The Dixie Chicks never officially broke up, but they sure did disappear for a while. The reasons for that have been well-covered, but the headline out of this past week—which saw the Chicks play sold-out shows in Dallas, Houston, and Austin—is that, at least for a few hours a night, they were very much back.
So much has been made about the circumstances that took the band from one of the hottest crossover country acts of their generation to outright pariahs overnight that one thing we don’t discuss when it comes to the Dixie Chicks is just how good of a band they were. And though those two things aren’t entirely separable, the sold-out crowd at the Austin360 Amphitheater on Sunday may have come in part because of what the Dixie Chicks symbolize—but they stayed for the 22-song, two-plus-hour set because the Dixie Chicks are a friggin’ great band.
Let’s start with what the Dixie Chicks embody, though, because that context for their music is crucial. In the late nineties, they were a sassy bunch of blonde hitmakers who broke through with smash country singles like “Wide Open Spaces,” “You Were Mine,” and “Ready To Run.” The revenge fantasy “Goodbye Earl” helped them cross over into pop, and by 2002, songs like “Long Time Gone” and their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” proved they could work in any format. Then came the offhand stage remark about George W. Bush in the lead-up to the Iraq War, which saw them labeled them as “Saddam’s Angels” and exiled the Dixie Chicks from the country music establishment.
Nothing had changed musically, of course—”Travelin’ Soldier” sounded every bit as authentic after Natalie Maines declared that she was “ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas” in March 2003 as it had before, but the appetite to hear her sing it among country audiences dwindled.
But what made the Dixie Chicks special in that moment was that Maines and her bandmates didn’t back down. Maines offered a very specific response to conservative criticism, in which she apologized for disrespecting the office of president—something that’s laughably quaint after eight years of attacks on President Obama—but overall, the Dixie Chicks were defiant. And that defiance, especially when it comes from young women with everything to lose, became the defining characteristic of the Dixie Chicks’ music.
On their trip through Texas, that trait was front-and-center. On all three nights, they opened with “Taking The Long Way,” the title track from their 2006 album, in which Maines boasts of hitting the highways, where she “drank with the Irish, smoked with the hippies,” while her high school classmates married their high school boyfriends and bought houses next to the ones they grew up in. From there, they played the stomping “Lubbock Or Leave It,” detailing that same hometown Maines sang of escaping on “Taking The Long Way”—a city that, as Amy McCarthy explained in Texas Monthly recently, turned on her decisively after 2003. After playing “Truth #2” from their 2002 album Home (the first of three songs by Patty Griffin the band played), they settled into a comfortable groove before dropping a giant Purple “Love” symbol behind the stage for a cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
There aren’t a lot of white country bands who can credibly lay claim to Prince’s legacy of standing up for yourself as an artist even when it’s unpopular. (That symbol was his name for years while he fought his way out of a contract dispute.) The Dixie Chicks are unique in that space, and bathing their stage in purple for the song felt like further signposting that they’re not interested in being anything other than who they are.
What the band did in 2003—not just standing by their statement, but then offering up the furious “Not Ready To Make Nice” as the next single to country radio—informs their earlier music, too, even if it doesn’t change the way it sounds. When the band emerged from a series of ballads to “Goodbye Earl,” the quirky country revenge fantasy sounded different than it might have in 1999. There are plenty of songs from the perspective of the woman giving comeuppance to a no-good man, but there’s a big difference between that song and, say, Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats.” “Goodbye Earl” is about how “Earl had to die” for putting the woman in that song into intensive care, and the stage show during the current tour is a lot more real than you might expect. In addition to the old-timey shots of outlaw ladies and villainous men, there were images of real-life abusers—O.J. Simpson, Chris Brown—lending some gravity to the proceedings.
It’s hard not to see all of that as a part of the band’s identity. They can pay tribute to Prince; they can play their most confrontational songs to start their set; they can remind people that “Goodbye Earl” is about domestic abuse, something that happens in the real world; they can cover Beyoncé. They can do all of this because there’s nothing left to lose, and anybody who comes to a Dixie Chicks show in 2016 isn’t just going to see the music, they’re going to see the women who make the music, and who’ve survived the abuse of the world and stayed who they were through it all.
The band was impossibly tight. They played as a nine-piece for much of the night, and the set list toured the band’s career and its affection for artists from Griffin and Prince to Stevie Nicks and Ben Harper to Beyoncé. The entire aesthetic of the stage was perfectly managed—a black and white setup with Mad Max-themed video interludes and Maines’ hot-pink suspenders splashing color to the design—and revealed the Dixie Chicks, once more, as women with something to say. The band never actually broke up, but they’ve been missed, and having them back for a few nights in Texas was a treat.