By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
The story goes from "once upon a time" to "they lived happily ever after" with little more than dot-dot-dot in between, a year (to the day) that began with a lawsuit and ended with the release of a new album. The rest of the tale exists only in legal motions and press releases, photo ops and sound bites.
Here they are, three Norma Raes holding a "strike" sign above the Nashville assembly line, accusing their record company of "systematic thievery" and "fraudulent accounting gimmicks." There they are, enlisting in Don Henley's army, performing at a Los Angeles concert benefiting the Recording Artists' Coalition (RAC) on the eve of the Grammys. Here they are again, lobbying legislators in Sacramento to examine recording contracts and scrutinize major-label CPAs, three businesswomen who look as though they belong more in SUVs than sin wagons.
These are merely fleeting glimpses, courtroom sketches of plaintiffs instead of portraits of players, fleshed out only slightly by the two new tunes they unveiled during a pair of TV appearances. Nothing more than homework for business reporters. During that year, despite their 22 million albums sold and shelves full of shiny trophies and chicken-feet tattoos marking every milestone, the Dixie Chicks were in danger of becoming a cause instead of a band, a trio of Curt Floods, more talented (and stable) Courtney Loves. They had gone so far behind the music, it was hard to tell where it was anymore. No one was sure if they would find their way back.
Back home in Austin, however, away from the courts and coalitions, music was all that mattered. Not only were the Dixie Chicks still a band, they were becoming a much better one. "You know," singer Natalie Maines says, "we always said that we wouldn't let the lawsuit get in the way of us making music."
They never did; it only looked that way. The Dixie Chicks filed suit against Sony Music on August 27, 2001. They said Sony cheated them to the tune of $4 million, by underreporting sales numbers and overcharging for company services. Put it this way: Sony had made around $175 million off the group, yet none of its members had earned even a million. Sony's thumb was on the scale, and the Chicks intended to cut it off. That would be their public persona for the next several months, as they joined their brothers and sisters in arms in the RAC, and met with EMI Group and Bertelsmann Music Group, shopping for a new contract. (They eventually settled with Sony a few months ago; terms were undisclosed, but industry sources have estimated the Chicks' take: a $20 million signing bonus and a new 20 percent royalty rate, as well as their Sony imprint, Open Wide Records.)
Privately, a month after the suit was filed, Maines and her bandmates, sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, were in a studio in Austin, working up new material for their next record. They were falling in love with the simple sound of three voices backed by banjo and fiddle, maybe a little Dobro or mandolin. During the time off, Robison and Maguire had dived back into their bluegrass record collections, and they were all listening to the sparer sounds of singers such as Alison Krauss and Patty Griffin (who has two songs, "Top of the World" and "Truth No. 2" on Home). Everything was pushing them toward Home; they didn't notice until they were already there. "We didn't know that it was our album," Maines says.
"Once we started playing it for our management and people whose opinions we really value, they were like, 'Y'all would be crazy not to have this be the third album,'" Robison says.
The Chicks hadn't planned on getting around to that just yet; they'd entered the studio intending only to cut a set of demos, work out a blueprint for another record. They were, after all, in the middle of a well-deserved break, after four years of recording and road trips that culminated in a grueling, 92-date tour promoting 1999's Fly. But they only made it halfway through their self-imposed exile.
"They started writing some songs and kinda getting antsy to get back in the studio and lay the songs down," says Lloyd Maines, who produced Natalie (with his wife, Tina) and just about every worthwhile country act in Texas. "They didn't really want to do a third record that sounded like the first two. They like the first two; don't get me wrong. I mean, they were great records. But they just wanted to do something different. So they called me and asked if I would come over to a rehearsal. They had been writing and they wanted me to bring an acoustic guitar over and go through some stuff with them. They sort of came up with the idea there to cut it in Austin and do it all acoustic-driven: no drums, no electric guitars, using acoustic upright bass...They just wanted to do songs that they enjoyed doing, and do 'em based around acoustic instruments."
"I think they were just sort of waiting on me, when I felt ready after I had Slade, to get back to work again," Natalie Maines says.
