After an agonising wait, this month The Chicks – previously known as the Dixie Chicks – release Gaslighter, their first new album in 14 years, via Sony. Here, Natalie Maines, Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire reflect on writing one of 2020’s most powerful records, joining forces with Jack Antonoff, the modern music business and country. Oh, and how they survived being cancelled…
It took 20 words to do it. Just two sentences to forever change the course of Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer’s lives.
“We do not want this war, this violence,” said Natalie Maines on March 10, 2003, as The Chicks – née Dixie Chicks (more on that later) – played London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire. “And we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.”
The sympathetic crowd applauded. That should have been that. After all, at the time the trio were as unlikely a lightning rod for controversy as you might conceivably find: country music’s prodigiously talented, diamond-selling, Super Bowl national anthem-singing, Lipton Ice Tea-endorsing all-American dream. And then, suddenly, they weren’t.
What happened next after this disavowal of George W Bush and the impending Iraq War – as so brilliantly captured in the group’s 2006 documentary Shut Up And Sing – is the stuff of legend. Arguably the first modern casualties of cancel culture, the group suffered an intense patriotic backlash in the white-hot, post-9/11 political climate. Targetted by conservative website the Free Republic, they were branded as anti-troops and anti-American. Fox News presenter Bill O’Reilly despicably labelled them as “callow, foolish women who deserved to be slapped around”. CDs were publicly crushed. Shows were protested and boycotted. On the country radio airwaves they once dominated they became persona non grata – Napalm Death had a better shot at getting a spin. That’s not to mention the death threats. Shut Up And Sing shows Maines reading a letter saying she would be ‘shot dead Sunday, July 6 in Dallas, Texas’. Not only did the group still play the show, Maines described her suspected assassin’s mugshot as “kinda cute”.
The trio became a cautionary verb to artists – to be ‘Dixie Chick’d’ became shorthand for ruining your career via personal politics. It resounds to this day. “There’s always that threat of being erased when you have an opinion, especially if you’re a woman,” Maren Morris told Music Week in 2019. “Being ‘cancelled’, or ending up like the Dixie Chicks, that’s always a threat used against artists that speak out.”
It has now been 14 years since The Chicks proved there was no credence to the threat with their No.1, Grammy-sweeping album Taking The Long Way. It was an astounding comeback. And for its follow-up? Absolutely nothing. Until now…
It’s June 2020, and three familiar faces are waving at Music Week over Zoom. There’s grinning lead vocalist Natalie Maines – the self-proclaimed “Quarantine Queen” praising the virtues of Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters from her home in LA. There’s fiddler, mandolin player and backing vocalist Martie Maguire, apologising for running late (“I’m in my robe, hope you don’t mind!”) in Austin, Texas. Some 79.8 miles away is Maguire’s sister: banjo, guitar player and backing vocalist Emily Strayer cutting a relaxed figure on her sofa at home in San Antonio.
They’re joining us to talk about their first new album in 14 years: Gaslighter, which is due July 17 via Columbia. For many, the title – an en vogue term evoking psychological manipulation employed to distort perceptions of reality – immediately raised questions about whether the group’s eagerly-awaited return was about to incite another presidential ruckus.
“I mean, Donald Trump gaslights the world on a daily basis,” laughs Maines. “But no, Gaslighter was not about Donald Trump. But we definitely thought about him.”
Rather, Gaslighter is an unflinchingly candid account of the group’s collective experiences in the past 14 years.
“This is my favourite album we’ve made so far,” declares Strayer. “I know a lot of people say that, but it’s really true.”
“To think they could step away from the studio for 14 years and come back with a body of work this breathtaking is a testament to their prowess as songwriters, storytellers, and musicians,” beams Jenifer Mallory, EVP/GM of Columbia Records.
Their imperious return, however, is only one headline. In the immediate days following our interview, the group elected to drop the Dixie prefix from their name – a collective term for America’s Southern states, and thus one synonymous with a history of slavery. No explanation was offered, just a brief statement thanking New Zealand group The Chicks for graciously sharing their name with them.
“The change is indicative of The Chicks being culturally very aware,” says Phil Savill, MD at Sony Music Commercial Group. “The decision is not surprising.”
The news was coupled with the release of their incendiary new single March March, which boasts a moving video with footage of Black Lives Matter, environmental and gun control protests.
“We took a long hiatus and didn’t know if we had anything to say,” says Maguire of Gaslighter’s protracted gestation period. “We didn’t want to just do it to do it. It made sense for us to take that long break, but this was an itch we needed to scratch, and we did have something to say collectively. It was perfect to do it now.”
The story of how they arrived at this highly-anticipated moment begins just as their last chapter was closing…
Writing this album was definitely therapy for me. Like with therapy, it feels really good now because it's all behind me
Natalie Maines, The Chicks
It was on Sunday, February 11, 2007, the night of the 49th Grammys, that it all finally hit home. It was a momentous evening: Maines, Strayer and Maguire clutching all five of the awards they were nominated for – including the coveted Album Of The Year for Taking The Long Way. It was the crowning moment of a No.1 record defined by its defiance: its lead single Not Ready To Make Nice dissecting the post-Bush maelstrom, death threats and all. One line in particular seemed to channel their mindset. ‘It turned my whole world around,’ sang Maines. ‘And I kinda like it.’ For the general public that was the story: the unapologetic, unbroken group stood their ground and won the war. It was the truth. But not the only truth.
