Step aside, Shania! The Dixie Chicks invade the land of Lilith
"We really are down to earth girls," Emily Robison assures me, "but we love to dress up." Robison is sitting in the Dixie Chicks' dressing room, backstage at the Lilith Fair's San Diego stop. She's wearing a lightweight lime green little summer dress. Crowning her lank, blonde hair is a kind of novelty beret - something that the late Groucho Marx might have worn in his decling years. It's fashioned out of Astroturf; and the top is supposed to be a golf course putting green, with a little white flag and full sized golf ball dangling from a string.
The Dixie Chicks are big on cute. Like the story they invariably tell about how they made a pact to get little chicken feet tattooed on their own feet for every hit record they scored. For a punch line, the three of them will line their ankles up, display their tattoos and giggle in unison.
The Dixie Chicks also do lots of cute photos: Posing with big cigars. (They're tycoons!) Three blonde heads lined up along a recording studio mixing board. The fact is, the Dixie Chicks would be unforgivably nauseating if they weren't the front end of one damn good country band. Robison plays banjo and dobro with the easygoing mastery of a seasoned Nashville studio cat, while her older sister Martie Seidel channels Chubby Wise on her fiddle and mandolin. Singer Natalie Maines possesses one of the greatest voices in contemporary country.
She can go from dulcet high notes to a barnyard howl and make you glad to come along for the ride. She grabs hold of a song and throttles it good, singing with a kind of barely controlled emotiveness that sometimes brings the late Patsy Cline to mind.
The Dixie Chicks have accomplished an admirable musical feat. They've injected a note of genuine roots country and bluegrass into their state-of-the-art Nashville pop arrangements. This sets them apart from "designer country" counterparts like Shania Twain, and is frequently used to deflect criticisms that the Dixie Chicks are just the Country Spice Girls - the backwoods Bananarama. The Chicks come on stronger than ever on their newest album, Fly (Monument/Sony), the follow-up to their sextuple platinum Grammy magnet Wide Open Spaces. They've upped the rock quotient on tracks like "Hole in My Head" and "Some Days You Gotta Dance." Of course, the album contains a good measure of lavish, chart-friendly ballads ("Cold Day in July," "Without You," "Heartbreak Town"). But the Chicks and their backing band also show how they can tear the top off a Texas honky-tonk shuffle ("Hello Mr. Heartache"), or electrify bluegrass pickin' like hillbillies on amphetamines ("Sin Wagon").
"I think we had a lot more confidence on this album," says Robison. "Even in our choice of instruments, like concertina and pennywhistle on 'Ready to Run' [Fly's Celtic/Titanic inflected opening track]. There's more organ on 'Hole in My Head.' That's probably the most rocking thing on there. It's pretty balls-to-the-wall. But I think there's stuff on the album that's more tender as well. I just think it's a broader based record. It's not as safe, not as down the middle."
The Dixie Chicks are ripe for a big-time pop or rock crossover. Which is presumably what they are doing at the Lilith Fair. Gender aside, it's hard to imagine a more un-Lilith act. Nearly everything about the Dixie Chicks package seems diametrically - if not philosophically - opposed to the makeup-free sincerity of traditional Lilith mainstays like Alanis Morissette, Patti Smith or the Indigo Girls. The Dixie Chicks at Lilith ... those very words evoke a sitcom-magnitude clash of cultures. While other groups are grazing on organic nuts and dates in their dressing rooms, the Chicks are going straight for the empty calories. They've got three different types of chewing gum in their backstage rider: Bubbalicious, Trident, Big Red Plen-T Pak. There are mints, chocolates, Rold Gold pretzels, Lay's Classic potatos chips, Coke ... These gals sure ain't making any concessions to any whole-grained alternative lifestyle - in their diet or their music.
"We're bringing country to the Lilith Fair," Robison declares. "We're not trying to fit into the niche of what people expect from the Lilith Fair. We're trying to open up a new side to it, whether it be our instrumentation, our song choice or our stage show. If we're pulling the wool over some 16-year-old's eyes, thinking it's not actually listening to country, that's great, as long as we can get it over to the format. That's really our goal. We want to play country. We're not looking to make a crossover. If a song crosses over, great. But we're not gonna let that dictate our music."
Sisters Martie and Emily Erwin (their maiden name) acquired their bluegrass roots at an early age. They were still little girls, growing up in Dallas, when their school teacher parents put instruments in their hands and encouraged them to play. Soon they were doing bluegrass festivals - those quaintly American gatherings where families picnic on the grass while the Junior Clawhammer Banjo Semifinals (5-8) move through their predictable paces on a nearby platform.
"Our parents weren't stage parents at all," says Emily. "It was more of a family retreat, going to bluegrass festivals all weekend. We'd go back to school and our friends didn't even know what we did. When you live in north Dallas, bluegrass isn't exactly the coolest thing."
Emily was just 12 when she joined Martie - three years her senior - in a bluegrass band called Blue Night Express. It was 1984. Four years later the sisters formed the Dixie Chicks, with Robin Lynn Macy on guitar and vocals and Laura Lynch on vocals and bass. They adapted their name from the Little Feat song "Dixie Chicks," and dressed up like cowgirls.
