Home Free

Of course, we should only talk about the music. Of course, we should. Home is, by far, the best album the Dixie Chicks have recorded, more than worthy of a few hundred listens and, at the very least, a separate discussion. But they want it this way: The group didn't spend the better part of last year fighting Sony Music, didn't risk their name and career, just to have people stop talking about it when it was over. So let's get it out of the way first. Because it doesn't tell you how the Dixie Chicks went from the stadium stomp of Fly and Wide Open Spaces to the back-porch beauty of Home. It doesn't tell you much about the music at all.

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.

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain