The Dixie Chicks deserve a hero's reception for providing one of the few promising rays of light across today's dim pop landscape
It's a bold statement, but let's go ahead and say it: The Dixie Chicks have rescued pop music. It was touch and go there for a while. Pop was drowning in a sea of bad R&B, prefab teen queens, and second-rate rap. The scene is still damaged; lacking in quality, lacking in appropriate role models, lacking in excitement, enthusiasm, and energy. Pop needed a hero, someone to yank it from corporate clutches and place it in the loving hands of real artists and genuine musicians. It needed someone who could be an inspiration to the young and impressionable, and quick. The longer this gaudy rooster ruled the roost, the more time lots of little hens had to admire it, love it, imitate it, and perpetuate its crassness. After all, they knew nothing else.
Enter the Dixie Chicks.
Emily, Martie, and Natalie are first and foremost three girls from Texas, simple in their upbringing and straightforward in their backgrounds. They grew up in close-knit musical families in and around Dallas. Natalie's dad was a steel guitar pro, so she got a bird's-eye view of music-making. But Emily and Martie Erwin grew up like any normal kids in the '70s, splitting time between schoolwork, music, sports, and family. Their parents made sure the sisters - there were three - dedicated themselves to their endeavors, but they didn't push too hard. Music became a natural offshoot of their lives, one that stuck.
Emily and Martie began their sister act modestly by busking on the streets of Dallas. In the early '80s they formed an all-teen bluegrass act, and soon after, Martie won second place in a national fiddle competition. The band, originally known as Blue Night Express and including Robin Macy and Laura Lynch, would soon change its name to the Dixie Chicks.
But it wasn't until the sisters met Natalie, who herself started playing the fiddle at an early age, that things began to click. They initially came together in the studio, laying down the tracks for Little Ol' Cowgirl, one of their early releases. Producer Larry Seyer enlisted Natalie's dad, Lloyd Maines, to contribute to those sessions, setting in motion a chain of events that would lead to Natalie becoming the group's energetic lead singer. She was just 18 ... and boy, could she sing. A former Berklee College of Music student, her guitar playing wasn't too bad, either.
The Chicks took flight with the feisty Natalie on board. She complemented the sisters' prowess as singers and pickers with what one critic called "one of the most powerful voices in the business." Framing her stunning vocals with elegant harmonies and plenty of banjo, fiddle, and dobro, the Chicks' debut CD, Wide Open Spaces, took the country music world by storm in 1998. Too-hip-for-country teens began getting into the act, a growing legion of adolescent female fans - some wearing "Chicks Rule" T-shirts and carrying "I Want to Be a Dixie Chick" signs - prompted some to dub the Chicks "the Spice Girls of country." Yet as soon as you hear them rip into a nasty bluegrass instrumental, such as silly notion is quickly dispelled.
Wide Open Spaces earned the group top awards - including a Grammy for Country Album of the Year - and sold more than 11 million copies. It was the best performance by a debut album in the history of country music. Blending bluegrass skills, pop accessibility, rock beats, and stone country music with a brash, irreverent attitude, the Chicks have created a fresh, new sound that's instantly recognizable and always engaging.
Their follow-up, Fly, released in late 1999, proved that the trio was no one-hit wonder, as it reaped an even great harvest of honors, including more Grammys and the Country Music Association's marquee award, Entertainer of the Year. Better still, their achievements have not been limited to country and bluegrass. Their cool image and fresh attitude have helped the Chicks gain exposure to an ever-widening audience of pop music fans. Hallelujah - they came just in the nick of time. If that's not rescuing pop music, we don't know what is.
It makes sense that Women Who Rock would catch up with Dixie Chick Martie at home, where she was babysitting for a friend's baby. Home is refuge for these much in-demand women. Home is the place that provides them with a sense of belonging, away from the madding crowd. Home is also the name of the Dixie Chicks new album, and the place where Emily will be for some time following the delivery of her firstborn.
How hard has the band been working with Emily in her condition?
Martie: We didn't change too much, actually. We toured seven months for the album and did everything besides things you absolutely can't do, like riding a commercial airliner. But at eight months, she was flying in the Sony jet. We had a really active summer onstage, and she was up there with the banjo to the side of her big belly! She never complained, though. But considering what the alternatives are, the time you actually spend onstage is no big deal. Pregnant women have to go to work eight hours a day in real life! Everything we can do as a band, except for performing live, you can do on a couch - rehearse, do interviews. Being a musician is a great job to have for a woman. And country music is better for women than rock, because country does allow you to have it all - a career, family, and time to yourself.
