Chicks in the Wilderness

A decade ago, they were riding on top of the world, selling millions of records to mothers and daughters (and even a few fathers). Then, after one fateful night in London, the Dixie Chicks were banished from country music. They still haven’t found their way back.
Photo Illustration by Justin Carrasquillo

The thing nobody ever remembers about the Dixie Chicks is how much fun they were. But back when the nineties were winding down, when the Chicks were making the leap from hot-selling country act to objects of a national crush, the only thing they appeared to take seriously was their music. They were ubiquitous then, a brassy girl group that could outplay and outsing any band in Nashville, with runway-model looks and a refreshingly genuine manner. Their image was equal parts strong-willed big sister, freewheeling college dorm mate, and potty-mouthed flirty girl at the end of the bar, a combination that drew country fans of both sexes and all ages and then soaked up more listeners from outside the genre. Their appeal was infectious. They were clearly enjoying every minute of their ride to the top.

Jog your memory for specific examples. Picture their old magazine ads for Candie’s shoes. One showed them packed into a bathtub with giggling faces and goofy sneakers sticking out of the bubbles, sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison clutching their fiddle and banjo while singer Natalie Maines belted a song into a scrub brush. Another had them stuffed in the back of a limo, all glammed-up and chowing down on fast food. Or watch their videos on YouTube. For their first single, 1997’s “ I Can Love You Better,” they introduced themselves to the world with lilting three-part harmonies while riding into the frame seated on an airport baggage carousel. In 1999’s ridiculously catchy “ Ready to Run,” they did street stunts on BMX bikes and started a food fight, all while wearing wedding dresses and running shoes. And in 2000’s “ Goodbye Earl,” with its “nah-na-na-na-nah” chorus and “Thriller”-style choreography, they turned a song about killing an abusive husband into a delirious girl-power dance party.

But the joy of the Chicks came through best when they performed live, so stick with YouTube to find clips from their 2000 NBC concert special, Dixie Chicks: On the Fly. It’s just network television, which means you can expect a little cheese, like the show’s running gag that the girls, as everyone in Nashville referred to them back then, are new to the high life. In one prerecorded vignette, Natalie mistakes the bidet in their fancy hotel bathroom for a water fountain. In another Emily fails miserably in a tutorial on smashing her banjo on stage, à la Pete Townshend. But that’s all filler. The point of the program was to capture the Chicks on their first headlining tour, an 88-date monster that sold $47.3 million in tickets. When the curtain comes up, or rather when the zipper falls—the curtain was designed to look like the front of a giant pair of jeans—the band bounces into the Celtic-tinged intro to “Ready to Run.” 

Martie is the only Chick visible, standing on a riser and sawing on her fiddle in unison with a pennywhistle player hidden in the shadows. When the body of the song hits, the lights come on and the three Chicks march down stairs to the front of the stage. Their look is all sass and sparkle, with Martie in a sequined tube top and jeans, Emily in a sleek green skirt and halter top, and Natalie in a royal-blue minidress with black boots and wristbands. Martie looks the most like a country performer, always smiling and keeping eye contact with fans. Emily is more reserved, concentrating on her banjo and closing her eyes when she harmonizes. Natalie, however, is the show-stealer. With no instrument to play, she squares up to the mike like it’s a speed bag in a boxing gym. Her voice is strong and sharp, the kind you feel in your chest when you hear it. She punctuates the lyrics by cocking her head and throwing up her hands. During instrumental breaks she stomps to the back of the stage, waving her arms and spinning around. Most people would feel self-conscious dancing like that alone in their bedroom. Natalie acts as if the spotlight is the most natural place in the world for her.

The audience, to put it mildly, gets it. And they’re hardly all female. The crowd shots show plenty of guys singing and dancing in the aisles. But it’s the girls and women you notice. They stare at the Chicks and sing along with every verse and then, on the choruses, turn and sing to one another. There’s a sisterhood thing happening, a collective sense of ecstasy and ownership and pride. You get the feeling watching the younger faces that every time the Dixie Chicks took the stage, an arena full of girls decided to start a band, just as boys once did watching the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.

The show closes the only way it could, with “ Wide Open Spaces,” the Chicks’ song about dawning womanhood that somehow became an anthem for young girls and their moms and dads. Martie’s fiddle soars over Emily’s chiming banjo, while the fans—who know well that Emily had to fight just to get her banjo on the record—sing along with Natalie: “She needs wide open spaces / Room to make her big mistakes.” Natalie turns the mike around and holds it out to the audience as the fans carry the song home. As concert tropes go, it’s pretty well-worn, but it doesn’t seem contrived here. These fans feel like that song is theirs.

Then the clip ends. And it’s hard not to wonder what happened to that band. Because nobody pictures giant zippers and family sing-alongs when they think of the Chicks anymore. Mention of the group now conjures images of an embattled protest band, free-speech crusaders who took the stage looking more like the Clash than any musicians Nashville ever produced. But even that idea of the Chicks is dated. These days Martie and Emily are waiting to release their second CD as the Court Yard Hounds, and Natalie has her first solo

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