Hearing his cue, 18-month-old Jackson Slade Pasdar (the namesake of Home's show-off instrumental, "Lil' Jack Slade") begins chattering away in the background. It makes sense that he's here, too, because everything that happened in the past year has at least a little bit to do with him and Charles Augustus, the son Robison is expecting three weeks after the Chicks' October 19 gig at the Cotton Bowl. ("It'll be a show to see, for sure," Maines says. She laughs, like a kid with an armful of balloons. "I don't know that anybody has ever been onstage that pregnant...She has one of the largest bellies I've ever seen. I cannot believe that there is only one baby in there. But she's working it out, and she's a trooper.") The Dixie Chicks walked away because Maines was pregnant; they came back, in part, because Robison was.
"There were little victories, and really not a lot of huge victories," Maguire says, referring to the months-long dispute that cost the group more than $1 million in legal fees. "But after a year-and-a-half battle, we kind of felt like we're just three individuals, with a baby and a baby on the way. We can't put our lives and our careers on the line. We want to make music, and we won't become jaded by the business aspect of what we do." She adds, "I think there's a lot of things that need to be changed in the business."
Even though their battle with Sony more or less ended in a draw, they haven't shied away from that stance. It's even there on Home, if you choose to read between the lines, find the hate in the middle of its love songs. For instance, "Truth No. 2": "You don't like the sound of the truth/Coming from my mouth/You say that I lack the proof." Or "Tortured, Tangled Hearts," which they co-wrote with Nashville great Marty Stuart: "Such pretty words and golden rings/It was a broken dream right from the start." There's one much more obvious example. You have to open up the jewel case to see it, but still, it's hard to miss. There it is, on the back of the booklet accompanying the disc, in black block letters, filling the entire frame: WE ARE CHANGING THE WAY WE DO BUSINESS.
It is, perhaps, one last reminder of the year before Home was released. Or maybe that sign on the back of the CD booklet is just a warning to listeners, letting them know in advance that Home doesn't follow the familiar path of the group's previous two efforts, 1998's Wide Open Spaces and 1999's Fly. Still commercial, in its own way, but not like the albums that moved more than 22 million copies on the strength of such radio hits as "There's Your Trouble" and "Ready to Run." Home is somewhat of a return to Robison and Maguire's Deep Ellum street corner beginnings, minus the cowgirl fringe and novelty twinge. And it's a chance for Maines to show her deepening love for the bluegrass music Robison and Maguire introduced her to when she joined the band before Wide Open Spaces. But while there's plenty of picking on Home, there's not much grinning. (Save, of course, for "White Trash Wedding," which mows through the bluegrass with its "I shouldn't be wearing white/And you can't afford no ring" punch line.)
Actually, that message on the back is both. Or neither.
"We did that photo shoot a year and a half before the album," Maines says. "The photographer had taken a shot of that sign in a store window. We'd never even seen that picture until [art director] Kevin Reagan sent us the artwork." She laughs. "We've never heard a comment about that from the label." She laughs some more. "I was a little surprised they didn't care about that. And you know, they've given us freedom to do what we want to do, as far as that goes. You know, they know that we are going to continue to be a part of the RAC and be political in that way, and they don't try to stop us."
Not like they have much choice. Home is the Dixie Chicks' most critically successful album yet, and judging from its first month of sales figures, its final tally should rank right alongside Fly and Wide Open Spaces. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, not to mention Billboard's country chart, with the highest first-week sales--just shy of 780, 000--of any female group in the SoundScan era, which began in May 1991. In comparison, Fly debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 as well (the first country album to do so), but it sold less than half (341,138) as many copies.
That said, Home is less about making a political statement than a musical one. And it doesn't have anything to do with the state of country music, even if some people got that idea from the first single, Darrell Scott's "Long Time Gone," with its "Now they sound tired but they don't sound Haggard/They got money but they don't have Cash" dig. It doesn't have anything to do with the music business, though many may have expected 12 tracks of protest poetry. More than anything, it's a pencil mark against the doorjamb showing how much they've grown. That was who we were then, it says; this is who we are now.
