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I'm prone to hyperbole, especially in situations where alcohol is served, so when I proclaimed, in the presence of a certain sports and music editor for a Dallas weekly, that the Dixie Chicks' Nashville breakthrough Wide Open Spaces was the best country album of 1998, a good-natured yet heated discussion ensued. This assignment to defend the Chicks is the S&M editor's revenge, but I have no problem putting my byline where my mouth is.
For years, while they dressed like Annie Oakley and warbled preciously as though Nanci Griffith were their Aretha, the Dixie Chicks were hard to take seriously. The Erwin sisters, Martie (now Seidel) and Emily, could really rip on the stringed instruments, but the whole presentation reeked of gimmickry, or at least as the punch line of a joke that asked you to cross Melrose Place and Appalachia. They wanted it so bad that they forged ahead, playing every gig like a showcase and proving again and again that there's nothing less attractive than unrequited ambition with a banjo backing.
How can those same Dixie Chicks, the scourge of gritty Dallas hipsters, suddenly be one of the best things to happen to country music? Well, they're not the same Dixie Chicks, for one thing. In fact, I've heard the band may change its name to "Natalie Maines." After years of plugging away, looking for the magic that would pull them out of the Perot party circuit, Martie and Emily finally found it three years ago when they hired Natalie, the Lubbock-raised daughter of producer-pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Maines. The Chicks got their record deal without Natalie, but then-singer Laura Lynch needn't kick herself for quitting just before the windfall. The Chicks would've sold nine records, instead of six million, if Lynch were still hopelessly trying to verify the rumor that everyone has a soul.
This is not a Pete Best situation, but more like Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham replacing Bob Welch in Fleetwood Mac. A million would-be Dollys have daydreamed in song at the baggage claim area of the Nashville airport, but it's been a long time since a blonde bundle of spunk and talent like Natalie Cool bounded through the gates. Foremost is a buoyantly vibrating voice that can, in the words of Graham Parker, "turn a cliche into a sensation." Maines has quite a few cliches to work with on Wide Open Spaces, but listen to everything she brings to a throwaway line like "It shoulda fit like a glove" on "There's Your Trouble," the song that vaulted them into Shania country. The video for "There's Your Trouble" found Maines moving like Lubbock got MTV right after Butch Hancock, Joe Ely, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore moved to Austin. For a glorious three minutes and 13 seconds, it looked and sounded as though Madonna had gone country (which is, actually, not scheduled until 2004).
There's also a bit of the defiant, unsinkable attitude that the pre-Nat Chicks could never quite muster. These girls can make a party out of the party line, so even as they go through the paces that country stardom requires, they've been able to do it with a lot of style and good humor. They made all the execs at Sony Nashville carry them into their platinum party Cleopatra-style, for instance. At the Grammys on February 24, the Chicks walked off with two golden gramophones and looked spectacular in a bondage Barbie kind of way, with their barbed-wire belly wraps and safety-pinned blouses. Maines, stepping out of her high heels, told a press gathering backstage, "I know this looks bad, but my feet are killing me. Y'all are just print anyway, right?" Maines certainly seems comfortable with the limelight, which is great, because there's nothing more frustrating than a shy diva. Her gusto grab also helps to keep Erwin and Seidel from milking the improbability that someone so familiar with modern dentistry can play bluegrass. The novelty has been swallowed whole by an outfit whose members know their roles. Rather than having to be the main draw, the string sisters' instrumental prowess is a great bonus to a singer who could sell millions on her own.
Do people fall in love because their mates are so perfect for them, or do they just happen to intersect when it's time to fall in love? It can go either way, just as can the question of whether the Dixie Chicks have sold millions of copies of Wide Open Spaces because it's such a great album or because the Chicks were just lucky enough to come around when Nashville was desperate for a new act to connect with young fans.
It happened all of a sudden, when a decade of gigging condensed into an overnight sensation. Dallas' favorite high-dollar party band has gone national, and more than a few people no doubt think of them as the Spice Girls of country music. But let's see Scary pull out a guitar solo worthy of a top session player or witness Posh at the piano for some barrelhouse playing. Sometimes you need to get away from analyzing music--the brain must chill--and just let it do what it will do. Being able to sing and play well should count for something, even if that talent is aimed at getting 16-year-olds into the record store and tuning their radios to a "hot young new country" station. You certainly can't knock them for making a commercial record any more than you can take Groucho Marx to task for wearing a grease mustache. This is what the Dixie Chicks do, so dig them while you can. The next album is the one on which they insist on recording some of their own songs.
Michael Corcoran is a music critic for the Austin American-Statesman.