“I went backstage and was just crying uncontrollably,” Maines tells Music Week. “And not because we won awards! I don’t cry over awards. It felt like the end of this whole three, almost four-year chapter. When I’m going through a hard time, I become a fighter. I plough through and I don’t take the time to stop and recognise my feelings. I’m like, ‘Rrrrrrrr!’”
A screengrab of MW’s laptop here would show Maines baring her teeth and clenching her fists.
“I kept saying, ‘I don’t know why I’m crying, but I can’t stop,’” she continues. “I just needed a big break.”
Today, as the trio sieve through their memories of that time they speak with a mix of indignation, humour and confusion. Maines notably refers not to cancel, but rather “kill” culture.
“What always was a head scratcher for me was how us not wanting soldiers to go to war to die for reasons that weren’t true was ‘unpatriotic’?” Maguire sighs. “There were so many protesters like, ‘They don’t support the troops!’ We were the ones that didn’t want them to die! Hello? Are you kidding me!?”
“It feels like a different life for the most part,” reflects Strayer. “But at the same time, I still can get triggered by it, and by triggered I mean I can bring myself back to those same feelings. I just can’t imagine that happening now and it being such a big deal. It was a perfect storm. Nowadays everybody says whatever they want!”
They all required what Strayer calls a period of “major self-help” – and, in truth, each had different things to process.
“I don’t think Emily and I felt the same personal devastation and struggle,” continues Maguire. “There’s no way we could have channelled exactly what she was feeling because what she went through was different. It took a lot longer for Natalie to be at peace.”
Shut Up And Sing was the name given to the film documenting their post-Bush odyssey. Music Week enquires what would make a good title for a film about the past 14 years?
“Shut Up And Be A Mom!” Maines chuckles. “Shut Up And Stay Home!”
Indeed, Maines can’t even comprehend what would have happened if they had jumped into another album/tour cycle.
“I have no idea because, honestly, I was in no place to write a song,” explains Maines. “We had worked non-stop since 1995. And I love being at home. I love gardening, knitting, painting, cooking and cleaning. The quarantine is perfect for me! I just wanted to be a mom.”
In the years that followed they prioritised their home lives. “We have a lot of kids and had a lot of driving them to school and sports and music lessons and stuff,” smiles Maguire. Eventually, they would explore music away from The Chicks mothership. Maines, for one, released her brilliant, covers-centric solo debut Mother. “I love the record!” she responds to MW’s praise. “It’s just a bummer you’re the only one that heard it!” Likewise, Strayer and Maguire united as Court Yard Hounds for two great albums, touring America in a van. It was fun, but…
“To get home and have paid everyone but yourself?” laughs Strayer. “I love it, but I can’t justify doing that for too long when I have four kids!”
A number of factors precipitated the studio sessions that spawned Gaslighter. A rapturously-received 2016/2017 world tour drew attention to both the need for new material and the fans’ burning desire for it. Another was they had just one album left of their contract…
“We signed our deal back in ’95 for seven albums,” says Maines. “It seemed like we would never get out of our contract. And then when they accepted [the 2017 DCX MMXVI Live album] as the sixth, we only had one more. That was the motivator [laughs]. When we’re free agents, we’ll have a much better deal for this day and age than we have right now.”
Originally a covers album was plotted until the fine print revealed it wouldn’t actually count. D’oh. Gradually, though, an album became not so much a contractual inconvenience but – in drawing upon their shared experience of motherhood, divorce and our troubled world – an emotional necessity. Last year, Maines’ estranged husband petitioned in court for her unreleased music to be handed over, citing a confidentially clause in their prenup. The songs, however, survived.
This was an itch we needed to scratch. We have something to say
Martie Maguire, The Chicks
There was a little bit of rust and some cobwebs,” admits Maguire of the early writing sessions for Gaslighter. She pauses. “Big cobwebs.”
Indeed, in 2016, Maines told the New York Times her “muscle for songwriting is like a 600-pound man right now, way flabby”. Enter: Jack Antonoff. Among other accolades, Gaslighter’s co-producer is heralded by the trio as “the best”, “our cheerleader” and someone – Maines adds with a glint in her eye – “always ad-libbing lyrics about fire!”
The sessions were clearly fun, but songs such as Tights On My Boat and Set Me Free are extremely candid.
“Everybody pulled from their own lives,” says Maines. “Writing this album was definitely therapy for me. Like with therapy, it feels really good now because it’s behind me. I don’t get emotional when I listen to the songs now, but it was an emotional process making the record.”
“For the most part it’s about having the freedom to be raw with emotion,” adds Strayer of the lyrics on the record. “Don’t beat around the bush, just say it as you would in real life.”
