Music

20 Years After Their Debut, The Dixie Chicks Are Still Making Way For Women In Country To Speak Out

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When Dixie Chicks released their major studio debut, Wide Open Spaces, just over twenty years ago on January 27, 1998, the album’s mix of country roots, pop sensibilities, and a lack of “cowgirl crap” shot the Dallas, Texas-based trio to crossover fame.

They crafted Americana anthems both laden and stripped of romanticism, lines like, “Why the drama, we don’t have to drag out this situation / It wasn’t you, it wasn’t me, sometimes the chemistry don’t ignite” curdling in the sailing fiddle of “Let ‘Er Rip.” The title track celebrated small-town upbringings and crystallized those youthful eye-stars that crop up when leaving them; “There’s Your Trouble” smacks like hickory bubble gum, teasing out love gone wrong. The record contained skilled multitudes embraced in the country cannon while inching out further into pop territory.

Wide Open Spaces sold 10 million copies and won the Best Country Album Grammy; three of its singles reached No. 1 on the Top Country Albums charts. Rolled in shiny satin coordinated outfits and soulful Natalie Maines leading vox, Dixie Chicks made country music for country music fans as well as people who didn’t know they liked country music — or, rather, those who did all their appreciation quietly, skeptically. The knockout release solidified the three artists a cozy, respected seat in mainstream music, coaxing out two more similarly popular full-lengths, 1999’s Fly and 2002’s Home.

Then, in 2003 on the Home tour, the same honky tonk community that once embraced the Chicks’ virtuoso pushed them back out for anti-George W. Bush sentiments. They weren’t even making political music. Maines proclaimed onstage in London they were “ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas” in protest of the U.S. invading Iraq, thus yanking their discography from countless country music radio stations.

The trio’s opinions which didn’t line up with conservative country music at large earned them punishing sentence that stretched for far too long, perhaps capturing a less ADD period of time before the daily onslaught of Twitter outage. Three years after, when hosting the Academy of Country Music awards, Reba McEntire, joked, “If the Dixie Chicks can sing with their foot in their mouths, surely I can host this sucker.”

Despite using the incredibly dated band name diluting the three serious musicians to an assonance-infused moniker focusing on their gender identities, such “brazen” comments as the one that pushed them outside the bubble of acceptability also paved the way for marginalized musicians to preach their political views that may conflicts with those of their fans, even when said views don’t ebb into the actual music.

It wasn’t till three years after the George W. comment backlash did the Chicks start getting overtly meditative with their work, releasing “Not Ready to Make Nice,” a brooding slow-burner with seething lines such as, “And how in the world / Can the words that I said / Send somebody so over the edge / That they’d write me a letter / Saying that I better / Shut up and sing / Or my life will be over?” It highlights the emotional and financial cost of women speaking their mind and standing their ground. And in the Chicks’ case, that cost reduced their work and intellectual worth to that of a jukebox with blond hair.

The track “Not Ready” appeared on, 2006’s Taking The Long Way, went to No. 1 but also marked the beginning of an indefinite hiatus for the band, further punctuated by Shut Up and Sing (also released in 2006), a documentary capturing the Dixie Chicks after that fateful London show.

However, despite how damaging one glib comment proved on three humans’ individual careers, Maines’ onstage remark absolutely made way for other artists to speak up without having to make explicitly political work to be taken seriously. Last year, Katy Perry, who campaigned for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign, told Vogue: “I don’t think you have to shout it from the rooftops, but I think you have to stand for something, and if you’re not standing for anything.”

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In this specific interview, Perry was referring to Taylor Swift, a country-to-pop icon who has remained in a milquetoast homeostasis of non-opinion — even through the oppressive hell of last year, including the xenophobic travel ban and the highly triggering #MeToo sexual assault reckoning that’s still playing out.

At the time, female country contemporaries like Faith Hill and Shania Twain (who is admittedly Canadian) kept mum about politics. The Dixie Chicks were a cautionary tale for women in country music for awhile while Toby Keith was allowed to sing about shoving shoes up butts as an act of patriotism. Their name even doubled as a verb, warning other women to keep quiet about liberal views if you want to keep fans. No one wanted to get “Dixie Chicked.”

Today, unlike in 2003, any person with with pop cultural clout is expected to have articulated — often left-leaning — opinions on the world carrying on around them. Newer star Kelsea Ballerini made a whole record criticizing the patriarchy in the country genre. Carrie Underwood tweaked “Before He Cheats” to blast Trump at the 2017 CMAs.

Hill and Twain both have since found their voices, too, in the past year, speaking out for gun control and women’s rights, respectively.

The Dixie Chicks found a platform through the success of Wide Open Space and thus made it harder to cherry-pick liking an artist’s work vs. liking the views person making said work. It’s an important accountability any individual with a platform should acknowledge and respect; a part of their duty as a public person—one some, at least Miranda Lambert, continues to reject. But artists like Lambert are in the minority.

During the hiatus, Maines put out a solo album in 2013 called Mother; sisters Martie Seidel and Emily Robison reformed as new group Court Yard Hounds to release two records between 2010 and 2013. In 2016, the Chicks performed Beyonce’s “Daddy Issues” with Bey herself at the CMA Awards — a genre-busting performance evidence of which seemed to disappear from social media after more backlash. Unfazed, the four women dropped the collab as a single.

Earlier in January, the original band released live album DCX MMXVI Live, which includes “Wide Open Spaces,” an acoustic cover of “Daddy Issues,” and Fly’s anti-domestic violence anthem “Goodbye Earl.”Earlier in January, the original band released live album DCX MMXVI. The trio has not disappeared, but their tumble from widespread popularity signals a contribution larger than an exquisite pop-country catalogue. The Dixie Chicks cleared out wide open spaces for other women in country to use their platform to elevate issues important to them — no matter how unpopular they may be.

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