San Antonio attorney Patricia Diaz Dennis flew to Dallas last weekend to meet her daughter and catch a concert more than a decade in the making.
She flew to Dallas, rendezvousing with Alicia Diaz Dennis, a graduate student at Louisiana State University. The younger woman wouldn’t have heard the Dixie Chicks except for her mother’s influence. Patricia introduced her to the band by taking her to a concert in San Antonio in 2001. The women wanted to be together when they saw them during this tour.
Thousands of ticket buyers have crowded into arenas across Europe and America. There are still deep reservoirs of affection for the trio that broke down the walls of country music twenty years ago. This is not the return of a has-been band.
Patricia and her daughter paid $365 for covered seats for Friday night’s show, the Dixie Chicks’ first show in Dallas since 2006. “I’ve missed them,” Patricia Diaz said. “Women appreciate strong women who sing about being strong.”
The Dixie Chicks are Dallas’ greatest hometown band. They got their start busking on the streets of downtown and were local favorites before Nashville and the rest of the world took notice. From North Texas, the Dixie Chicks became the most successful all-female band in country history.
But Friday night’s show at Gexa Energy Pavilion was not like the time the Dixie Chicks appeared in Dallas in July 2003. That summer, with a date at American Airlines Center on the schedule, the group’s lead singer received a letter. “Natalie Maines will be shot dead, Sunday July 6, Dallas, Texas,” it said.
The threat did not come in isolation. The band was suffering a severe reaction after anti-war comments that Maines made while in front of a London audience. The comments spread quickly, as did the backlash. Media pundits howled, protestors picketed shows and radio stations dumped Dixie Chicks songs.
The day of the concert, the trio arrived by plane, were whisked by police escort to the venue, performed with extra police security for a sell-out crowd, and then left Dallas the same night. The police escorted the band to the airport.
What had at one time seemed a likely opportunity for a triumphal return of hometown musical heroines took on the aspects of a raid into enemy territory. Which made Friday night’s show more than a concert. It was a rebuke.
None of the Dixie Chicks — at least in their final configuration — were actually born in Dallas. Martie Erwin and her sister, Emily Erwin, were born in York, Pennsylvania, and Pittsfield, Massachusetts, respectively.
After moving to Addison as children, they entered the pricey, academically demanding Greenhill Academy in north Dallas (where current tuition rate is approximately $22,000 annually). They took Suzuki violin lessons and attended symphony concerts; Martie Erwin played in college orchestra at Southwestern University in Georgetown before transferring to SMU, where she majored in classical music theory. Not, in other words, the typical background for country music superstars, who treasure and constantly proclaim a blue-collar background, in a field where musicality is regarded as an instinctive trait rather than as a skill learned in a classroom.
Even while studying classical music, Martie and Emily Erwin became avid fans and participants in bluegrass, learning, among other instruments, fiddle and banjo. In spite of not being from a blue collar background, in spite of traditional classical training, and in spite of being essentially big city girls, they earned country credits by standing on a sidewalk in downtown Dallas with a pair of bluegrass-loving friends from Greenhill and making music. At first they didn't even bother to collect tips.
Eventually, they joined up with Laura Lynch and Robin Lynn Macy to organize the Dixie Chicks, playing local clubs in Dallas and going on the road, dressed up in traditional cowgirl attire and producing two albums, while building a strong regional following in the Dallas area. (The Dallas Observer came out for the group early on, naming them the “Best Country and Western Band of the year” in 1991.) Macy left the group early on, and the trio of Laura, Martie and Emily was set — at least for a while.
Their following in Texas grew. In 1995 they played at the inauguration of George W. Bush as Texas governor.
But they wanted more than a regional following, which meant leaving their retro brand of Texas swing behind. The band picked up a drummer and declared themselves country. As the powers that be in Nashville and at Sony began to take notice, they realized that making the sound of the band complete required a belting, no-holds-barred voice at the center. And Lynch didn’t have that kind of voice.
If the Erwin sisters had a pedigree including private school, Suzuki lessons and college theory class, Natalie Maines came from country music aristocracy in the form of her father Lloyd Maines. He was a Lubbock-based record producer and collaborator with Pat Green, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Robert Earl Keen and Jerry Jeff Walker. After a year of study in the unique commercial music program at South Plains College in Levelland, and a semester at the prestigious Berklee
So, in 1995, Lynch was out and Maines was in, in what was the first Dixie Chicks scandal. Firing Lynch may have disappointed the original fan base, but it apparently paid off. The newest, youngest Dixie Chick brought a sound that the country music world — and lots of newcomers to country music as well — were ready for.
Cowgirl attire was out, and the sleek, edgy urbanity of denim, chains and leather was in. With Maines at center stage, the Erwin sisters provided an impeccable musical foundation for a singer who could by turns be parodic, angry, quietly passionate, but never submissive or sentimental: It was as if the tough feminism artfully concealed in Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” had come into full, wide-open bloom.
In the song-world created by the Dixie Chicks, a woman could long for a cowboy to take her away, fantasize about offing an abusive spouse, quietly comment on economic inequality, and explore the psychology of loss on a level unmatched in country music since Patsy Cline.
The trappings of stardom quickly accrued, including mansions in Nashville, and, in the great tradition of American celebrity-hood, divorces for two of the three Dixie Chicks. Three biographies had appeared on shelves by 2002. The most insightful, James Dickerson’s Dixie Chicks: Down Home and Backstage, proved to be eerily prophetic in character analysis. “Natalie was liable to say anything at anytime, regardless of the consequences,” he wrote. “In many ways, Natalie is the archetypal loose cannon.”
In early 2003, America was still very much traumatized by the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon less than two years earlier. President George W. Bush, riding a wave of national loyalty in a country still reeling, had attempted — but only partially succeeded — in building an international alliance and consensus to invade Iraq. While 63 percent of Americans supported the president’s military solution at the time, a vigorous anti-war movement emerged not only in the U.S., but in Britain, America’s main ally.
And it was in Britain, with massive war protests choking the streets, that Dixie Chicks lead singer Maines
Maines was certainly in tune with the live audience in London. But the reaction across the ocean, after The Guardian published the quote and the Associated Press brought the story home, was swift and vicious.
Bossier City, La., was the site of a bizarre ritual burial of Dixie Chicks compact discs brought in by disenchanted, angry fans. On Fox News, Pat Buchanan called the Dixie Chicks “the dumbest, dumbest bimbos I have seen.” On the same network, Bill O’Reilly offered a comment that not even Fox would air in 2016: “These are callow, foolish women that deserve to be slapped around.” Rebecca Hagelin
Maines stirred the pot further that same summer when she took aim at a fellow country artist by criticizing as “ignorant” a Toby Keith song with an over-the-top patriotic theme, including the lyrics, “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way”; Keith countered by projecting a photoshopped image during his concerts of Maines standing next to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Maines, unable to let go, appeared at that year’s Academy of Country Music Awards wearing a shirt blazened with the letters FUTK, which she eventually admitted stood for “Fuck You, Toby Keith.” Keith declared a truce and refused to continue the feud shortly thereafter.
In 2003, radio playtime was the cornerstone of musical stardom, and the Dixie Chicks disappeared from the airwaves. The threat of boycott by listeners had an effect on the bottom line for radio stations.
Stations in Dallas and Fort Worth were disappointed to lose, even for what they hoped might be just a little while, one of the most popular songs on the playlist. But they reluctantly pulled “Travelin’ Soldier” and anything else by the Dixie Chicks from the airwaves.
“I was on vacation when the story hit. I thought it would blow over in a few days,” says Mark “Hawkeye” Louis of 96.3 KSCS, recalling the first days after “the incident” in London.
“We didn’t have it in for the Dixie Chicks,” he says. “They were the biggest act in country music. They attracted new listeners to country music. But about seventy per cent of our callers said they would never listen to us again if we kept playing their music. It wasn’t just hate, it was, ‘We will stop listening to you.’ We wanted to calm the waters, but we couldn’t.”
Justin Frazell, the popular morning host on Fort Worth’s 95.9 The Ranch was the helicopter traffic reporter for the ratings giant KPLX 99.5 The Wolf in 2003. Maines couldn’t have “poked the bear any harder,” he says.
