Out Here

Nashville women

Wide Open Spaces
Dixie Chicks
Monument/Sony

After so many years of looking for the big break and finding little breakups instead, the Dixie Chicks now sit near the top of the charts: Last week, the band's major-label debut, Wide Open Spaces, sat perched at No. 17 on Billboard's list of top-selling country records. The first single from said album, "I Can Love You Better," fared even better, one spot away from breaking the Top 10. It's a far piece from the late 1980s and early to mid-'90s, when the women were relegated to the bookstore circuit, writing checks to Crystal Clear so they could get their records released, pitching themselves to western-wear outfitters, and praying the next demo deal wouldn't be their last. No band in town ever worked harder to get further; outsiders will write of their overnight success, but the Chicks know better. So do Robin Macy and Laura Lynch, women who defined the band's sound from the beginning only to find themselves barely even mentioned in the band's Monument biography, referred to only as "two other original members." Macy and Lynch were sacrifices made on the altar of country-music success.

Do not be fooled by the name brand: The moniker remains the same, but the song does not. This year's model, which includes multi-instrumentalists Emily Erwin and Martie Seidel and lead singer Natalie Maines (a member since Lynch's departure in 1995), barely resembles the bluegrass-and-beyond ensemble that charmed locals with Thank Heavens for Dale Evans and Little Ol' Cowgirl at the beginning of the decade; long gone are the breakneck breakdowns and beautiful harmonies that elevated their kitschy come-on (frilly checkered dresses, tiny cowboys hats, brightly colored boots) beyond novelty. They've been replaced by the familiar stuff of country radio, the formulaic ballads and the neon honky-tonk hoedowns that meet tradition on the way to the mall. The Dixie Chicks are now Nashville Women, not so different from the other product Music City produces and reduces every day. They're still a fine band, worthy of competing in the market with Shania and LeAnn and Martina and whoever else lasts beyond yesterday's single. But the Chicks aren't so special anymore.

Their idiosyncrasies have been polished away, kept in the cases backstage: With 14 studio musicians by their side, sisters Emily and Martie's stellar musicianship gets lost, buried beneath the needless radio-friendly extras that long ago turned country into pop. This could just as well be a Tricia Yearwood or Reba McEntire album, filled as it is with covers (including songs by Maria McKee, Bonnie Raitt, and J.D. Souther) and songs so riddled with cliches ("If I could turn back the hands of time"--oy!) that it doesn't feel written so much as it does manufactured. Do not write the Chicks off--hard as it is to believe four albums later, they're all still in their 20s--but hope only that Wide Open Spaces is still the sound of a band growing up in public.

--Robert Wilonsky

 
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