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Dark Days in the Hen House: The Surprising Story Behind the Chicks' Struggle to Stardom


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By Larry Holden
Country Weekly - March 21, 2000

The Chicks' new single "Goodbye Earl" already has tongues wagging, but it seems destined to become yet another chart-topper.  It if appears that this Texas trio has the Midas Touch - that they can take a song about murder and turn it into a sing-along radio hit - well, they do.
But it hasn't always been that way.
When edgy lead singer Natalie Maines joined the founding sisters, Emily Robison and Martie Seidel, in 1995, the act was struggling.  The truth is, the Chicks nearly didn't make it into the national spotlight at all.
"When I came along, we were still a working band with bills to pay," explains Natalie.  "We were playing every gig we could find, including grocery stores.  We did a lot of embarrassing gigs.  We were definitely paying our dues.
"We were still using the pink RV the band had for years, and we took turns driving," she continues.  "When we finished a show, we'd go out and sell our own T-shirts and CDs.
"We all slept in the same Motel 6 room and flipped coins to see who'd sleep with Emily - 'cause she's a bed hog."
Bed-hog Emily also remembers those days.  "We couldn't afford an office manager, so Natalie took over that job.  I was the tax person.  And Martie was the road manager.
"When we'd pull into a gig, we set up our own equipment.  Then at the end of the night, we'd settle up with the club manager, even when they didn't want to live up to the amount agreed in the contract."
The worst part was when the crowd didn't even listen.  "You were lucky if they could hear you over the clicking of forks on their plates at corporate gigs," says Natalie.  "We had to play those places to pay the bills, but it was excrutiating for me.
"Heck, sometimes they'd want us to model the auction items, like furs and outfits!  We'd have to tell them, 'We play music, we're not models.'"
The Chicks also paid their dues behind the scenes.
"We knew we had one shot to land a record deal and we needed a new lead singer," recalls Emily of the band's pre-Natalie days.  "We needed to be re-inspired.  We needed someone to give us a new spark - someone who'd make Martie and I feel like we wanted to get up every day and hit the pavement."
Natalie was that inspiration.  "It was a really tough time," Martie confesses.  "You take a rish when you change lead singers.  Plus, we had a core fan base in Texas.  Even though Emily and I had faith in Natalie, we had to go onstage with a different sound and look than before.  And people resist change."
Natalie understood.  "It was a very brave thing of them to change the lead singer," she admits.  "Not many groups have changed their lead singers and survived.
"We did lose some fans with the switch.  But we feel with every hard-core bluegrass fan we lost, we gained two other country fans.  Still, it was nerve-wracking."
With Natalie on board, the Chicks finally got their shot at a record deal when Sony producer Blake Chancey flew to Austin, Texas, to evaluate them.  They passed their audition with flying colors and he signed them in 1996.
But the pot of gold still seemed light-years away.  First, there were financial obstacles to overcome.
"The label wanted us to record an album immediately," remembers Natalie.  "But we still had bills to pay.  We had an RV, an office and musicians on retainer, so we had to stay on the road."
Then came label politics.  "We were confident in our music, but it was clear we weren't the label darlings," admits Natalie.  "The efforts and money were going to other performers.  We were still the underdogs."
She pauses.  "Being the underdogs made us fight harder and drove us to make our first album, Wide Open Spaces, better and better.  We knew our sound was something country music needed."
However, success was still just out of reach.  "We never gave up," she confides.  "Every time we played a humiliating gig, our manager would call with good news about the new album or when our first single would release.  That good news kept us going."
And when success finally came, it came big.  Their debut single, "I Can Love You Better," landed them their first Top 10 hit.  That was followed by four No. 1s, including the recent "Cowboy Take Me Away."  Sales of their first album, Wide Open Spaces, have almost reached the nine million mark - the biggest-selling album every by a country duo or group.  And their follow-up, Fly, has already sold four million in just eight months.
And after five years of mind-boggling success, the Chicks recently found themselves in serious need of rest.  Admitting burnout, they took off five months to recharge.  Natalie and Martie wanted to put the pain of their recent divorces behind them.  Emily wanted to spend time with her new husband, Texas singer-songwriter Charlie Robison.
"The best part of married life is having a husband like Charlie," says Emily, beaming.  "He's my best friend.  I feel like I'm completely focused now.  And we support each other in our music.  We're constant cheerleaders for each other."
A special surprise was waiting for Natalie at Emily's wedding - a man who would become her boyfriend: Adrian Pasdar.
"Adrian was a groomsman and I was a bridesmaid," says Natalie with a smile.  "We walked down the aisle together.  So," she says laughing, "we feel like we've done that already.  We started at a wedding instead of ending there!  And we really have been apart since then.
"I love Adrian very much.  I now live in California where he is, and we have our dogs.  I have a Bulldog puppy, Ralph.  He'll be on tour with us.  And Adrian has Marley, a Staffordshire Terrier."
So, Natalie, what's the best thing that could happen to you in the near future?
"Babies!" she blurts without hesitation.  "That's the meaning of life."
Martie has one child from a previous marriage, but Natalie and Emily are still waiting for a visit from the stork.  And though no one has announced immediate plans for a new Chicklet in the nest, Natalie is clearly looking forward to the day when she'll be a mom.
"We all have plans to bring our kids on the road," she says.  "Separate busses.  Little families."
Re-energized, the Chicks are ready to tackle their headlining Fly tour, which starts in June.
"We're working very hard on it," explains Emily.  "We're spending a lot of time and energy looking at every detail.  We want to sell out our shows - and we think we can.  We'd love for this summer to be incredible."
If the Chicks' track record is any indication, it will be.

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