Independent Chicks Flex Their Muscle (Interview)

Entering the Ryman Auditorium is like stepping into country music’s church. The rich history of the genre is as much a part of the building’s foundation as the red brick facade, steeple-roof and stained glass windows.

For more than 30 years, it was home to the Grand Ole Opry. Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn were inducted into that venerable institution at the Ryman. And it served as the place where folks paid their last respects to the much-beloved Tammy Wynette.

But taking the fabled stage on this night in early August is the country female trio the Dixie Chicks, whose new album “Home” is in stores today. The group’s members _ vocalist Natalie Maines and sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire _ currently hail from Texas. But, in many ways, their runaway success over the past four years has made them right at home in country music’s capital.

Each of their two albums _ 1998’s “Wide Open Spaces” and 1999’s “Fly” _ has sold more than 10 million copies. And their 2000 tour grossed more than outings by Britney Spears and Bruce Springsteen the same year.

But despite these achievements, the Chicks maintain an uneasy relationship with the more conservative Nashville factions. They just settled a high-profile lawsuit with their label, Sony Music, which among other things netted the group a $20 million bonus and shifted control over their all-important marketing from Sony’s Nashville office to the corporate headquarters in New York.

But even before the lawsuit, the Chicks were rule-breakers. They buck the glamorous-gal-next-door look of many female acts in favor of a funkier, in-your-face chic. The three, particularly Robison, 30, and Maguire, 32, are studied musicians in an industry where women are mostly expected to look pretty and sing. And their hits, largely celebrating female emotional _ even sexual _ autonomy, have raised eyebrows so high that they’ve threatened to dislodge cowboy hats.

“I’m not sure if this one is appropriate for the Ryman,” says 27-year-old Maines before the threesome launch into “Sin Wagon,” a sort of make-good on Wynette’s threat “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad.” “But when were we ever appropriate for the Ryman?”

The tune _ racy for country with its reference to “mattress dancing” _ is one of only two older songs the Chicks play during the Ryman show. The real reason they’ve assembled a crowd of press, radio contest winners, and record label staffers is to perform the new album in its entirety. Think of it as a musical meet and greet.

“Home” needs an intimate coming-out party, because it marks a departure for the Chicks in many ways. The bluegrass-leaning set is completely acoustic, with no drums and few of the production pyrotechnics of modern country. And the songs are moodier than what we’re used to getting from the team.

Indeed, the recurring themes of the tunes seem like a dark reflection of the relationship that the group has with the country-music establishment. There’s a simultaneous sense of belonging and not belonging.

“Home” kicks off with a tale that takes some direct jabs at contemporary country. The album’s opener and first single, “Long Time Gone,” tells the story of a musician who leaves his tobacco-farm home _ and his adoring, church-going girlfriend Delia _ in search of top-of-the-charts fame. Maines sings the song from the guy’s perspective, leaving some listeners scratching their heads over lyrics about “me and Delia.”

“It’s not lesbianism,” Maines says by phone a few days before the Ryman gig. “I didn’t want to change the lyrics because it’s his perspective. I just wanted to sing it the way it was written and be a voice for the song.”

“Gone,” penned by the unsung tunesmith Darrell Scott, allows the spunky Maines to voice a biting critique of country radio that slyly nods to two of the genre’s giants. “They sound tired but they don’t sound Haggard,” sings Maines. “They got money but they don’t have Cash.”

Ironically, the song has become one of the Chick’s biggest radio hits to date. It’s even allowed them to reach a career-high of No. 7 on the pop chart.

This success is even more surprising given that just three months ago the group’s career seemed to be on indefinite hold. Last year, the Chicks served Sony with papers claiming that they were free from their seven-year recording contract because the label allegedly cheated them out of $4 million in royalty payments. Sony then countersued the group for breach of contract, claiming that it stood to lose at least $100 million if the Chicks were allowed to fly the coop.

Not to be outdone, the group sued the company again, accusing the music-business behemoth of “systematic thievery.” The case would have potentially transformed the music business, because it would’ve established bad bookkeeping _ which some observers argue is the industry norm _ as grounds for an artist to break a contract.

“Legally knowledgeable people were saying that this thing could be tied up in the courts for years,” says Brian Philips, general manager of Country Music Television. “That was terrifying. CMT plays country music in 60 million people’s homes and we didn’t have any new Dixie Chicks music to play.”

The group became musicians’ advocates. They spoke out against what they said was the unfairness of most recording contracts and played a benefit concert for the newly formed Recording Artist’s Coalition.

But, after a brief flirtation with jumping ship to Capitol Records, the Chicks settled with Sony in May. But Maines calls it “a hollow victory.”

“It would’ve been stupid to let it go on any longer,” Maines says. “The three of us thought we were setting out to make a really big change in the way record contracts are and in the way new artists are treated. But I don’t know that we changed anything. We changed things for ourselves and that’s selfishly OK. But we wanted to make a mark on the way the entire way the business is run and I don’t think we did.”

Their estrangement from Sony did give them more creative latitude while making “Home.” Befitting its title, it was recorded close to their homes in the Austin area, with Lloyd Maines _ Maines’ father, an acclaimed session musician and former member of Joe Ely’s band _ producing. It includes the instrumental “L’il Jack Slade,” named after Maines’ 17-month-old son, which showcase Maguire’s sharp fiddling and the power banjo-picking of Robison, who’s six months pregnant.

The other songs are not your typical feel-good Chicks fare. The second single, a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” deals with the ambivalence of growing older. “Travelin’ Soldier” is about a lonely 18-year-old who goes to Vietnam and never returns. And “Top of the World” is told from the perspective of a dead man who wishes he had lived a kinder life. These cuts mark a radical departure from the go-get-’em-girl themes of the Chicks earlier work.

“Songs like ‘Wide Open Spaces’ and ‘Cowboy Take Me Away’ are universal young women themes,” says CMT’s Philips. “And as a means of introducing the Chicks and their viewpoint to the world, they were invaluable. In Nashville, the pressure is to try to follow success with something very similar. But the Chicks don’t do that. That isn’t part of their makeup.”

“It’s hard to write songs with that attitude or chose songs with that attitude when that’s not what you’re feeling at the moment,” Maines says. “Our albums are a picture of where we are in our lives and this one follows suit.”

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