Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass

Excerpted from Pretty Good for a Girl: Women in Bluegrass by © Murphy Hicks Henry. Published by University of Illinois Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

Name one other banjo player who wears Prada. And I don’t mean Prada overalls.

—Natalie Maines

The Dixie Chicks

Dixie Chicks. Superstars. Winners of twelve Grammy Awards. Ninth on the list of top-selling women artists in any genre with over thirty million albums sold. These three talented women—Emily Robison, Martie Maguire, Natalie Maines—are glamorous, outspoken, controversial, fiercely independent, and business-minded. After the wild success of their first two Sony albums, they boldly sued the record company for a bigger slice of the pie and won their own label imprint, Open Wide Records. Furthermore, as No Depression magazine says, “Their daring and success have made it possible for any number of acts to have a fiddle or banjo back on the radio.” No little feat. But before any of this happened, they played bluegrass.

Martie (b. 1969) and Emily Erwin (b. 1972) began life parented by a mother, Barbara, who played classical violin and a father, Paul, who loved country music.

The family, including older sister Julie, moved to Dallas, Texas, around 1974 where Barbara soon had all three girls enrolled in Suzuki violin lessons. Martie ventured into fiddling when she was twelve. As she said, “I was looking for a kind of music I could make my own.” Emily started taking banjo lessons when she was ten. Not only did she love the sound and think it was “cool” but the former tomboy also says, “I think playing the banjo was not a thing for a girl to do and that gave me a thrill, to do something the boys were doing.”

Like many precocious bluegrass youngsters, Martie and Emily soon became part of a kids’ band joining Blue Night Express in 1982, a group which already included Sharon Gilchrist on mandolin and her brother Troy on guitar. The band lasted until 1987 when Martie headed to college.

Meanwhile, Robin Macy and Laura Lynch, who would become the other half of the original Dixie Chicks were also putting down musical roots. Laura, already a “cowgirl fashion freak,” was playing in a band called Fat Chance in Houston and had become friends with Robin. Robin had moved to Dallas in 1981 and had joined the bluegrass group Danger in the Air as it was forming around 1986.

It was out of this fertile musical mélange that the Dixie Chicks would emerge. Chick Chat, an irreverent fan newsletter, dates their “anniversary” as March 1989. Perhaps that is when they began rehearsals for what became their debut gig: playing on a street corner in Dallas that summer. Before long, they had decided on a name: Dixie Chicks. (From the Little Feat song “Dixie Chicken.”) “As far as marketing goes,” Laura said, “it was brilliant.”

In September 1990, the Dixie Chicks went into the studio and emerged with their first album, Thank Heavens For Dale Evans (1991). The band went all out on this self-produced recording, hoping from the start to attract a major label. On the cover the women espouse a retro-cowgirl look with pants, tailored cowgirl shirts, and 1940s hair. Inside, the fiddle and banjo tear through modern bluegrass arrangements as well as western swing numbers such as “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” The Journal of Country Music called it “impeccably played, NPR-worthy cowgirl kitsch and spirited bluegrass.” By 1992 the Chicks had sold more than 12,000 copies, big numbers for a regional bluegrass band.

In spite of everyone’s best efforts Thank Heavens For Dale Evans was not their ticket to the Big Time. So in the winter of 1992 the Chicks headed back to the studio to try again. According to a Dallas paper, all four women were feeling “the make-or-break pressure” the year would bring. Tears in the studio were mentioned.

Perhaps that pressure determined the shift in direction their second album took. Little Ol’ Cowgirl (1992) includes a variety of styles: western swing, rhythm and blues, Irish, folk, and gospel. The recording featured banjo and fiddle, yet it wasn’t bluegrass. For the first time hints of pedal steel drift in, yet it wasn’t hard-core country. The album just couldn’t seem to light. But the biggest change, right there on the first number, was the use of drums. A subtler difference was that Laura was now singing more leads than Robin.

Then that fall Chick Chat casually dropped a bombshell: The departure of Robin Macy. “We’re going to miss our singin’ and songwritin’, guitar pickin’ pal Robin and we hope all her dreams come true.” From then on the Chicks would be a trio. With side musicians.

Still pursuing that elusive brass ring, the band released a third album Shouldn’t A Told You That (1993) at the end of the next year. The sound was more unified than that of Little Ol’ Cowgirl and the direction was consistently country. Pedal steel and plenty of fiddle helped while the banjo had been toned down in favor of Emily’s Dobro. The women were willing to experiment with many things— except giving up their instruments.

Interest from a major label was just over the horizon but until then it was back to the same old grind: hit the road and hope for a break. That break came in 1994 with the appearance of manager Simon Renshaw. With Simon’s practiced hand on the wheel, the Chicks were headed for stardom. He thought that if they were willing to move into a “contemporary country music space” that he could make things happen. He did. On June 16, 1995, the Chicks signed a contract with Sony.

What happened next comes in all colors and sizes. The short version is that the label did not like Laura’s voice, and perhaps her age, thirty-seven. She was replaced by twenty-one-year-old Natalie Maines (b. 1974) who turned out to be a perfect fit. The leather-lunged firecracker from Lubbock, Texas, had grown up singing and said, “I always knew I was definitely going to do music.” After graduating from high school in 1992 she attended several colleges, including Boston’s Berklee College of Music, before joining the Dixie Chicks in November 1995.

