- 3 Top 10 hits
- 1 Top 20
- 2 Top 40
- 7 Top 100 hits
- “Not Ready to Make Nice” peaked at #4 in 2006
Art as a form of protest against governments has existed at least since the French Revolution.
But what happens when an off-hand comment by a band leads to them being the ones protested?
In the case of the (Dixie) Chicks, they took a few years, gathered their thoughts, then directed a big, fat middle finger at the protesters.
And scored the biggest hit in their career:
In 1988 at a show in Fort Worth, sisters Martie and Emily Erwin met Robin Lynn Macy and Laura Lynch, and realized they played all the right instruments to form a band.
The next weekend on a street corner in Dallas’ West End they played five songs for tips, and decided to pursue it further.
They entered county fair contests; winning one, then got hired to play a private party for $400. They didn’t have a name yet, only a common love for a 1973 release by Little Feat:
Lowell George co-wrote the title track from Little Feat’s third album with songwriter Martin Gibbee (billed as Fred Martin), who’d been a member of Fraternity of Man.
According to Gibbee, he was driving home after a long recording session in Laurel Canyon where George kept playing the same rift over and over.
He saw a sign: “Dixie Chicken,” rushed home and wrote a story about a wealthy man who got taken to the cleaners by a beautiful grifter over that riff.
The Midnight Special version above was a jazzy version of the song which Robin and Laura probably heard as seniors in high school; though I’m not sure the sisters watched it in 1977 – Martie was eight, Emily four.
The Chicks released their first two albums Thank Heavens For Dale Evans and Little Ol’ Cowgirl on a local label.
Most of the tracks were bluegrass covers: lots of fiddles and banjos that played well to senior citizens. Studio musicians were brought in for the second album, including one Lloyd Maines on steel guitar.
The sisters wanted to go more mainstream country and appeal to a younger audience: against the wishes of Macy, who quit the band. The rechristened Dixie Chicks Cowgirl Band recorded their third album, Shouldn’t a’ Told You That, but still found little success.
Something had to give, and it was lead singer Laura Lynch. Maines put the band in touch with Sony Nashville, and The Chicks auditioned. Executives concluded the band would have greater success with a younger, better singer. Lloyd knew just the person:
His daughter Natalie.
A trained vocalist with a scholarship to attend the Berklee College of Music, and fifteen years younger than Lynch.
Natalie joined, the band ditched their old-fashioned costumes and musical style, then recorded their major label debut.
“Wide Open Spaces” was a smash:
13 million copies sold, 5 singles reached the Billboard Top 100 (including 2 in the Top 40).
The Chicks were nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy in 1999 and won two others: Best Country Album and Best County Performance by a Group with Vocals.
Their follow up Fly also crushed.
Ten million copies sold and SEVEN songs charted on the Billboard 100: something that had been done by a few artists previously: Michael twice, Janet, Def Leppard and Shania.
They headlined Lilith Fair, the first country artist to do so. It was only a matter of time before they hit the top 10. Before they were able to, though, they had to settle a score with Sony.
In 2001, Sony Nashville and the trio went to war over their contract. It played out in the public eye, something unusual in the country music ecosphere.
In the end, The Chicks won, but as they recorded their next album (for which they’d get their first production credits), they distanced themselves from the country music world.
9/11 happened, and the Nashville scene went jingoistic, something The Chicks weren’t comfortable with.
Maines told the LA Daily News in August 2002 she didn’t like Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)”, saying:
“I hate it. It’s ignorant, and it makes country music sound ignorant.”
“It targets an entire culture – and not just the bad people who did bad things. You’ve got to have some tact.”
“Anybody can write, ‘We’ll put a boot in your ass.’ But a lot of people agree with it. The kinds of songs I prefer on the subject are like Bruce Springsteen’s new songs.”Natalie maines August 2002
The spat went back and forth, played out in concerts and on T-shirts. In a genre that is white, male and right-wing, them’s fightin’ words. It just needed a spark.
Home was released in August of 2002 to enormous success: it would go on to sell over six million copies in the United States.
Its first two singles hit #7 on the Billboard Top 100. “Long Time Gone” is an old-timey bluegrass fiddle-led song I’m not really a big fan of (it’s a 5), but their remake of Stevie Nicks’ classic “Landslide” is a 7 (The Fleetwood Mac original peaked at #51).
Tensions remained high internationally, and George W Bush stated his intention to remove “weapons of mass destruction” from Iraq. On March 10, 2003, nine days before the Iraqi invasion, Maines told a London audience:
Reported by The Guardian in England and seized by right-wing media, the backlash was swift. The Chicks were blacklisted from country music radio stations; boycotts and a few public CD smashing events organized. One former fan even publicly drove over Chicks’ merchandise with a tractor.
