Last week, I wrote about being blacklisted. I was technically posting a 20th anniversary tribute to Neko Case’s third album, but the concept also applies – for much more well-known reasons – to country-pop icons the Chicks (formerly known as the Dixie Chicks). It applies so much, in fact, that being blacklisted nearly overshadowed their entire career. It almost destroyed them.
Today, Emily Strayer, Martie Maguire, and Natalie Maines have taken full ownership of their history, making it into a trophy of sorts, a hard-won mantle earned for their resilience in a deeply unforgiving side of the music industry. In 2003, however, the Chicks were nearly obliterated by one anti-Iraq war comment and cited as a cautionary tale for all country-music hopefuls who would dare express an opinion. It’s easy to forget that, at the time, they were promoting their sixth studio album, 2002’s Home, which turns 20 today.
So let’s back up for a minute. By 2001/2002, Strayer, Maguire, and Maines had arrived. Their 1998 major-label debut, Wide Open Spaces, was certified platinum 13 times over by the RIAA, and its 1999 follow-up, Fly, went 11 times platinum. Wide Open Spaces and Fly won Best Country Album at the Grammys, and both were nominated for Album Of The Year.
You could say they’d paid their dues and then some. After years of tinkering with their sound (they technically began as a traditional bluegrass group), lineup adjustments (Maines came on in 1997, replacing bassist Laura Lynch), touring exhaustion, and struggles to attract major-label attention, the Chicks had spent nearly a decade hustling and asking Nashville to take them seriously before they finally got huge in the late ’90s.
After the monumental commercial success around Wide Open Spaces and Fly, the Chicks still had some internal issues to work through before they could move forward. In 2001, the trio got into it with Sony, their label at the time, accusing the monolith of fraudulent accounting practices and underpaying them by at least four million dollars in royalties. The Chicks tried to walk away, but Sony sued them for failure to complete their contract, to which the band countersued. In the end, the Chicks and Sony settled privately, the band got their own imprint, Wide Open Records, and Sony would still distribute their future albums.
After their label kerfuffle concluded, the Chicks were afforded greater creative control on Home, which was produced by both the band and Maines’ dad, Lloyd, a country super-producer who’d worked with the likes of Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The resulting 12 tracks made a notable shift from shiny country-pop to a more acoustic/bluegrass-inspired sound, partially inspired by the immense popularity of the Coen Brothers’ 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which featured a whole hell of a lot of 1930s-era bluegrass. I can’t think of any other time in recent history where bluegrass, of all genres, enjoyed such a mainstream moment. Even my dad, a die-hard Southern classic rock fan who rarely deviated from his Doobie Brothers and ZZ Top CDs, bought the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.
As the Chicks previously made albums that captured where they were in life, Home is a portrait of three women who’ve settled into their respective homesteads, and all that comes with staying put (family, kids, spending more money on furniture than on, say, the monthly bar tab). With all of them tucked away in Texas, where the Chicks also recorded this album, Home has a distinctly cozy quality. There’s barely any percussion; every song is a woven tapestry of strings, whether they be on a banjo or a fiddle. Even opting to cover Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” brings a new level of teary poignancy to the proceedings, particularly as Maines intones “I’m getting older, too.”
The Chicks never really needed a drummer — they march to the beat of their own just fine. On the crisp, upbeat opener “Long Time Gone,” originally written by Darrell Scott, the Chicks take aim at the contemporary country scene, which eventually embraced them, but not without much resistance. Maines name-drops classic country musicians while insinuating that the big-country music machine sold out long ago and is pretty much beyond repair (“Now they sound tired but they don’t sound Haggard/ They got money but they don’t have Cash/ They got Junior but they don’t have Hank”).
Later, on the buck-dancing, firmly tongue-in-cheek “White Trash Wedding,” the Chicks spin an all-too-familiar yarn about Southern weddings — the groom has to sneak “a nip of gin” before going down the aisle and the bride is — surprise, surprise — pregnant. That might all sound terribly cliché, but it’s the sort of social scenario that my Southern husband, who is from North Carolina, would probably tell me happens all the time. (Case in point: When we were considering how and where to do a pandemic wedding, I suggested eloping to Vegas – because to me, who is from the Northeast, a Vegas wedding sounds low-effort and kitschy. But he grew up with people in the South who went on to have distinctly un-ironic Vegas-Elvis weddings.)