For the last time, in December 1997, the Chicks would make a bawdy announcement about an album in Chick Chat. “The days of penny pinching and scraping together sofa change to make independent albums are over—sort of. We learned from it all, developing as a band (growing our musical boobies you could say) and we wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world, so now we are proud to announce that our first album on Monument Records is here!”

Wide Open Spaces (1998) would go on to sell twelve million copies; their second, Fly (1999), ten million. Both albums featured Emily’s banjo and Dobro and Martie’s fiddle which was one of the reasons they had signed with Sony. The Dixie Chicks began racking up the awards. Both recordings won Grammys for Best Country Album. After winning the Country Music Association Horizon Award in 1998, the Chicks were named CMA Entertainer of the Year in 2000, the same year Fly won Album of the Year, and then in 2002,Vocal Group of the Year.

But the Chicks, sitting on top of the world, were not happy. They felt that they were being denied millions of dollars in royalties by Sony. Suits and counter-suits ensued and, while lawyers sorted things out, the Chicks returned to Texas where they started working on a few acoustic-flavored songs. Soon they had a full-fledged album on their hands. Appropriately titled Home, the project was eventually released in the fall of 2002 on the Chicks’ own imprint Open Wide Records, formed as part of their settlement with Sony. This radical departure from a clearly successful format was seen by some as being “outside the boundaries of common sense.” Eventual sales of over six million albums and a Grammy for Best Country Album proved that the Chicks knew what they were doing.

The Chicks, riding high, were featured on the cover of People magazine in February 2003. Then in March, at the beginning of their “Top of the World” tour in London, as war with Iraq loomed on the horizon, Natalie made an off-the-cuff, on-stage remark: “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” And the fur started flying. As CMT music journalist Chet Flippo noted, “The reaction was unprecedented in country music history.” Radio stations banned records, fans smashed CDs, and the country music community split along the lines of “free speech advocates” versus “patriots.” That summer Natalie received a death threat so specific—“You will be shot dead at your show in Dallas”—that the FBI and Texas Rangers were called in. Natalie’s remarks and the surrounding hoopla were henceforth known as “The Incident.”

As time would tell, the Chicks not only survived, they prospered. In the midst of the controversy—and after their tastefully nude appearance on the cover of Entertainment Weekly in May—the Chicks suited up for the North American leg of their tour which resulted in the duel release Live on CD and Top of the World Tour: Live on DVD (November, 2003).

This DVD captures the power of angry Chicks in action. Although completely professional at every turn, with high-wattage smiles set on stun, their performances seem to crackle with extra energy as if the women were channeling their frustrations and rage at the media frenzy into their music. It was not until the release of the documentary film Shut Up and Sing (2006), which chronicled this tour from behind the scenes, that fans would learn what courage it took for the Chicks to keep on keeping on.

In 2003, Chet Flippo had ended his commentary about The Incident with a “Memo to Natalie Maines”: “You’re an artist? You have a message? Hey, put it in a song. We’ll listen to that. But otherwise—shut up and sing.” Three years later the Chicks did just that, bouncing back with Taking the Long Way (May 2006), which included the in-your-face single and video, “Not Ready To Make Nice.” In everything from song selection to rock producer Rick Rubin to the wall-of-sound mix, the album sounded like rock music.

Taking the Long Way went double platinum by January 2007 and earned five Grammys including Best Country Album and Album of the Year. Many people saw this as a vindication of the Dixie Chicks and free speech. On the other hand, if the country music community was listening, they apparently didn’t like what they were hearing. The Chicks were blackballed by the County Music Association, receiving no awards nominations.

Only a few months after Taking the Long Way was released, Shut Up and Sing, the award-winning documentary covering the Dixie Chicks and the controversy surrounding Natalie’s remarks was also released. The DVD reveals the impact the controversy had on the Chicks individually and as a group. Here Martie, Emily, and Natalie come to life as real people—sometimes in rollers and often without makeup. Their fears in the face of death threats are revealed as is their bravery in continuing to perform: “I’ll call you tonight. If I don’t get shot,” jokes Emily. Viewers also witness the hurt, confusion, and eventually anger they felt at being rejected by the country music community that they had been a part of all their lives. Yet, they did not falter, they did not fail, and they did not fold. As Emily said, “We’re a sisterhood. We go through the good, the bad, and the ugly together.”

The Chicks took several years of well-earned rest beginning in 2007, staying close to hearth and home. And, as Emily admits, since they all have kids entering school, things will be different. In 2010, Emily and Marty resurfaced with Courtyard Hounds (Columbia) on which Natalie was conspicuously absent. Rolling Stone called it “one of the year’s better country records.”

Even with their bluegrass days behind them, the Dixie Chicks continued to make the banjo and fiddle visible to millions of people every time they hit the stage or released a DVD. As Emily told NPR’s Melissa Block, “I always take personal offense anytime I’m watching any show or cartoon or anything where something backasswards is about to happen and they start the banjo music… There are stereotypes to be torn down and if I can help in that I will.”

Murphy Hicks Henry is a professional banjo player, teacher, and writer living in Virginia. She founded the Women in Bluegrass newsletter and has written regularly for Bluegrass Unlimited and Banjo Newsletter. She is also the co-creator of The Murphy Method, a series of instructional videos on playing the banjo and other bluegrass instruments.