"I definitely think our song choices have matured a little bit," Maguire says. "We're not singing about male-bashing. We're singing about love, more mature concepts. I'm really glad we went in this direction. That's what we needed to keep ourselves inspired. I wouldn't have been in the mind-set to do another Fly."
Yet if you listen closely enough, and you'll have to, the trio that recorded Home is the same one present on Wide Open Spaces and Fly. "It sounds like us," Robison says of Home. "It's not like we've added something that changes the essence of who we are." She's right: Robison and Maguire could always play with the best of them, and Maines' voice usually muscled its way to the surface, no matter how many tracks producers Blake Chancey and Paul Worley (who recorded Fly and Wide Open Spaces) stacked on top of it. But they always had to work too hard to be heard. It was like Chancey and Worley were given the keys to a brand-new Corvette, then decided to lock it up in the garage. With Natalie's father at the board, Maines, Maguire and Robison were allowed to take it for a spin.
"It was nice to be back in the studio where you know your part wasn't necessarily going to be buried amongst drums and keyboards and all that sort of stuff," Robison admits. "Knowing it was gonna be fairly raw."
At times, Home is almost painfully raw. When Maines' voice drops to a whisper in "Travelin' Soldier" (written by Robison's brother-in-law, Bruce), your eyes well up; after Maguire's violin solo on "Top of the World," the tear rolls down your cheek. With nothing else battling for top billing, Maines' voice is as powerful as fire and as delicate as smoke, and Robison and Maguire serve as comely complements (especially on the tissue-tempting "I Believe in Love"), joining her for three-part harmony instead of two-part backup. And they play the strings off their instruments, too, just as they did when they were stuck in shiny Halloween costumes and thanking heavens for Dale Evans. It's the album they should have made as soon as Sony signed them, and paradoxically, one they couldn't make until now.
"I think that the first two definitely helped them get to a level where they can pretty much do what they want to," Lloyd Maines says. "I think that they had to have the commercial appeal established and the radio play and all that established before they ventured off on something as different as this."
Sony had no idea just how different that would be. "They heard nothing," Natalie says with a laugh. And when they did? "Well, they loved it. I think that's what moved along the contracts. They knew that the music was ready and they had something to sell. It sort of lit the fire to negotiate and work out a deal. I think they were relieved, because it was out that we were making a bluegrass record, and it's not really what it turned out to be. I think it was a lot more commercial"--she laughs again--"than they thought."
The numbers back that up: Six weeks after its release, Home remained near the top of the charts, coming in at No. 5, and will likely stay there for the rest of the year.
"That's what you hope for," Maines says. "I mean, we felt strongly about this record, but it was all still kind of scary, because we didn't know how everyone else would feel about it. We knew, at that point, that the critics were liking it, because a lot of reviews and things had come out. But, um, we just had no idea how it would go over with the fans."
"Our true fans won't go anywhere," Maguire adds. "Hopefully they will be open-minded towards how we are growing as musicians and as women."
Maybe Sony will, too. Maines says she never had a problem with "the machine at Sony," the marketing and promotion departments that pushed Fly and Wide Open Spaces in front of so many eyes and ears; the Chicks' beef was with the payroll people. But she admits to mixed feelings about the settlement. They're happy with their new contract, but did they do enough for the industry? Did holstering their guns mean some other artist will be taken down in the line of duty?
"We wouldn't have settled, but..." She trails off, trying to find the right words. "You know, I think we set out to sort of make a difference in the entire music industry. And at first I didn't think we had done that. And now, Martie just went to these hearings in Sacramento, and we've been to them before, and she's just saying that the vibe in the courtroom is that things are going to change. You know, I don't know how much we had to do with that. Hopefully, with our ongoing support on the RAC and for artists' rights, we can have a hand in at least supporting some changes in our industry. But you know, in our contract, we'd hoped to have, 'You can never put this in anybody's contract ever again.'" She laughs at the foolish, if admirable, goal. "It was higher hopes. We can't, you know; we're three individuals who're taking on not only Sony Music, but the way that the entire record industry is run. So we couldn't do all of that."