It’s the spring of 2009, and you’ve just set sail from Marina del Rey, in California, in your Jeanneau 42DS. It’s a sleek, 42-foot sailboat with a rounded coach roof, cat’s eye windows, and a spacious saloon below deck. You’ve been at sea for thirteen days and in that time, you’ve realized that you, like Ernest Hemingway, are nothing but a man at the beck and call of something much greater than himself: the push and pull of the ocean’s waves. Your wife and children are waiting for you across half the Pacific in Hawaii, but right now, this—the feeling of thirty knots of wind hitting you on the open seas—is what you are living for. For the first time, you feel … free.
You take it in, not knowing that in eleven years’ time, you and your beloved boat will be the subject of an in-depth internet investigation—as diehard Dixie Chicks fans wonder what you could’ve possibly done on said boat to warrant a fiery diss track sung by your future ex-wife, Natalie Maines.
This week, the Dixie Chicks returned after a fourteen-year hiatus to grace our ears with a new single, the title track of their upcoming album, “Gaslighter.” The song is an angry pop-country track that takes aim at lead singer Maines’s ex-husband, Adrian Pasdar. The two married in 2000, but began a contentious divorce process in 2017 that wasn’t finalized until December 2019. Though they had signed a prenup, Pasdar tried to use a confidentiality clause to prevent Maines (and by association, the Dixie Chicks) from releasing any new music that referenced him.
With new music finally on the horizon, Maines made no bones about the fact that this upcoming album would be their most personal yet, acknowledging that it was inspired, at least in part, by her divorce. So when “Gaslighter” was released on Wednesday, it wasn’t so much of a question of “who” it was about—but one incredibly specific lyric did leave fans with a lot of questions. In the second verse, Maines sings ominously: “Cause boy I know exactly what you did on my boat, and, boy that’s exactly why you ain’t coming home.” A flurry of fans instantly took to Twitter, wondering what on earth Maines’s ex-husband could have done on that boat.
I have dedicated a decent chunk of my day putting my journalism degree to use and trying to answer that question. And boy, do I have some answers for you. In the mid-aughts, Pasdar, fresh from the success of Heroes (remember the show Heroes?), purchased a sailboat he named the Nautalee, after his wife.
Could this possibly be the boat? Could Maines have been singing not necessarily about a boat that she owned, but a boat that was named, in a nauseating pun, after her?!
I was one step closer to getting my answer to what went down. (Did he, as my colleague Emily McCullar suggested, commit the cardinal sin of microwaving fish in the boat microwave? Did he have an affair? Did he betray Natalie—not for another person, but for the call of the sea?) I can’t be 100 percent sure, but a piece that he wrote for a 2010 issue of The Mariner offered a telling glimpse of his relationship with the Nautalee and an eye-opening look at the problem with referring to boats as women. “The first thing that strikes you is how big the ocean is, how little Hawaii is, and how much even smaller you and your vessel are,” writes Pasdar. “She is a beauty, built for speed without sacrificing comfort.”
This essay, in which Pasdar reveals himself to be “Boat Guy,” is a treasure trove of pseudo-Hemingway boat poetry about his 2009 trip to Hawaii. He waxes poetic about being at the mercy of Mother Nature, and references the wife and sons, who are waiting for him at the end of his journey in Maui, and says: “right now, I am in the teeth of a dream I’ve had for as long as, well, for as long as I’ve had teeth.”
It may seem more likely that “Gaslighter” references a kind of affair that took place on the boat (perhaps with someone who isn’t named Natalie?), but after reading Pasdar’s last paragraphs, I just can’t rule out the possibility that he was called by some force to the ocean itself. “There are demons out here,” he writes. “I swear it. You’ll be on watch, sipping your tea, and out of nowhere, you’ll hear what sounds like a whale exhale right behind you … There is stillness to the chaos that if you pay attention to, can tell you more about what’s going on than any instrument cluster. There, in the middle of the night in the middle of the Pacific in the middle of a storm, I closed my eyes, and I listened. The voice behind my back was not a demon. It was the welcoming breath of the Sea.” Yes, you read that right—he capitalized “sea.”