Frazell says that the decision to stop playing the Dixie Chicks was related to ratings and finances, but also from a responsibility to respect the “morals and principals of our listeners.” The Ranch in Fort Worth receives only occasional requests for Dixie Chicks these days, and will play the songs from time-to-time.
“We have to pay attention to audience feedback,” says Andy Meadows,
Louis contends that the Dixie Chicks were less than cooperative with efforts at rehabilitation within the world of country radio, pointing out that country radio icon Bob Kingsley, host of the nationally syndicated Bob Kingsley’s Country Top 40, gave the Dixie Chicks an unprecedented 20-minute interview during normal playtime.
When the Chicks came through town that summer for their stop at the American Airlines Center, the broadcast booth for 96.7 The Twister, then a sister-station to KSCS, was asked to vacate the premises by the band’s management, even though the Twister never boycotted the Dixie Chicks and still played its songs.
Chuck Taylor, the current program director and morning host of 95.3 The Range, says the bad blood still lingers. The station has a more progressive, varied playlist than the pop country stations, and recently played a little-known Dixie Chicks song from a compilation album during an afternoon shift. Taylor and the station quickly received negative emails, tweets and Facebook messages.
By 2006, with the release of the album Taking the Long Way, the Dixie Chicks found themselves totally liberated from the parameters of the country music establishment. They were writing all their own material, and coming out with a darker vision and grittier sound, away from the glitzy, heavily produced timbres of progressive country. Martie Maguire told Time magazine, “I'd rather have a smaller following of really cool people who get it, who will grow with us as we grow and are fans for life, than people that have us in their five-disc changer with Reba McEntire and Toby Keith.”
In spite of total absence of airtime on country radio, the album hit number one on Billboard charts for both country and pop the week it was released. A tour that same year led the Dixie Chicks to Dallas in December, but later, when they joined the Eagles as opening act for their 2010 summer tour, they did not appear for the Dallas stop.
The sisters Erwin, now Robison and Maguire, organized a separate duet, the Court Yard Hounds, and released two albums; Maines produced a solo album. People were beginning to wonder if the Dixie Chicks might be gone forever.
The Dixie Chicks declined to be interviewed by the Observer, but Martie Maguire spoke with Alan Light of The New York Times in June, explaining that the moment of truth came for her when she took her daughters to a Taylor Swift concert. When Swift sang the 1999 Dixie Chicks hit “Cowboy Take Me Away” (written by Maguire with Marcus Hummon
The political anger attached to the Dixie Chicks has radicalized and moved on to new icons and new enemies. Last January, Maines tweeted, “Just so you know ... I’m ashamed Ted Cruz is from America.” There was no uproar.
The Dixie Chicks took the long way home to Dallas. The trio toured in Canada in 2013 and 2014, followed by the current MMXVI tour which began in Europe in early 2016 and expanded to include major American cities.
Friday night’s concert was, in many ways, a nostalgia trip: The audience got very little in the way of new material, with lots of emotional build up to Dixie Chicks classics such as “Cowboy Take Me Away,” “Goodbye Earl” and “Landslide.” They played in front of an audience that one could reasonably estimate to be about 80 percent female and 98 percent white.
Sara Tomerlin, owner and operator of the Spiral Diner vegan restaurants in Oak Cliff and Fort Worth, balked at the triple-digit prices for covered seating and settled for a spot on the lawn for $60, shared with her cousin Claudia Cadroy, who works at Mary Kay corporate headquarters.
“I was in high school in the ’90s and really loved their music then,” said Tomerlin, who was also present at the Dixie Chicks appearance in Dallas in 2003. This was Tomerlin’s third live Dixie Chicks concert.
Others in the crowd said they were drawn to the band because of their controversies. Longview-based environmental manager William Stuckey went from being a casual fan to a die-hard loyalist in 2006 when he heard “Not Ready to Make Nice,” Maines’ defiant post-controversy anthem. “I love their brashness,” he said.
