The announcement that the Dixie Chicks are reuniting to go on tour has been some of the biggest news in country music this past month. Easily one of the most important and influential country acts of the past 20 years, their Bush-hating, Earl-killing ways have been sorely missed in the near-decade since they last toured — so news of their plans to return to Dallas next summer was huge earlier this week. But for Kessler Theater artistic director Jeffrey Liles, it was also a reminder of what might have been.
Liles watched the Dixie Chicks perform at Hoffbrau Steaks back in 1989. Back then he was in his 20s. He booked shows for a few local venues, and his band, Decadent Dub Team, had received attention from major labels. After managing Rigor Mortis and working as a radio host for KNON, Liles had some connections in the music industry. The Dixie Chicks had asked him to be at the show because they were looking for a manager. He would have left after a few songs, but he was the only audience member and didn’t want to be rude.
This was before Natalie Maines, when twin sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire played with Robin Lynn Macy and Laura Lynch. The Dixie Chicks had just started. They had regular gigs at Hoffbrau Steaks for about a year and played Club Dada regularly, along with weddings and corporate events. “They had this routine where they wore these Dale Evans suits,” Liles remembers. “They had the wardrobe down; that was part of the presentation.” He remembers walking into the empty room, where they waved at him and started playing a couple minutes later.
Eric Schwartz, who has hosted the Lone Star Dead at KNON since 1992, was working as a cook at Hoffbrau Steaks when the Dixie Chicks played regular gigs there. “The manager hired them to play every weekend,” Schwartz recalls. “They would play Friday or Saturday or both nights. They set up in the dining room.” The Dixie Chicks had a different sound then, playing mostly traditional country songs reworked with elements of Western swing and bluegrass. Back then the twins had the same color hair and Eric Schwartz couldn’t tell them apart. He remembers them simply as a band he cooked steaks for.
Liles could see that the Dixie Chicks had talent. But without an office to work out of and limited resources, he had to let Rigor Mortis go shortly after they released their first album. He remembers a tiny house rented for practice space for Decadent Dub Team. It was full of equipment, but no furniture. “Whenever I had band meetings with Rigor Mortis we would just move all the gear to the sides as best we could,” Liles says. “We would all sit on the floor right in the middle of the room, Indian-style, in a circle. That’s how we had our strategy sessions.”
Liles was couch surfing by the time he saw the Dixie Chicks. “There were no real band managers in Dallas at the time,” Liles says. “There were people who managed artists on a local or regional level. But there weren’t managers who had an open dialogue with major labels on both coasts.” But Liles had started getting his feet wet by working with Capitol and Island for Decadent Dub Team.
The Dixie Chicks needed someone to help them find out how the music business worked and were wise to seek out Liles. He had already helped Rigor Mortis get a record contract. He got their music to Elektra Records, who were interested enough to make a quick trip to Dallas before they eventually signed with Capitol. “Many of the A&R people made a habit of making friends with different people in every major metropolitan area who were booking agents or radio deejays,” says Liles. For some music industry executives, Liles was that guy in Dallas. Liles eventually spent two years on Disney’s payroll when they opened Hollywood Records. His job was to send them local music they might be interested in.
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In hindsight, Liles may have overlooked a treasure chest. But there was no reason to think that back in 1989. “Rick Rubin was the hottest producer in hip-hop,” says Liles. “If you had been able to stop time right there and say Rick Rubin would be producing this band, the Dixie Chicks, from Dallas, that’s a hundred-million-to-one odds type thing. He was known for License to Ill and Reign in Blood. If you could imagine him producing the Dixie Chicks, you’d have to be on some pretty intense acid.”
He also notes that Natalie Maines joined later and made an enormous impact on their trajectory. Before the Dixie Chicks signed a development deal with Sony and recruited Maines in 1995, they released two albums with Crystal Clear Sound, a Dallas recording studio, pressing plant and record label. Liles actually worked in the distribution center and remembers shrink-wrapping their albums on the production line.
“There was no question they were excellent musicians,” says Liles. But he remembers wishing some other people would show up so he could slip out the back door and catch up with them later. But he ended up watching them perform for about 45 minutes and spoke with them for less than three minutes afterwards. He remembers explaining that he did not have the time or energy and joking about how they probably wouldn’t want a guy known for managing a metal band anyway.
“I don’t look at it as a missed opportunity at all,” says Liles. He guesses that he may have been able to help the Dixie Chicks get a record deal, but it wasn’t something they were ready for at that point. They needed someone with an office and staff who could deal with all sorts of day-to-day operations in Dallas, which was like an island in between the two coasts in that pre-Internet era. “But there’s no question they are brilliant musicians,” says Liles.