"We'd put on the old gingham," Robison recalls with a shudder. "Fringe, spangles and sparkles a la Porter Wagoner. It was a kind of novelty thing. We played a lot of private parties, restaurants, bars - shitty gigs. We did anything. We were lucky we were making a living at it. Surviving."
Lilith attendees buying Tibetan goddess amulets and Che Guevara mouse pads at the fair's craft booths on this sunny San Diego day might be surprised to learn that they're about to be entertained by former George W. Bush pompom girls. Apparently, the Chicks have some powerful friends back in Texas, including the ex-president's son, state governor and most likely next Republican candidate for the White House.
"Yeah, when George has his gubernatorial inauguration, we played that," Robison confirms. "But I guess it was Ross Perot more than George who kinda befriended us. He heard us one day and loved us. He said something in the New York Times about us being his favorite band. It was when the whole Kuwait thing was happeneing, and he'd hire us to play at these parties he's have for the troops when they came back. It was a neat connection. I don't know if politically we were on the same page, but he's a neat guy. One of the funniest guys I ever met."
Politics is a very vexed question when the conservation world of country intersects with rock's radical orbit. The Byrds recorded "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man," in the '60s, when Nashville showed some reluctance to embrace their scruffy hippie rock 'n' roll asses. Now it's 1999 and Natalie Maines is about to go out and do stale "Bill and Monica" jokes on the Lilith stage.
Behind the scenes, the Dixie Chicks have been through their share of interband politics as well. The original Chicks lineup recorded four indie albums: Thank Heavens for Dale Evans (1990), Home on the Radar Range ('91), Little Ol' Cowgirl ('92), and Shouldn't a Told You That ('93). And although there's some excellent work on those four discs, Emily and Martie tend to downplay them.
The fact is Robin Lynn Macy left the Dixie Chicks somewhat arcimoniously in 1992, uncomfortable with the group's burgeoning pop tendencies. "She just wanted to play bluegrass," says Robison of Macy. "We wanted to play dances. We wanted to get out of just playing weekend bluegrass festivals and start playing other places. I was 16 and Martie was 19. We were still trying to figure out who we were as people, much less what we wanted to do musically. It was kind of searching process. Music should be fun. We wanted to have fun. We wanted to experiment with different instruments."
Next to leave was Laura Lynch, who made her exit in '95, just as Natalie Maines was coming in. "Laura was quite a bit older than we were," says Robison, "and wasn't into riding in the RV anymore and playing all the gigs. [The Dixie Chicks used to tour in a pink RV. Cute, huh?] A lot of stuff we were doing at the time was pretty embarrassing. You had to swallow your pride quite a bit. So she decided to leave and we asked Natalie to join us."
In the current official version of the Dixie Chicks' history, Day One is the day Natalie arrived. Like the Erwin sisters, Maines had grown up around down-home music. She's part of country dynasty the Maines Family: the daughter of pedal steel ace Lloyd Maines, who now plays in the Dixie Chicks backing band. Emily and Martie had known Natalie for years, but they didn't really connect musically until Lloyd Maines gave the sisters a copy of his daughter's demo tape. Fresh from studes at Boston's Berklee College of Music, Natalie became the newest Dixie Chick. Her arrival served as a catalyst for the group's reinvention of itself. Musically, Maines' hard-hitting singing style caused Emily and Martie to rethink their own vocal approach.
"It took six months to a year," says Emily. "At first, Martie and I were singing a lot softer and Natalie was singing a lot harder. We met somewhere in the middle. Martie and I learned to sing stronger just by having to. 'Cause Natalie was singing so strong. Martie and I kind of had to re-create how we sang. 'Cause we'd been singing kind of Dolly Partonesque vocals."
Maines also had a key role in ousting the cowgirl look. "She said, 'I'm not wearing that,'" Robison laughs. "We said, 'That's fine. We're ready to change.' But you should have seen some of the stuff we wore early on with Natalie. It was embarrassing."
Embarrassing or not, the Dixie Chicks' new look and musical direction landed them a deal with Sony Nashville's newly-revived Monument label. The Chicks played hardball with the label. They insisted on contract clauses stating that they'd be allowed to play their instruments on their album, and that the disc had to have no less than 12 songs, so that fans would get their money's worth.
"The label was like, 'Of course you can play on your own album,'" says Robison. "So it wasn't as much of a battle as we were prepared for. Initially, when we went to the label, we were very confident, like 'We make our own money. We got our own gigs. We don't need you.'"
By the time Wide Open Spaces was completed, stylist Renee Fowler has come on board to help the Chicks sort out their fashion aspirations. Fowler captained a full-on glamour team, including hair and makeup people. The Chicks' naturally blonde hair was lightened, and according to an article in the Tennessean, Hard Candy cosmetics are used to "play up Maines' lips and eyes, while [Emily's] lips and [Martie's] eyes ten to get the most attention."
Did the trio feel at all uncomfortable being processed through the makeover machine?