He and his wife, Margaret Stuckey, paid $800 for their pair of seats in fulfillment of a bucket list wish to see the Dixie Chicks live. “We would have paid quadruple that,” he said.
The show itself owned the almost guaranteed success that comes with making people pay $50 for a spot on the lawn or up to several hundred dollars for covered seating: Anyone who pays that much is obviously obligated to enjoy the performance.
That said, the Dixie Chicks clearly demonstrated at least some elements of the musical genius and artistic energy that brought them to the apex of country music in the early 2000s. Longtime masters of the artfully arranged set list, they dove in at 9 p.m., when the temperature at Gexa had cooled to a chilly 91 degrees with a fairly low-key version of the 2006 hit “The Long Way Around.”
Maines, whose intensity carried the show, started sweating — and making a genuine connection — with Patty Griffin’s “Truth No. 2,” and, finally putting down her outsized guitar, cut loose with “Some Days You Gotta Dance.”
Visuals were, as at any arena show, vital. As usual, the Chicks managed to come up with some original takes and subtlety for the attentive observer in the midst of the overwhelming digital blitz. A purple rain backdrop was pretty obvious for a brief Prince tribute, in which, in true Dixie Chicks fashion, they made “Nothing Compares 2 U” their own. The visuals for old fave “Goodbye Earl,” with its almost operatic narrative of abuse and deadly revenge, combined vintage clips of romance and violence from old black-and-white movies as well as headlines from crime tabloids (including references to O.J. Simpson), creepy antique mugshots and a quick clip of Donald Trump in the montage of criminal bad guys.
The classic and quiet anti-war ballad “Travelin’ Soldier” lost most of its depth in the arena format, but still had at least part of its magic intact; “Long Time Gone” took on a revised hard rock percussiveness that worked beautifully in the format.
A strategically placed bluegrass celebration segued magically into one of the cleverest bits of glitzy showbiz in the evening, a transformation of “Ready to Run” — originally a defiant and humorous plaint of a woman who refuses to marry — into a combination satire-celebration of the presidential election, complete with confetti drop, for a brilliant spoof of the obligatory patriotic finale of mainstream country arena shows.
The flashing images of Bernie Sanders drew the loudest cheers, and the images of Trump the most boos; in the end, the visuals featured alternating “Drumpf” and “Ready for Hillary” icons, for those keeping score.
From there, the show eased into the Chicks’ greatest hits, which the performers seemed to enjoy almost as much as the hypnotized audience. Stevie Nicks’ “Landslide,” which the Chicks transformed from a pretty good song into a masterpiece in 2002, was magnificent, even when blasted into the arena format; and the audience was clearly and predictably enraptured with three final songs from the pinnacle of late-’90s to early-2000s Chicks: “Cowboy Take Me Away,” “Wide Open Spaces” and “Sin Wagon.” Though occasionally lapsing into conventional visual effects, here, at times the Chicks were backed up by images that emphasized their ability to make the personal universal and the universal personal.
The audience roared for about five minutes after the lights went down on “Sin Wagon”; anyone who had read the playlist in advance — or who has ever been to an arena show — knew they would be back for encores. First came the almost revolutionary “Not Ready to Make Nice,” followed by Ben Harper’s “Better Way” — not a particularly great song, but an appropriate philosophical statement for this crowd and this trio.
The Dixie Chicks could call this their farewell tour, though anyone who saw Friday night’s concert and their evident addiction to the approving roar of the crowd would say that’s unlikely. They could stay on this track, and still be playing “Goodbye Earl” to an aging audience of white women at whatever equivalent of Branson, Missouri exists in 2030 or 2040.
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Or, they could, as in the past, follow their amazing artistic instincts, push their listeners in new directions, build new audiences, and continue to make a difference.
If the Dixie Chicks disappeared today, they would already have earned a chapter in the history of country music and American popular culture, as well as a pretty substantial footnote in the book on politics.
Whether they will let it rest at that remains to be seen. The one thing that is certain is that Dixie Chicks, and only the Dixie Chicks, will decide whether to take the easy or the long way around from here. The band’s existence and self-determination is its own form of victory.
Kelly Dearmore contributed to this article.