If Michael Corcoran's defense of the Dixies is funnier than what follows, it's only because he has the more laughable half of this debate. C'mon--liking the Dixie Chicks? You know Corcoran only likes Wide Open Spaces because ex-Chick Laura Lynch referred to him as an "oily, disheveled troll" in Texas Monthly a few weeks back. This is his revenge, man--a slap on Natalie Maines' back is a punch in Laura's chops. Then again, Corcoran, bless him, hasn't been right about a record since Rubber Soul. No, wait. He hasn't listened to a record since Rubber Soul.
Actually, there's nothing wrong with Wide Open Spaces that a little deafness wouldn't cure. It's not a horrible record, just an innocuous one--the kind that wins Grammys and convinces male critics it's Serious Art just because someone in the band has breasts and plays fiddle. Not to begrudge the six million who bought the record, but, hey, they're also the same people who made Garth Brooks the most famous gas-station attendant in the world.
Part of this dislike for the Chicks comes from having watched and listened to them pine for stardom since their inception almost a decade ago then act as though they have no past. Theirs has long been a most unattractive brand of cynicism: They were trying to sell out even when they had nothing to offer. Yet the women, especially sisters Emily Erwin and Martie Seidel, now insist theirs is an overnight stardom, even while they bury in the back yard the co-founding members who got them to this platinum place. It's hard to listen to Wide Open Spaces. Oh, sorry. Forgot to finish that sentence. It's hard to listen to Wide Open Spaces without hearing those inveterate echoes of a struggling band trying to two-step in the middle ground between art and commerce, trying to make it without faking it. Maybe that's why the first three records sound so beguiling and charming now--like a boy trying to speak when his voice begins to break.
Wide Open Spaces just sounds like so much product, every note written on a computer and stamped out on a bar code. Worse, the Chicks keep insisting it's their first record, as though the past decade never happened. Too many times have they uttered such nonsense in interviews or onstage at the Country Music Foundation Academy Grand Ol' Howdy Yeehah Awards and the Grammys. "We can't wait to make our second record," Maines keeps repeating. It looks kinda bad when the Sisters Erwin, Zeppo and Gummo, nod and smile behind Maines in their white-trash glamour togs, looking like the backup singers and players they've happily become. (This is called The Van Halen Syndrome...or the New Bohemians.)
But, hey, what's a little revisionist history among million-sellers? Ain't nothing but a G-thing--a Grammy thing, that is, and they have the bookends to prove it. It's all a little unbecoming--the rot of instant-but-not fame. Fact is, if the old records were available to the public, the sisters would have to split the leviathan profits with Lynch and Robin Macy, co-founders long since erased from the bio.
It's not as if the Chicks weren't always up-front about their desire to be rich and famous, even when they were playing Joey Tomato's on Wednesday nights to the faithful who washed down their bow-tie pasta with a bluegrass sidecar. They wanted to be famous more than John Hinkley, made no apologies after firing Macy when she wanted to keep riding Bill Monroe's jock while the other girls were lookin' to sell out, even if Nashville wasn't yet buying. In November 1993, Laura Lynch told the Dallas Observer that "this time last year, we were all hoping in the biggest way for a major label." Of course, Lynch is long gone, and only the Sisters Erwin and Lynch will know did she jump or was she pushed.
The Chicks' first record, 1991's Thank Heavens for Dale Evans, sounds eight years later like the Andrews Sisters playing Asleep at the Wheel frontman Ray Benson's bar mitzvah; shtick 'em up, pardner. Yet the record featured a cavalcade of chops; them sisters can play, make a banjo sound like it really is a cool instrument. Only occasionally did it smack of country music for kiddies and their grandparents, bluegrass for blue-hairs. There was just something endearing about women honoring Patsy Montana and Bill Monroe like anyone still gave a damn. If they hadn't dressed it up in Western Warehouse reduced-price frills, they might have been taken seriously a whole lot quicker.
The follow-up, 1992's Little Ol' Cowgirl, tempered the presentation just enough to make their play for stardom a bit more tenable. After all, Alison Krauss hadn't yet proven there was an audience willing to pay good money to be bored to death by one more bluegrass breakdown. But Shouldn't a Told You That, released in 1993, was the record that proved the Chicks could sell out without giving in--a smart, sexy disc that played like it was made on Music Row by professionals after business hours. Shouldn't didn't sub out chops for top-of-the-pops. The sisters are right there, sitting on your shoulders as they play the holy mother out of their respective instruments, while Lynch does her Reba-Dolly-Mary Chapin best--which was good enough to land the band a deal with Sony, only without Lynch as part of the deal.
Fact is, I half expect the Chicks and Lauryn Hill to do a record together in the next couple of years, when they're putting the "over" in overrated. Till then, I've got a copy of Thank Heavens for Dale Evans I'm willing to part with for $50.
The Dixie Chicks will perform April 18 at Texas Stadium as part of the George Strait Music Festival, which also features George Strait, Asleep at the Wheel, Tim McGraw, Jo Dee Messina, Mark Wills, and Kenny Chesney.
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