What a difference a year can make.
On Aug. 27, 2001, the Dixie Chicks filed a lawsuit against Sony Music, accusing the company of "systematic thievery," fraud and racketeering. Today, exactly one year later, the group releases its new album, Home. Through Sony.
Much has changed for the Texas-based trio, whose two previous major-label albums, Wide Open Spaces and Fly, have sold more than 10 million copies each. Coming from the hottest group in country music, the nearly all-acoustic Home is a bold, adventurous move.
Though it's not the bluegrass album early gossip suggested, it's a drastic departure from the arena-size country on which the Chicks made their reputation, and it's a nearly 180-degree directional shift from the rest of today's heavily pop-influenced country radio.
On the personal side, lead singer Natalie Maines and husband Adrian Pasdar had their first child, son Slade, last year. Banjo player Emily Robison and country-singer/husband Charlie Robison are expecting a child, also a boy, in November. Martie Maguire, the group's fiddler, married teacher Gareth Maguire, Maines' brother-in-law, and is trying to get pregnant.
The Chicks made Home in Texas during the band's 10-month battle with its label, rehearsing at Maines' house in Austin, then producing the album with Natalie's father, noted Texas musician Lloyd Maines.
"I recognized it would probably be the only album that we would ever make without a label," Natalie Maines says. "So I really tried to enjoy that."
As a result, the album features versions of songs by some of the band's favorite singer/songwriters, such as Patty Griffin, Radney Foster, Darrell Scott and Tim O'Brien. There's a cover of Fleetwood Mac's Landslide. The band cut four original songs as well, two of them written with country singer Marty Stuart.
"We didn't have any set vision that this was going to be the third record," Lloyd Maines says. "We just went in and experimented with the acoustic aspect of it."
What began as an experiement and a bit of a risk could pay off big for the group. Initial reaction to the music has been strong: The first single, Long Time Gone, recently peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard/Airplay Monitor country chart. The group will cap an extensive round of TV appearances with an NBC primetime concert special in December. And, having almost single-handedly reintroduced the banjo to country radio four years ago with such songs as There's Your Trouble and Wide Open Spaces, the Chicks have made an album that the rest of country music must likely reckon with. O Brother, Where Art Thou? may not have had the clout to get acoustic instruments and bluegrass sounds onto the radio, but the airplay-staple Dixie Chicks sure do.
"They've got a big enough fan base that they can stretch right now," says Home engineer Gary Paczosa. "They don't need to wait five or six records to get some of these experimental things that they want to try."
But the road to Home had its share of potholes. In July of last year, the trio appeared on 60 Minutes II and told Dan Rather they had seen little of the $250 million in album sales they had had to that point. Two days later, the Chicks informed Sony that they considered their contract terminated as a result of unpaid royalties found by an auditor hired by the band.
Sony responded with a $100 million breach-of-contract lawsuit.
The Chicks countersued in August, saying Sony had employed "fraudulent accounting gimmicks" to hide more than $4 million from the group. It was the kind of suit that, had it been aired in open court, might have fundamentally changed the way recording contracts and, therefore, the entire music industry are structured.
And the suit claimed the women had "no intention of bargaining with Sony or otherwise continuing their recording career with Sony."
But the group that gleefully sang about killing an abusive husband on Goodbye Earl, a song from the previous album, did come back to Sony. Why were they so willing to return to a record company they had characterized as abusive?
"If someone makes something right, we're not going to cut off our nose to spite our face," Maguire says. "If you can salvage relationships in business, that's a good thing."
"The contract before was abusive," Maines adds. "The contract now is exactly what we want ... Let's just say the spouse went to rehab."
Adds Maguire: "Got reprimanded. Changed his ways."
Then Robison picks up the metaphor: "He got castrated!"
Sony Nashville declinde to comment beyond a statement from president Allen Butler saying, in part, "I know I speak for everyone when I say that we are proud to be associated with the group, and the newly formed Open Wide Records."
Maines says the Chicks ultimately returned to Sony, despite the claims of the group's lawsuit, "because, unfortunately, (record labels) all operate like that. And we have a good working relationship with Sony. We made a good team. We sold a lot of records together."
"We tossed around a lot of ideas," Maguire says. "First we thought, 'This will just be our little independent-released album.' Then we thought it might be cool to find a movie that would like some of these songs. As the songs started coming together and we started finishing them, we started getting more excited. We wanted more people to hear it. We don't want it just to be a fan thing on the Web site. So we were trying to find avenues to get it out there without getting sued ... too badly."
Maines says: "We looked at other labels as well. We were open to anything."
In returning to Sony, the Chicks also made concessions. The hardest, for a group of women known for their brashness and their candor, was that "we have to keep our big mouths shut," Maguire says.
A confidentiality agreement prevents the women from discussing the specifics of their contracts, past or present. The new contract reportedly includes a $20 million signing bonus and a 20% royalty rate on albums sold. The Chicks say both figures are wrong, but they won't tell by how much.
"One's high and one's low," Maines says coyly.
They say any acts signed to Open Wide, their new Sony-distributed label, won't be subjected to some of the clauses that the Chicks believe treat artists unfairly. But they're not saying which ones.
"They're probably going to want to create a (fair) contract for an artist that doesn't tie the artist's career down for a lifetime and 10," says Simon Renshaw, the group's manager. "It probably guarantees some honesty and truth in accounting, things like that."
But the standard practices of the music industry at large still stand. Though the legal wrangling with Sony gave the women a lucrative new contract and their own label, Maines calls the result a "hollow victory."
"In the beginning, we wanted to change something about the way the entire music industry is," she says. "Our hope in all of this was to make something better for everyone ... I don't think we did that. I think we got what we wanted, and got a personal and professional victory out of that, but I don't know how many doors or walls we knocked down."