Does the band feel fortunate to be able to have it all right now?
Totally fortunate. I just think success provides so many luxuries. Right now we can take time off and not feel like we're losing our audience. We can afford attorney's fees when you have to sue the label! When we first started, we didn't have time to come up for air. We had so much pressure, from people trying to make [us] famous, to not stop. You get the feeling if you stop for a minute you'll disappear from the face of the earth. Every record that does well now, though, allows us more freedom.
You're renowned for having complete control of so many aspects of your career.
We're one of those artists that is hands-on with everything. While it creates more work, and we could stay out of decisions, we like to be in control of our own careers. If something fails, we want to be able to blame ourselves, not someone else. It's your dream, you're passion, you're career.
So we take control of every detail. After the Crossroads TV show with James Taylor, Natalie and I spent tens of hours in the studio getting the mixes right. As we hire people that we really trust, we can move away from some of that. But we're also learning stuff every day about the business. I couldn't read enough about how the business works; royalty statements, calculating values. I've never run a business before. We spend so much time dealing with stuff other than music. We sometimes forget to be creative.
And speaking of creative, didn't some of the songs on Home come about from jam sessions?
Yeah, we sat around in a living room with Natalie's dad, brought our favorite songs together, and played them. We figured out what clicked and jammed on a few ideas. Lloyd was the perfect person to dive right in with us. He's our biggest cheerleader. If I play a fiddle solo, he feels like I can beat it. He knows when I play and sing my best. He loves acoustic music, and he's been great for the band.
Does that improv translate to the stage?
No, not as much onstage. I always wanted to be one of those bands that didn't have a set list, but we're way too paranoid for that. We had a party last year, and there were instruments everywhere, and we had a great jam. What I like is that nobody's too shy to take a stab at something, even if it's a song nobody knows. We'll just pick out a key and go for it. It's pretty much our favorite thing to do when we get together. I'm gonna record something like that one of these days.
You are all pretty savvy in the studio, too, right?
I wouldn't wanna know about all the mechanics of the studio. Technology changes so much, you have to focus on those changes and be a bookworm to keep up. I try to learn as much as I can. I have aspirations to produce, but not to be an engineer. You'd have to spend your life knowing that stuff. I depend on my ears; I don't understand hoe some of these producers aren't musicians. I don't understand why they're not. They don't even know how to strum a G chord. We got so much more confidence co-producing Fly and Wide Open Spaces and Home. Now, we all wanna be there all the time and work out our own solos and harmony parts and be there for every step. You have to care about the final outcome. But we're control freaks, no doubt.
Did it take a lot of dedication as a musician to get where you are today?
I remember when I was young how my mom used to bribe me. She'd day that fiddle was magic, and if I didn't play, the magic in it would disappear. Now I enjoy the recreation of it. To me, it's not practice and homework; it's about sitting down and having some fun. Practice then was set to an egg timer, when it went off, I could go out and play. Parents have a tough choice with their kids. If they don't practice, they won't develop that love affair. But if they do, they might resent it. How do you teach them to love music?
How do you keep music interesting?
I pick up new instruments all the time. I practice on the mandolin more than the fiddle now, because the fiddle feels like old hat. It's the same fingering, but a different picking hand. Now I want to learn the guitar. Emily picked up the banjo because she saw me doing something and wanted to join in. She grew up playing classical violin and piano, as did I and my other sister, Julia. If I heard Emily practicing a fiddle tune, I would go in there and beat the heck out of her. So she was forced to pick up something else.
You beat her up?
Not really, but she's always been the most versatile of all of us. She was the golden child growing up - she got straight A's, got accepted to the Air Force, voted class president. She played string bass in the orchestra, switched to banjo, and never abandoned anything. She can play everything - guitar, accordian ...
You've been really great role models for aspiring musicians, especially girls. What advice do you have for them if they ask?
I usually try to tell them to be patient, take time to hone their skill, because once you're out there, you want to have the confidence to fall back on your abilities. After we started in 1989, we got turned back several times. If we didn't have any adversity like that, we wouldn't be here today. But we knew who we were and nothing could change that. It's amazing how much pressure the labels can put on you. But you've gotta know when to say "No." You have to know when it's a compromise. I didn't get famous 'eil I was almost 30! There young people in their 20s don't need to get signed right now, today. I'm glad it took us a while. Now I'm 33, and I'm so much more grounded. Natalie, the youngest of us, has done the most changing. I can't say I handled the change well as the beginning. Our career had a lot to do with failing initially. I was selfish about my dream, my career. It's about about yourself and your dream.