The Dixie Chicks may be the Biggest Girl Band in the World, but that's just what gives 'em the right to crow about million-dollar legal fees, Michael Jackson "looking like an idiot and a fool," and soul-free country radio. Stephen L. Betts brings it all back Home to concert lovin' babies, friendship with rock goddesses and a very special idea for their upcoming tour.
The Dixie Chicks have two things to say about their recent lawsuit with record label, Sony: 1) It happened. 2) It's over.
"I don't think fans need to get bogged down in the business side of this business, which is not always the nicest or cleanest," says Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines, defending their decision (and their attorney's advice) to stay mum on the matter as the lawsuit unfolded in the media. "We didn't need to or want to be out in public, giving our side and sounding off. We were wronged, and I will stand behind that forever," maintains Natalie, 27, the most outspoken member of the Texas trio. "Whatever people thought, I hope what they get out of it is that we stood up for what we believed in."
Conscious of their position as female role models, Natalie adds, "I think that it's good for girls to see that we stuck our necks out and did what we believed was right. In the end we got a great, positive result."
Though she may have a reputation for unusual candor, Natalie does echo the sentiments of many artists who choose to keep their private lives private, and chastises those who take their case to the media without regard for discretion. As an example of the latter, she cites deposed King of Pop Michael Jackson, whose recent wranglings with Sony have included charges of racism against the head of the label, Tommy Mottola.
"I don't want to know everyone's goings-on," Natalie says. "I just like their music. I don't need to know what they do in business. Michael Jackson's playing out his ordeal the opposite of how we did. He did what we didn't want to do, and he looks like an idiot and a fool."
The lawsuit, settled this June with a new Sony contract, began a year earlier when the label sued the Chicks for breach of contract. The Chicks, unhappy with the terms of their original deal, countersued. The end result was a delay in the release of their long-anticipated follow-up album to Fly, which sold over 10 million copies. One stipulation of the new agreement was the establishment of the Chicks' own record label, Open Wide, to be distributed by Sony. The first release under the new label, the acoustically-driven Home, is fast approaching platinum status and has no doubt helped smooth things over for the trio and Sony.
"In friendship, you hold a grudge," says fiddle player Martie Maguire, 32. "In business, you don't have to hold a grudge, as long as you work everything out. I really do respect the fact that Tommy [Mottola] came to the table and admitted to a lot of things - relationship, communication and accounting problems that we've had. So many artists have problems with their labels, but in the whole scheme of their career, they realize that it's not worth it. As soon as our attorney's fees hit the one million dollar mark, we were like, 'This is ridiculous!'"
Martie, however, was able to keep her mind on another legal matter - matrimony. In August 2001, she wed Irish schoolteacher Gareth (pronounced Garth) Maguire. The two were married by a minister in Hawaii, then held another ceremony for his family in March 2002 in Northern Ireland. In spite of being involved in what she terms "this crazy, crazy industry," Martie says she's "just relieved to be settled again."
As for Emily, 30, she's spending more time with her husband, singer/songwriter Charlie Robison, whom she married in May, 1999. The couple is expecting their first child, a boy, in mid-November. The name they've settled on is Charles Augustus, though he'll probably be called "Gus," which Emily explains comes from their favorite character in the Larry McMurtry novel, Lonesome Dove.
Natalie and her husband, actor Adrian Pasdar (PAX TV's Mysterious Ways) met at Emily and Charlie's wedding and got married themselves in June 2000 following a Chicks performance in Las Vegas. They welcomed their first child, Jackson Slade, nicknamed Slade, in March 2001. Natalie jokes that she's been giving Emily a fair share of baby advice. "The books are pretty thorough," she says, laughing, "but I've told her a couple of things that they don't tell you. Usually they're not good things!"
The subject of Natalie's son naturally leads into a conversation about the new album which features a track named "Lil' Jack Slade." A rollicking bluegrass instrumental written by Emily and Martie with Terri Hendrix and the album's producer (Natalie's dad and Slade's grandpa), Lloyd Maines.
Martie admits that the three Chicks are "sitting on a goldmine," but, no, she's not referring to their renegotiated contract. She's actually talking about the results the three of them have experienced when writing together. Though the goldmine is just a single nuggest on Home, "White Trash Wedding," co-written by all three, is destined to be this album's closest thing to Fly's "Goodbye Earl" or "Sin Wagon" (though no loutish husbands or "mattressing dancing" are present). The song's comical line "I shouldn't be wearin' white and you can't afford no ring," may raise a few eyebrows at radio should it ever be released as a single. As to the song's origins, Martie says, "[It] did start out as a song my husband and I were writing, and we kind of abandoned it. I'd been married before, and he didn't have a penny to his name, and he'd come over from Ireland with the shirt on his back. So we kind of thought we'd poke fun at ourselves." At the breakneck pace of two minutes and 21 seconds, this hot bluegrass jam begs for repeated plays.
The Chicks mine their more tender side with the exquisite "Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)" written by Radney Foster, who wrote "Never Say Die" on their runaway hit album Wide Open Spaces. "It's just a heart-wrenching song, and the story [behind the song] is so touching," Martie recalls. "His wife moved their son [Julien] to Paris when he was 3 or something, and he was just devastated. I know it's hard when families split, but I just don't think it's in the best interest of the child to move them away from parents."
Radney wrote "Godspeed" to comfort his child at bedtime, even when he couldn't be there to tuck him in or read to him. Now 11, Julien still listens to Radney's version of the song every night before he goes to sleep. Martie remembers the difficulty the Chicks had recording the song, especially since Radney and his son were in the studio during the session. "Radney was sitting in a chair listening, and his son was behind him, with his arms around his shoulders, I just lost it! It's such a special song knowing the story. When we were in the studio, Natalie cut her vocals live. She went in and did it in a little hallway in the studio. You might be able to tell that this song sounds a little different from the others, with some of the cracks in her voice. The emotion is real, because she just could barely get through the song without thinking about Slade. Now when I hear the song, I guess because I'm around Slade all the time, I just think of that mother-son bond, and what a beautiful song it is." Natalie recalls, "I wanted to sing that one live with no overdubs. When I sing it, it's very difficult not to get choked up every time. I think I'm definitely more sensitive now that I have a child. I can just imagine if I didn't get to see my little boy every single day."
And according to Natalie, Slade is getting quite a musical education by hanging out with the Chicks and their friends. "He's been to a lot of concerts and that's probably where he's the most well-behaved. He's just mesmerized, and loves watching people play. Any time Martie's in the room playing fiddle and Emily's playing banjo, he could sit there, I swear, for eight hours and not move a muscle."
At just 18 months old, Slade has been to concerts by Sheryl Crow, Stevie Nicks, David Gray and Lyle Lovett, which Natalie enthuses "was one of the best shows we've ever seen." Sharp-eyed fans may also have witnessed Natalie's volcanic reaction when another obvious favorite, ZZ Top, took the stage at the CMT Flameworthy Awards.
Diversity is clearly a concept the Dixie Chicks have wholeheartedly embraced, the trio have infused Home with unique songs from writers like Patty Griffin and Stevie Nicks. Patty contributed the sharp-tongued and sensual "Truth No. 2," and the ethereal "Top of the World" which closes out the record and emphasizes their more mature tone. Their second single is Fleetwood Mac front-woman and legendary rock goddess Stevie Nicks' classic, "Landslide," which Natalie declares "is simply, one of the greatest songs ever written. She was actually 27 when she wrote it, so I found that interesting that she felt those lyrics at the same time I related to them in my life." Even though she and Stevie are friends, Natalie says she's careful not to over-analyze her lyrics. "I don't like to pry too much into each line because then it might ruin what it means to me. Stevie is just a wonderful woman to talk to, because everything that comes out of her mouth is so eloquent. She writes these little notes and letters to me that are as beautiful as her songwriting. She's such a beautiful woman and soul. What distinguishes her is that she is so supportive of other women. Maybe we connect more with older women in music. They've not our competitors. They have true advice. They've lived the life. Stevie's very open about who she is and the mistakes she's made."
As "Long Time Gone," their first single, was climbing the charts, many predicted it would stall well below its eventual No. 2 peak position, due in part to lyrics such as "We listen to the radio to hear what's cookin', but the music ain't got no soul." Martie says of those keeping too tight a playlist, "They don't know what they're missing - that's my beef with country radio. You've got to move your audience to a new place. Coming off the Fly tour, our most successful songs were songs like "Ready to Run," and "Goodbye Earl," those kind of in-your-face ... attitude-y, heavy bass, heavy drums. I just think you've got to tell the audience where you're going next, and hope they stick with you. And if they don't, maybe you open up to a new audience."
While she may not be crazy for country radio, Martie admits she still loves making, and watching, music videos. "I love to sit in front of CMT, or VH1, or MTV for hours. It's really entertaining. I just wish they would invest more in their videos and I wish the labels would pay for more of it. When I watch CMT, I'm sometimes more amused than entertained, because I see some of the worst videos I've ever seen in my life. I think it's because video budgets are so small, and artists get stuck using the same old directors," protests Martie. "I mean, the lyric will say, 'I put on my boots,' and they put on their boots in the video."
Although they'll take some time off Emily to have her baby, the Dixie Chicks are looking ahead to a new kind of tour that would allow them to play music from Home, but also showcase some of their collaborators. "We've talked about people like Bonnie Raitt, Keb Mo' or Sheryl Crow," Natalie says of one concept of the tour. "If Emmylou [Harris] or Patty [Griffin] wanted to come out and do an acoustic set, we wouldn't reall want full band, full production, full everything. It would be more like sharing the stage, almost a Crossroads kind of idea or a Lilith Fair. It wouldn't be like asking the latest artist on Sony to open up for us; it would be about giving the audience a different taste of things. We were definitely the oddballs on Lilith Fair, but a new audience opened up to us, and it really worked. We can't even begin to recreate it, but we like that idea."
While that will probably not happen until next spring, in the meantime fans can catch the Chicks on an upcoming network TV special, and on the CMT original series Crossroads, with longtime idol James Taylor.