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The Dixie Chicks aren't heading south.

by Alison Bonaguro
(as seen in The Chicago Tribune , June 4. 2006

 
 

To those who know his work, legendary record producer Rick Rubin is a god. If that's the case, will he be able to deliver the Dixie Chicks from evil?

Like the evil that surrounded them in 2003 when Chicks frontgirl Natalie Maines criticized George Bush. And the evil surrounding them now, as they promote their new album "Taking the Long Way," amid harsh criticism of their hard-to-define music and unrepentant voices. But Rubin's stripped-down style may be just what it takes to save the Dixie Chicks, even from themselves.

Rubin said, "We did this in a way that transcends country." The question now is, does the music transcend controversy?

Emily Robison thinks so. (Robison, her sister Martie Maguire and Maines make up the three Dixie Chicks.) "Rick's approach is to try anything, try everything and pick the best later," Robison said. "That gave us a very freeing feeling. He said the music would find its own way." Calling from her Texas ranch, Robison admitted she had felt intimidated by Rubin's track record. "But he put us at ease. He lives and breathes music, and his albums are organic and real," she said.

Not a country guy

Rubin is the one who MTV calls the most important producer of the last 20 years. But country has never been his bread and butter. Bands such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Run DMC and Weezer are Rubin's usual clients. His work in rap and metal has earned him a reputation for giving music a naked sound. And with the raw vocals, clean instrumentation and edgy songwriting of the Chicks, a sound such as Rubin's makes perfect sense. Country or not.

"We didn't want it to sound like traditional country. We did things like put a steel guitar in where you wouldn't normally hear one," Rubin said in a call from his California studio. Rubin added that the goal was to find the grown-up Dixie Chicks. "We needed to integrate Nashville turning their back on them," he said. "The controversy made people take them seriously. So in spite of the negativity, it gave them a serious voice."

That voice helped the group's new album sell more than 526,000 copies in its first week, putting it in the No. 1 slot on Billboard's Top 200 and Country charts. With their 2002 album "Home" as a benchmark, selling 780,000 in week one, "Taking the Long Way" isn't quite up to the Chicks' standards.

Fans who stood by the Dixie Chicks may not find what they're looking for on this album. Gone are the songs saturated with Maguire's country fiddling and Robison's finger-picking banjo. Gone is the honky-tonk assertiveness. Gone is the bluegrass sound at the heart of the 30 million albums the Chicks have sold, and the eight Grammys the group has won.

What remains, though, is Maines' distinctive, bewitching voice and the group's pure harmonies that pull listeners in regardless of anyone's preferred musical genre. Whether you agree with what they say or not, there's no denying that the voice they say it with can do no wrong.

And this time, all 14 tracks were co-written by the Chicks. Robison said that songwriting is something you can get better at with practice. "Martie, Nat and I tended to go back to the same country and bluegrass patterns, so we needed other writers to help us meld that with the new sounds," she said. And sometimes, it's the lyrics that come first. Like on "Favorite Year," which they wrote with Sheryl Crow. Maguire said, "I had a song idea where the person knows that a relationship wasn't right, but still wants the other person to look back on it as the best time in their life."

At release time, "Not Ready to Make Nice" came first. The song begins in a good mood, but the anger builds as the instrumentation is layered onto a lone acoustic guitar. The lyrics reflect the Chicks' unwillingness to come back oblivious of the hate. When the pace picks up midsong, Maines' anger picks up potency. By the time she gets to the song's bridge, a 28-second soliloquy on her contempt for those who threatened her, it's obvious she's a passionate woman.

Despite its we're-not-sorry message, the song's in heavy rotation on country radio in Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Minneapolis and Cleveland. It only went to No. 36 on Billboard's country singles charts, likely because some stations won't play it.

Positive response

Chicago's WUSN-FM 99.5 is one that is playing it. Mike Peterson, program director, told the Tribune, "Our goal was to find out if our audience wants to hear the Dixie Chicks or not. So far, the feedback's been overwhelmingly positive." And while the Chicks have been labeled as country-radio averse, it's not true. Any radio play makes them happy.

"We don't want to take our music off country radio," Robison said. "If they play it, it's just icing on the cake. But we just can't hand over the power to country radio, because we worked too hard."

Not every country station is so open-minded. "If it was up to me, I'd never push another Dixie Chicks button again," said Lynn Stewart, midday talent from St. Louis' WIL. "We don't have a no-play policy, but we threw the single against the wall and it didn't stick."

`Resolve to fight'

What about other formats? A hit on wwwdixiechicks.com suggests stations for requests. Chicago's WTMX-FM 101.9 is one of them, but they aren't playing it. Program director Mary Ellen Kachinske said, "Nobody's been requesting it." Nine FM's (WDEK-FM 92.5, WKIE-FM 92.7 and WRZA-FM 99.9) Johnny Mars played it for feedback, and took 14 calls in four minutes. The majority of callers ruled in the song's favor. Even iconic disc jockey Steve Dahl played the single on WCKG-FM 105.9. And liked it. "I can hear every bad day in that song. Their resolve to fight on comes shining through," Dahl said.

Like the single, the video that goes with it is a far cry from typical Nashville. British director Sophie Muller admitted the desire to do something extreme. So it starts with Maines smearing black ink on her white dress.

"The ink is a symbol of a stain that spreads," Muller said. When a group of doctors come on at the end, Muller said that's when Natalie "is being prepared for a lobotomy of sorts, which was a way of dealing with hysterical women in the past." Robison said that the Chicks trusted Muller completely, artistically and symbolically.

Country Music Television has given the video its ultimate blessing: heavy rotation. A spokesman for CMT said "it was really a no-brainer. It makes sense that we'd want to be the first to present this new chapter in their career."