Country music's hippest new act makes feathers fly
On a rainy Nashville afternoon, the three members of the Dixie Chicks sit in an expensive Nashville hotel suite, picking at gourmet salads and pasta dishes and discussing their stressed-out schedule. Amazingly, they're laughing rather than griping as they snap through a series of difficult choices on how to fill the few open days on their calendar.
Right now, everyone wants the Dixie Chicks. An avalanche of invitations from TV, magazines and awards shows have piled up in the wake of the band's sudden skyrocketing success. Mainstream, non-musical publications like Harpers Bazaar, People, Seventeen and YM have been tripping over each other to get the Chicks on their pages. The act has also been pegged as the new print-campaign spokeswomen for Candies footwear - a perfect fit for the hip, colorful group and the hip, colorful line of shoes.
Clearly, the pressure is on: With a full concert schedule already on the books, the trio of Natalie Maines, Emily Erwin and Martie Seidel have more offers than time.
"Believe us, we're not complaining," smiles Erwin. "Bring it on, I say."
As they go over the schedule, their choices and opinions might surprise other country stars - and that's part of what sets apart this ground-breaking trio.
"The stuff we want to do is not what other people would normally do," says singer Maines, easily the act's more extroverted member. "We'd much rather do something fun and cool than the stuff that other people might think of as 'the big-time.'"
For instance, among television offers, the three blondes display the most excitement about Loveline, a saucy MTV series in which a psychologist and a comedian talk frankly about modern relationships with celebrity guests and call-in viewers. Much of the time, the discussion centers - often graphically - on sex.
"Any excuse to talk about sex is all right by us!" quips Maines, bringing a burst of laughter from her partners.
Blake Chancey, a Sony Records vice president who coproduced the trio's hit album Wide Open Spaces with Paul Worley, says the Chicks are an incredible combination of synergy and sass.
"They're all perfectionists, and they're all very opinionated," says Chancey. "They're totally individuals. Natalie is kind of wild but very genuine, and the sisters are very passionate and particular about their work. It's amazing that they can sit in a room and not kill each other, really."
That strong sense of who they are and where they want to go might surprise those who initially wanted to stereotype the trio as yet another prefabricated group of pretty faces foisted on the public by the music industry. Skeptics initially questioned the talent and depth of the group, thinking that perhaps they were a concoction put together by a behind-the-scenes musical puppet master. However, as people have discovered, the Dixie Chicks are experienced performers and capable instrumentalists - qualities that have been silencing doubters and turning skeptics into believers.
"We like proving ourselves," says singer-guitarist Maines. "We like it that people get a kick out of the idea that we're blondes and we can really play instruments. People find that humorous, and that's OK with us."
The truth is, it's the band's commitment to creating a fresh sound and an equally refreshing image that has turned the Dixie Chicks into country's hottest new act. After only four hit singles - "I Can Love You Better Than That," "There's Your Trouble," "Wide Open Spaces" and "You Were Mine" - the trio's debut album has sold 4 million copies. The Chicks were also the toast of the Grammy Awards in February, taking home country-category trophies for Album and Duo/Group of the Year.
The Dixie Chicks originally formed in 1989. Erwin was a 16-year-old high school student, and 19-year-old sister Seidel was in her first year of college when they joined with singer Laura Lynch and guitarist Robin Macy to perform acoustically on the street of Dallas.
Even then, Erwin and Seidel were accomplished performers. Seidel began playing fiddle at age 5, Erwin was plucking the banjo by 10. Both sisters had spent several years on the bluegrass festival circuit as members of a teen acoustic band, Blue Night Express, before helping form the Dixie Chicks.
"We came out of bluegrass, so we could play," Seidel recalls. "That would always surprise people. It still does, I guess. They don't expect us to be able to do anything but sing and be pretty. We've always had fun shocking people with what we can do."
Lynch, who formed the group, wanted to start a band that played old-time western swing, cowboy music and bluegrass. She dressed the group in colorful western wear, hung a rubber chicken from the neck of her acoustic bass and dubbed the act The Dixie Chickens. The name was inspired by the song "Dixie Chicken," a rock hit for the band Little Feat. People kept shortening the name to Dixie Chicks, and the group soon followed that lead.
"If we had known we were going to get beyond the street corner, we probably would have thought about the name more," Seidel says with a laugh. "But every time we thought about changing it, our fans wouldn't stand for it."
In the early '90s, the band became a popular concert group, especially in Texas. Multimillionaire businessman Ross Perot adopted them as his favorite band, hiring them to play at corporate functions and big family parties. When Perot entered politics and mounted his run for president, the Dixie Chicks were often called upon to perform at campaign rallies. They performed at Dallas Cowboy games, on the Grand Ole Opry and at Bill Clinton's first Presidential Inaugural Gala.
"We had a lot of good opportunities along the way," Erwin says.