The next week, “Landslide” dropped from #10 to 43. And the following week, it was off the Top 100. “Travelin’ Soldier”, the third single from Home fell from #1 on the Country singles – off the charts.
The Chicks went into crisis management while they tried to maintain their political stance. Maines offered an apology, but the damage was done: DJs were fired for playing their music, death threats followed; metal detectors installed at their concerts. Natalie had to hire security to protect her house.
When the Academy of Country Music Awards announced their nominees in May of that year, The Chicks were booed loudly.
It took three years for the band to respond. But man, did they.
Their album Taking the Long Way was a direct response to all that had happened, and they wrote it as outsiders to the Nashville world they once called home.
“Not Ready to Make Nice” opens with an aggressive guitar, but it and the instruments back off to give Natalie room.
During their Oprah interview The Chicks claimed to want a “universal interpretation” for the song, but c’mon – forgiveness sounds good, forget… Natalie isn’t sure she could. The first verse is sung quietly, but builds in intensity.
They’re not ready to back down – they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. By the time the chorus hits, it rips.
The second verse starts out quiet as well, but after Natalie announces she sleeps well at night she lays into her critics.
Her opponents teach hate, and were broken by her words? She should “shut up and sing” or be killed?
I mean, those words aren’t in the song. but they might as well be.
Listen, I’ll be honest: country music isn’t my taste, but the more I’ve listened to this song, the more I realize this song hits hard.
The video also helps. I don’t know if Tom will wind up talking about Sophie Muller the director, but she might be on the Mount Rushmore of music videos.
She began her work with the Eurythmics after meeting Dave Stewart’s brother by chance.
She’s won tons of awards (including a Grammy for Annie Lennox’s Diva video album), but the breadth of her work is amazing – among my favorites include Blur’s “Song 2”, … Lily Allen’s “Smile”, Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder on the Dance Floor,,,
,,, and dare I say, “Not Ready to Make Nice”? This is The Handmaid’s Tale set to music.
The band is in white, being covered in black paint as a way to shut them up while other women are dressed in black, mourning. Throughout the video, the world is trying to take their voice away, but The Chicks aren’t going to go away quietly, tipping over the medication Natalie’s supposed to take, arguing against the quote on the chalkboard she was supposed to write as punishment:
“To talk without thinking is to shoot without aiming.”
It’s a quote from Thomas Fuller, an 18th century physician best known for his collection of proverbs from 1732.
It’s such a declaration of triumph that it would be easy to end the video with a mic drop. But they don’t. Natalie sings the last verse, her face outlined in black: “Time heals everything, but I’m still waiting…”
And with that, The Chicks walked away.
In September their documentary Shut Up and Sing was released at the Toronto International Film Festival, and then the group took some time off recording – fourteen years, in fact.
Martie and Emily went and worked on a side project called The Court Yard Hounds to some success;
Natalie did a solo album and the Dixie Chicks toured, and all of them raised families. Maybe they’d said all they needed to say.
Before I began writing this, I knew nothing about The Dixie Chicks, or even that they were called The Chicks these days. But their stance on controversial issues wasn’t limited to the Iraqi War and Nashville.
In 2007, Natalie spoke out on behalf of The West Memphis Three, and wound up sued for her stance.
In 2020, following George Floyd and the race riots across the country, the group announced they were dropping “Dixie” from their name because of its relationship with the Confederate South.
In 2020, The Chicks returned with a new album Gaslighter. The album did well on the charts; the singles didn’t hit the Billboard 100.
But if the last Top 40 hit they have in their careers is “Not Ready to Make Nice:”
that’s a hell of a way to go out.
And this just in: So Tom Breihan did mention them – in this past Monday’s column, which I’m kind of excited about – after all, his column still has over a decade of songs to cover, and some of the artists he missed are still active. I predicted one of them would be included eventually…but it wasn’t The Chicks!
TRIVIA: The All-American Rejects had a decent run about fifteen years ago with three Top 10 hits, including 2004’s “Gives You Hell”, but Tom never rated any of their songs, and only mentioned them once…while discussing a comeback story for whom? (“Gives You Hell” is a 5.)
Last week, I mentioned Nazareth managed a single mention in Tom’s column, under stadium rockers REO Speedwagon’s “Keep On Loving You” power ballad. (Tom gave it a 6.)
BONUS BEATS: In 2008 The (Dixie) Chicks appeared on The Simpsons and mocked their critics, because of course they did: