, one that blended equal parts classic country pathos, a tart twist of humor, and some absolutely stunning musical and vocal abilities that hadn’t been heard of on the scene for a while. Yes, these Chicks were and still remain the real thing.
And now that they’re “all grown up” with families and children of their own, they have issued their third album Home on their very own imprint Open Wide, distributed through Monument and Columbia Records. And what can one basically say about this disc other than that it does sound like one of those “mature” releases. Yet, unlike other such albums released by folks from time to time that wish to make a bid for respectability with their fans, the Chicks’ decision to go this route seems perfectly logical. They didn’t need the respect; they already had it. And in many ways, it must be true that getting married and having kids hopefully brings a new kind of maturation and knowledge. And so these major changes certainly must effect the songwriting and music making process.
And so it has with Home.
The first thing the listener will notice about this album is how stripped down and “rustic” the music is. The bigger productions are absent, as is any hint of drums. It’s a quieter album, but by no means does it like the punch and verve of the previous two outings. In fact, the more direct method of recording this album undoubtedly shows off the Chicks’ individual skills even more. Be it Natalie Maines’ voice that still has that funky salt water taffy snap to it, Emily Robison’s hypnotic way with a banjo and dobro, or Martie Maguire’s exceptional skills on fiddle that has always been an ingredient that raised the bar for the group, giving it a sound that was thoroughly genuine instead of candyfloss kitsch like so many other groups have turned into when they have added similar instruments to their mix.
That the production is so intimate and forward must be credited to both the group itself and Natalie’s father, Lloyd Maines. Add to that the fact that the Chicks recorded the album at their home in Texas and away from Nashville, and the style and sound makes even more sense. In a way, Home sounds like an “alternative” country album simply because it dives back into a pool of rootsy dynamic, unlike other so-called alt-country acts (and for once I don’t mean Wilco, et al) coming out of Nashville as of late that are trying their damndest to meld the so-called sounds of college rock with a hint of country.
This attitude is probably best expressed by the Chicks themselves in the opening track, “Long Time Gone”. Natalie Maines sings, “We listen to the radio to hear what’s cookin’ / But the music ain’t got no soul / Now they sound tired but they don’t sound haggard / They got money but they don’t have cash / They got junior but they don’t have Hank”. And that, more than anything, probably really says it all right off the bat. And with that opening salvo, Home takes off and wanders through its new found fields of growth and family.
The cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” is particularly affecting, with Maines wiping away the ghost of Stevie Nicks and making it her own. And well, once you hear the tune played so perfectly on a banjo, you might never want to go back to the original take. This is exactly the way a cover song should be recorded, sticking within the boundaries of the original without going too far out, but at the same time making it sound like the band composed the song on its own.
For those who were won over by the humor of “Goodbye Earl” last time around on Fly, those fans should particularly enjoy “White Trash Wedding”. A bit more scaled down in lyrical bite from the former song, this tune is no less amusing. “You can’t afford no ring . . . I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring / You finally took my hand . . . It took a nip of gin / But you finally took my hand”, sings the trio, adding the final, obvious nail in the coffin, “Baby’s on its way . . . Say I do and kiss me quick / ‘Cause baby’s on its way”.
Elsewhere, the band waxes topical (“Travelin’ Soldier”, written by Bruce Robison), and even sexy, as on Patty Griffin’s “Truth No. 2” (“Swing me way down south / Sing me something brave from your mouth . And I’ll bring you / Pearls of water on my hips / And the love in my lips”). There is the heartache of “More Love” and “I Believe in Love”, the drama of “A Home” and “Tortured, Tangled Nights”, and the wild winds of the instrumental “Lil’ Jack Slade”. In essence, something for everyone that should cultivate a lot of new fans while retaining the old ones.
For those of us who already were fans, Home was well worth the wait. Hearing the Dixie Chicks turn a slight 180 and bring the lights down just a touch was certainly a welcome surprise. Where they go from here is anyone’s guess. But it can assuredly be guaranteed that they will continue to move forward, reclaiming country’s roots while at the same time continuing to hone their own popular sound and driving the genre as a whole in directions that the guys in Nash Vegas probably hadn’t thought about at all. Home is a definite top pick for 2002, and certainly kicked country music in its ass once again when it needed it the most.