When interest from record companies didn't come, they created their own independent label and released their own albums. Eventually their three albums - Thank Heavens for Dale Evans, Little Ol' Cowgirl and Shouldn't a Told You That - sold more than 90,000 copies combined, largely from sales at shows and through the mail.
"We had a lot of fun, but it was a hard way to go," Erwin says. "A lot of the time we were playing gigs where the situations weren't very compatible to performing well. We didn't have as much to look forward to as we do now."
Even with a Nashville manager and booking agent, the act wasn't able to stir up recording interest from a major label. That's when the band knew it was time for a change. "The truth is, Martie and I started to feel limited creatively," Erwin says. By this time, guitarist Macy had already opted out of the act. Seidel and Erwin started thinking about the band's future.
"We felt we needed the next caliber of singer," Erwin continues. "We talked to Laura. We knew she was getting sick of not progressing further than we had. She had a teenage daughter, and road life was really wearing her down. She said she didn't want to keep going unless something happened. She understood we had to make a change."
Natalie Maines - whose father, Lloyd, a respected steel guitarist who had actually played on two of the Chicks' indie albums - was familiar with the band and had seen the Dixie Chicks perform a few times. "I was always impressed at how well Martie and Emily played," she says. "But as far as the cowgirl music they were playing, I wasn't really into it."
Still, when the two sisters considered new singers, Maines was the first to come to mind.
"We knew she had a good voice," Seidel says. "We knew she came from a good family, and we were 90 percent sure she was a good person and someone we could get along with. We knew about her personality - that she was really outspoken and kind of bold and aggressive. She seemed like a front person for a band, which I knew neither of us wanted to be."
The sisters sent Maines a song they'd co-written, "You Were Mine." It was a contemporary country song rather than a retro-swing or cowgirl song.
"I was surprised at how it sounded," Maines says. "I figured that if they wrote that, then that's where they wanted to go with the music. I could go there, I told them."
That song was among those that drew the attention of Sony Music. Allen Butler, president of Sony Music Nashville, met with the act and asked them why they wore retro-western clothes and why they played old-fashioned songs. "They told me, 'It makes us different, it makes us stand out,'" Butler recalls. "But, unfortunately, it made them so different that they wouldn't have fit in the country format. They were a great club act, but that was it. They weren't a recording act. But then they got Natalie, and it all changed." Butler signed the new and improved Chicks to Monument Records.
With Natalie installed as their lead singer, the trio brought in songs that some might consider outside of the usual Nashville fare, including "Am I the Only One (Who's Ever Felt This Way)," an old Lone Justice tune written by Maria McKee; "Loving Arms," an old Dobie Gray hit; "Give It Up or Let Me Go," an early Bonnie Raitt song; and "I'll Take Care of You," written by J.D. Souther.
The musical decisions obviously worked, which is why the band is talking about career pressures instead of moaning about a lack of work. The only downside to being so busy, they say, is that is separates them from loved ones.
"Sometimes I feel like we're paid to be away from our family," Seidel says. "I'm not paid to perform and play and write. That's the fun part."
The Chicks' rapid accent to the top left one family member in its wake. In January, Maines, the youngest of the three women at 24, filed for divorce from her husband of just over a year, Austin musician Michael Tarabay. Seidel, 26, is married to Ted Seidel, a pharmaceutical salesman. Erwin, 30, is engaged to Charlie Robison, a well-regarded Austin singer-songwriter who records for another Sony affiliate, Lucky Dog Records.
In the studio, the trio had to overcome being stereotyped as pretty faces rather than talented musicians. Chancey encouraged the women not to dress up - in fact, to dress down - before arriving for recording sessions.
"I told them to please wear baggy jeans, raggedy clothes, to put their hair up - anything to play down how beautiful they are," says the producer. "I wanted the studio guys to concentrate on them as musicians."
The trio's unconventional musical style made the music distinctive, Chancey believes. Putting the acoustic sounds of Seidel's fiddle and mandoline and Erwin's banjo and dobro within energized, comtemporary country arrangements differentiated the Dixie Chicks from other modern Nashville acts.
"They're playing on every song, and it really gives the songs a personality," Chancey notes. "The sound is more organic - there's less reverb, and the acoustic instruments are more prominent. Nobody else out there sounds like the Dixie Chicks, and that's one of the reasons they're having this success."
At this point, even skeptics are realizing that the Dixie Chicks are an honest-to-goodness band, no an over baked studio concoction. "They are the music," says Sony's Butler. "It's completely their sound. They didn't walk in and have someone say, 'I can make you a star.' They've worked hard and paird their dues. Their experience is deep, and it's real."
As for the band name, the trio admits it still raises eyebrows.
"We sometimes get flak about the 'chick' part," Seidel says. "It sometimes rubs people the wrong way, especially some women, because we're all trying to get away from the condescending labels women can get stuck with. But when they see us play and see we've taken control of our careers and our own lives, they usually say, 'Oh, yeah, now I get it.' It's an empowerment thing."