It is hypothetically possible, if you close your eyes real tight, to listen to parts of the Dixie Chicks’ highly anticipated Taking the Long Way and not think about The Thing.
It’s feasible, I suppose, to take Natalie Maines’ grand, Springsteenian opening verses about burning down the road — “My friends from high school … moved into houses in the same ZIP codes where their parents lived,” she sings, before deciding her destiny involved hitting “the highway in a pink RV with stars on the ceiling” — as more of the Chicks’ frothy independent streak, delivered as always with a nice harmony and an ever-present twist of girl power. Of course, if you’re going to listen that way, it’d help if you weren’t awake. About eight seconds later, Maines reports that it’s been “two long years now, since the top of the world came crashing down”, and thus sets the stage for a pointed, polarizing and uniformly excellent record jam-packed with references to The Thing.
In the real world, there’s no confounded way to think about one second of Taking the Long Way out of the context of Maines’ declaration that she was “ashamed the president was from Texas”, and the years the Dixie Chicks have spent in country music’s equivalent of Gitmo, or maybe one of those dark prisons. It’s also impossible to ignore that in 2006, fully 70 percent of the country is also ashamed the president is from anywhere in America, and the Chicks return to a landscape almost mathematically opposite to the one they were forced out of in 2003. Back then, missions were accomplished, evildoers were being smoked commonly out of their holes and not many Americans had died. As such, on this new record, Earl doesn’t show up at all, and there aren’t any carefree frolics in wide-open spaces, merely cautious steps in grown-up and claustrophobic ones. And the Dixie Chicks, a band who built a lucrative reputation on their cotton-candy flavored fun-country, have recorded a mostly cloudy rock record that’s quite easily their best.
This is not to say that Taking the Long Way is a record of vindication; rather, it’s one of melancholy, veiled rage and, more than anything, disbelief. “How in the world can the words that I said / Send somebody so over the edge / That they’d write me a letter sayin’ that I’d better shut up and sing / Or my life will be over”, Maines howls in the controversial and largely ignored-by-radio first single, “Not Ready to Make Nice”, where producer Rick Rubin strips away everything but guitar and Maines’ surprisingly tenuous voice, as he’s done with a few other guys you might know. There’s an undercurrent of distrust over the war, sure, but they leave the specifics on Iraq alone, having already said their piece pretty loudly. The focus is more on that exile, the death threats, the astoundingly (if predictably) bombastic response they got from country radio and its notoriously red-leaning fans. “I’m through with doubt, there’s nothing left for me to figure out / I paid a price, and I’ll keep paying”, Maines goes on, with a calculated but somewhat weary sense of defiance. “It’s too late to make it right”, she continues, “I probably wouldn’t if I could”.
In a strict constructionist sense, it’s strange that this music genre out of any would turn its jean-jacketed back on anyone for speaking their mind anyway. For a musical field birthed by drunks and outlaws and losers, country sure isn’t into rabble-rousers anymore, unless, of course, they’re inserting boots into the asses of some brown people. Somehow, country rebellion has come to equal the support of the status quo; when Gretchen Wilson sings that slush-ball about being politically uncorrect, she’s attempting to invent a sincere defense of families and the working man, truly as if someone had ever come out against them.
The Chicks would tell you they have bigger fish to fry than sucking up to country radio anyway. Their break-up with the country establishment is certainly mutual, if not amicable — country turned its back on the Dixie Chicks, but the Dixie Chicks turned its back on it first. It was a label dispute with Sony that led to the sessions that produced 2002’s Home, a bluegrass-inflected old-timey record that ended up furnishing the Chicks’ biggest-ever hits.
So it was with a somewhat dismissive plan of attack that they approached Taking the Long Way, first deciding to follow more of a ’70s-rock path a la the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac (with whom they share a gift for lovely harmony), then enlisting Rick Rubin, then letting Rubin bring in some of the Heartbreakers and Chili Peppers to flesh out the record (in the liner notes, Martie Maguire writes that “Bitter End” came about because she’d “been listening to the Pogues a lot.” Whaaaaaa?). In another first — and a sign that this isn’t a true Nashville record — the Chicks wrote all 14 tracks (though the list of co-writers is a meaty one as well: Sheryl Crow, Gary Louris, Neil Finn, Keb’ Mo’, Linda Perry, Pete Yorn and Semisonic guy Dan Wilson help out).
Apart from the political material, they’ve rustled up some of their most gorgeous melodies, though the undertones of The Incident are never more than a layer or two away. “Easy Silence” provides sweet gratitude to a longtime lover/friend/general source of comfort, wherein Maines thanks him/her for “the peaceful quiet you create for me, and the way you keep the world at bay for me”. “Everybody Knows” is a little bit about the dark side of celebrity, but the melody, co-written by Louris, strikes the perfect balance between melancholy and arena-ready chorus. “Bitter End”, the gorgeous ballad with Maguire’s Pogues riff, furnishes a heartbroken melody good enough for last call at the bar of your choice. “I Hope” closes the record with gentle gospel touches.
The problem with Music Row country is that in addition to being mindless and boring, it slavishly follows market trends more than any label VP or hip-hop impresario could ever hope to. In 2003, it was the time for Keith, who released a garishly jingoistic song about ass-kicking that, along with that thing by Darryl Worley, redefined the word “profiteering”; now he pretty much shills for trucks and releases filler with titles like “White Trash with Money” eight times a year.
Taking the Long Way, by contrast, is an album of countryish rock, or country before country wasn’t cool, and the heroes it aspires to chase aren’t from that world anyway. “I hear they hate me now, just like they hated you,” Maines sings to the ghost of Buddy Holly in the rave-on-up “Lubbock or Leave It”, a slightly loving indictment of the lively forms of wide-open hypocrisy in her hometown, one of the last outposts that still won’t spin the Chicks on radio. “Maybe when I’m dead and gone, I’m gonna get a statue too.” Now here’s a girl who knows her way around her music history. Frankly, country could stand to listen to her.