"Are you kidding?" says Robison. "We loved it! What girl who likes that kind of thing wouldn't want to have someone say, 'Well, I'm going to go to New York and buy all these clothes, and you just pick out what you want.'? What girl would say, 'No, I think I'll just stay in my jeans and T-shirt.'?"
When Wide Open Spaces hit the street, it proved an irresistable package, yielding a string of hit singles ("Wide Open Spaces," "I Can Love You Better," "There's Your Trouble," "Tonight the Heartache's on Me") and capturing a brace of Grammys and Country Music Association awards. With their blend of rootsy pickin', savvy country pop production and freshly airbrushed image, the Dixie Chicks could do no wrong, commercially.
And early and steadfast ally was designer Todd Oldham, also know for dressing Fran Drescher on TV's The Nanny. "Todd's been a great supporter of ours," Robison enthuses. "He's on the same wavelength as we are. We like to create our own personalities and have works with us on that. I think tonight we're going to wear some brand new outfits that Todd designed for the Lilith Fair. Kind of hippiesque belly dancer look. They're very bold. Very Chickesque."
True to Emily's word, the Dixie Chicks make no musical conncessions to the Lilith Fair demographic when they take the stage in San Diego. They open up with "Hello Mr. Heartache," a weepy honky-tonker that's as country as country can be. Down front, three shirtless dudes with muscles and backwards baseballs caps are the first to react. They're on their feet and pumping their fists. They've been put in touch with their inner redneck and they seem to be enjoying it. The women are a little slower to come around. Some of the teenage girls looked bored; there are a few scowls and crossed arms among slightly older women who've turned out for Sarah McLachlan or Sheryl Crow. But by the end of the first number, most audience members are grinning from ear to ear. Many here have never heard a shit-hot live country band in full cry. It's a hard sound to argue with. The applause is warm as the song's final chord dies. Natalie hollers out a greeting, Minnie Pearl style: "Hi, y'all. Weee're the Dixie Chee-icks!"
As for the Oldham "Lilith" costumes, they're ... well ... different. Emily looks like a strange cross between Stevie Nicks and a hula dancer, dressed in a vividly multi-hued frock that's ful length but slit to the hip on one side. Her hair is fully fluffed now, and she's (mercifully) left the golf beanie back in the dressing room. Martie looks like a tomboy (as usual) in a pair of silky, striped trousers and a simple cottom top. Natalie's sole couturial concession to the "Lilith thing" is what looks like a wall hanging that she's purloined from an Indian restaurant and wrapped around her midriff over simple black exercise leggings. Whatever effect was intended is unfortunately undermined by the singer's tendency to flap her arms and hop around during instrumental breaks, which gives her more than a passing resemblance to a dancing chicken.
Maines is currently going through a divorce from her husband of less than one year, bassist Michael Tarabay. Several songs on the new album, Fly, reflect this passage in the singer's life, albeit obliquely. The protagonist of the tongue-in-cheek "Sin Wagon," is gleefully bent on going to hell with herself. "This is a song about a girl who's been too good for too long," Maines says when she introduces the tune on stage, making it hard not to miss the autobiographical connection. The album's closing track, "Let Him Fly," "is a song that has a lot to do with Natalie getting divorced right now," says Robison. (Although it was actually written by tunesmith Patty Griffin.) "Natalie says she wishes it's what her husband would say to her. She wishes he would kind of let her go, kind of let her fly again."
The image of flight as a metaphor for feminine freedom or self-determination is what's behind the album's somewhat peculiar title. "A lot of things seemed to point to that," says Robison. "In 'Sin Wagon,' there's that line, 'I'll fly away.' And Martie wrote a song [with Marcus Hummon] called 'Cowboy Take Me Away.' She wrote that about me and my new husband. And that has the line, 'Fly this girl ...' At one point we were thinking about called the album Sin Wagon, and the label was freaking out. Then Martie came in and said, 'What about Fly?' I think it makes a good visual too. There's a kind of sexual packaging going on. All the different meanings of 'fly,' whether is be a man's zipper or the stuff on fly paper. But one thing we didn't mean to include is the rap meaning of 'fly.' That wasn't the meaning behind it."
It's tempting to see the Dixie Chicks as supreme ironists, deconstructing tradition and putting a postmodern "spin" on country music. Or are they just, as Emily Robison insists, three down-to-earth girls who like to dress up? They send a mixed signal at best. They're "Chicks" who project a kind of soft-focus, "gotta flap my wings," quasi-feminist message. The strongest song on Fly is "Goodbye Earl." Penned by Dennis Linde, the song's theme is spousal abuse, but there's kind of an O. Henry plot twist. The battered wife gets together with her old high school boyfriend and they murder the abusive husband, whom nobody missed because he was a bastard anyway.
"It's a humorous song, but on a serious subject," says Robison from underneath her golf hat. "It's how we are. You can put a spin on something. When we finished the song, we thought, 'We can see a Jenny Jones situation happening, where some wife kills her husband and blames it on the Dixie Chicks.' So we thought we better put a disclaimer on the album. But it had to be a funny one."