[15 November 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
A decade ago if someone had told me that the Dixie Chicks would launch their Essential collection with a political and angst-ridden number like the retaliatory George W. Bush song, “Not Ready to Make Nice”, then I probably would have chuckled. Alas, they have done so. This is a bold step for a group who started out as the darlings of vanilla USA, and who were famously one of the first groups to bring Country to the masses, very much in the same manner that Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, Leanne Rimes and Faith Hill were able to do.
Of course, this was before the band decided that they didn’t want to stay tethered to the quiet conservatism of the Country music genre and chose to speak out politically through their music and concert performances. The result, as is popularly known now, saw the once ubiquitous Dixie Chicks unfairly ambushed by the bigotry of right-wing political commentators and Country radio alike. This led the group through a bumpy period, which saw dwindling record sales and an unsettling death threat made on lead-singer Natalie Maines’ life.
It has been nearly seven years now since the original onslaught of aggression against the girls took place, but nevertheless, this essential collection of tracks feels weighted in response to those incidents. Instead of working chronologically, the first half of this ‘best of’ collection begins by collating musical numbers from the group’s later efforts. These are songs fuelled by a mix of social consciousness, such as “Travellin’ Soldier”; sombre angst as in “Bitter End”; and beautiful melancholy in “Easy Silence”. Then there is the Fleetwood Mac cover “Landslide”—laced here with fiddles and Maines’ lingering drawl. The song is a fitting reflection of a band who have managed to soar to the greatest heights of musical success and who all of a sudden find themselves reflecting on their values, their history as a group, and evaluating the bond that binds them both as musical comrades, and as sisters.
Beyond this, fans will be pleased to hear that popular numbers like “Wide Open Spaces”, “Long Time Gone”, and “Cowboy Take Me Away” have also made the cut. The Essential Dixie Chicks is more than a mere collection of songs from an exceptional girl group. It is also a gathering of curated musical numbers, which consider the context, history and future of a band that not only managed to shake up the world of Country music, but that also straddled the world of Pop media and who had the guts to take on the beast that was the American media machine of the second Bush administration.
With 30 tracks, spanning thirteen years – this collection is a much better snapshot of the groups’ musical direction than the earlier release, Very Best of the Dixie Chicks. It is an evocative selection that captures a profound recent history in the Dixie Chicks’ repertoire. Let’s hope that the girls’ future holds plenty more of where that came from.