The ballad “Travelin’ Soldier,” originally written by Bruce Robinson, finds the Chicks leaning into a long tradition of country tragic storytelling as they describe a correspondence between a high school girl and a young man shipped off to fight in the Vietnam War. (Spoiler: He doesn’t make it.) Further down, the Chicks reimagine Radney Foster’s “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)” with Emmylou Harris on backing vocals. It’s a gorgeous, cello-led tear-jerker about losing a child too soon – every parent’s worst nightmare. Given where the Chicks were in their own lives — getting married, starting families — a song like “Godspeed” no doubt hit differently.
You don’t need to be all partnered up in order to fully appreciate Home — see “I Believe In Love,” which the Chicks debuted on the America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon following the 9/11 attacks. Despite its ostensibly starry-eyed title, “I Believe In Love” is more of an assurance that it’s much better to be alone than to attach yourself to the wrong person. Maybe that’s a little Home Goods mug-mantra in 2022, but in 2002? On a mainstream country album? Even pseudo-feminist ideations like “choose yourself” could be controversial. After all, it was only three years prior that listeners clutched their pearls over the phrase “mattress dancing.”
The Chicks had approximately six months to enjoy the success of Home, which went three times platinum and won the group four Grammys: Best Country Album, Best Recording Package, Best Country Instrumental Performance for the all-instrumental hoedown “Lil’ Jack Slade,” and Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for “Long Time Gone.” Two years later, the Recording Academy would nominate somber album closer “Top Of The World” (written by Patty Griffin) Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group, which they won.
By that point, the Chicks were nearly two years into a backlash so big, it now has its own Wikipedia page. In March 2003, while performing in London on their Top Of The World tour, Maines told the audience that the band felt ashamed to be from the same state as then-President George Bush, who had very recently invaded Iraq. It was an unpopular decision — one that has come back to haunt this country in too many ways to list here. Even though the band followed that up with “But you know we’re behind the troops 100 percent,” Maines’ initial statement hit the right-wing country-music community hard. Most of them were no doubt still enmeshed in post-9/11 patriotism, which for a while united both sides of the aisle — until it didn’t.
The ripple effect was immediate. Thousands of country radio stations refused to play the Chicks’ music after that, and the Chicks themselves received an onslaught of death threats and harassment. Maines issued an apology, calling her remark “disrespectful.” (She later rescinded the apology in 2006.) Because of the drop-off in radio play, the Chicks’ “Landslide” cover went from #10 to #43 on the Billboard Hot 100 in as little as a week. A week after that, it disappeared completely. Other country musicians criticized them in public; album sales and ticket sales cratered.
The controversy was so immense that you really cannot talk about Home without looking back at the events that followed its release. The Chicks would later address the backlash on their 2006 single “Not Ready To Make Nice,” but the damage would follow them for years. Even though artists like Bruce Springsteen and Madonna stated their clear support for the Chicks, the trio had been shown the door in the overall country community. They were canceled. It’s terribly ironic, given how much today’s right wing likes to go off about cancel culture and how nobody can say anything they want anymore, all the while swiping books off school shelves like it’s goddamn Fahrenheit 451. But I digress.
Despite the harassment and getting shut out of their chosen music community, the Chicks released a follow-up to Home in 2006 called Taking The Long Way. It debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 and sold over 2.5 million copies in the US, and won five Grammy Awards, including Album Of The Year(!), Record Of The Year, and Song Of The Year. That must’ve felt pretty good.
It would be 14 more years until the Chicks would release another album — 2020’s Gaslighter. By then, they’d dropped the “Dixie” from their name and had earned icon status as truth speakers in a famously rigid genre. By 2020, legions of big-name musicians like Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert, and Kasey Musgraves would cite the Chicks’ bravery in facing down the machine and coming out on the other side stronger for it. It’s an astounding, albeit painful, lesson in progressive activism, a word that I daresay still doesn’t sit all that well in traditional country spaces. It’s a shame that the Chicks had to be scapegoated so that other women and minorities in country music could find their voices, but luckily they never went away for good. We need them now more than ever.