Gaslighter also pairs The Chicks with a cadre of elite pop songwriters, including Justin Tranter (Dua Lipa), Teddy Geiger (Shawn Mendes) and Julia Michaels (Selena Gomez). The organ-led Julianna Calm Down, Maguire explains, started out life as a Michaels song christened Julia Calm Down, before Maines turned it into a song about The Chicks’ daughters and nieces.
The album is not only freighted with emotion, it also explores a new sound. Maines, for one, has not only voiced her feeling of alienation from country music in recent years, but even some of the more pronounced country-isms of their back-catalogue. “It was out of control!” she jokes of her accent on 1999’s
diamond-selling album Fly. “It’s great, but I’d love to re-sing that whole record, it would make me so happy.”
Gaslighter, the trio explain, isn’t a country album…
“One misconception that I feel is a little annoying is that people just put us in a country category just because that’s what they know about us,” says Maines. “We could make a hip-hop record and it’d still be ‘country’!”
What kind of record, then, is Gaslighter?
“I feel it’s a pop record,” says Maines. “There are moments that would fit on a country station – we have the harmonies and we have banjo – but yeah, I wouldn’t call it a country album.”
This is perhaps best glimpsed on March March, a song which features piercing lines about gun control, climate change and women’s rights over an ominous beat. The song, reveals Strayer, was a product of a day in which they were discussing the news and felt “all riled up” in addressing issues that would make them march, the memory of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting being one.
With superb songs like this in tow, the task of making a brilliant comeback album was met. Other challenges, however, needed addressing. One was finding new management. In 2018, The Chicks’ manager Simon Renshaw – often captured in the same post-Bush pressure cooker with them in Shut Up And Sing – retired.
“That was bittersweet,” says Strayer. “But we knew he needed to get out of the rat race. He’s probably in
flip-flops right now having a cocktail [laughs].”
Strayer outlines how they spent five months in a boardroom “auditioning” managers. Eventually they found a new home alongside Foo Fighters on Silva Artist Management with one of the music business’ most respected managers, John Silva.
Other challenges beckon. A 14-year gap to bridge. A global pandemic that Columbia’s Jenifer Mallory says pulled the plug on a massive tour, ticket bundle and press campaign “in a matter of days”. A potentially confusing late-hour band name change to market (Phil Savill confirms the “first run of physical product will have the old name”). Moreover, their social media (627k on Twitter) and streaming presence (4m+ monthly listeners on Spotify) are also notably at odds with their multiple diamond record-selling past. Stateside, there’s also the lingering damage from yesteryear.
“There are still pockets of this country where I don’t think we’re going to sell a lot of tickets,”
Yet Mallory is heartened by what she’s seen so far: Gaslighter shooting to No.1 on iTunes, No.2 on YouTube and attaining “incredible playlist positioning”.
“There are huge fans at all the DSPs who want to bring The Chicks and their fans into the 2020 music ecosystem,” says Mallory. “We’ve been crafting DSP plans that aggressively position the album in a competitive landscape. We’ve focused on driving pre-saves and pre-adds to connect fans with the band.
“The entire social media universe developed after the release of Taking The Long Way in 2006,” Mallory continues. “So their digital audience doesn’t come close to representing how many people still love this band. Our mission is to find the 30 million people who previously bought a Chicks album and remind them.”
Yet, as Mallory and Savill note, the task at hand is not entirely one of starting from scratch. “The Chicks,” Savill says, “Haven’t ever truly been too far away.”
On top of their anniversary tour, their phenomenal duet with Beyoncé at the 2016 CMAs generated headlines after exposing a troubling divide in the room, with some Nashville purists reportedly walking out in protest. In 2019, too, The Chicks lent their vocals to Soon You’ll Get Better on Taylor Swift’s blockbuster Lover album. While their biggest market is America, they are a band with global appeal – headlining the 2014 C2C Festival and London’s The O2 in 2016. What’s more, according to OCC data, every one of their studio albums has gone gold in the UK: Fly (101,000), Wide Open Spaces (269,000), Home (182,000) and Taking The Long Way (173,000). Savill promises Sony UK will stoke fan excitement with “a heavyweight advertising plan in play, making use of the striking artwork and taking in digital, outdoor, print, radio and TV”.
As for that expiring contract?
“The Chicks are amazing musicians and songwriters,” says Mallory. “Their legacy is an essential contribution to Columbia, and we want to hear what they have to say next!”
For The Chicks, the most important thing is that Gaslighter is finally going to be released.
“We realise this might be a ‘pandemic album’, but it can’t keep us from sharing it,” smiles Strayer. “I feel it’s a gift to our fans, and it’s a gift to ourselves as well.”
“I was so grateful when Fiona Apple’s album came out – that made my first couple of months of quarantine,” says Maines. “Hopefully that’s what people think about ours. We just want it out there.”
Here, Maines, Maguire and Strayer take us further into the past, present and future of The Chicks…
There's a history of dissent in country. It's cool when you're a guy, with ladies it's, 'Stay pretty in the corner'
Emily Strayer, The Chicks
The music world is so different compared to when you released Taking The Long Way. What will constitute success for Gaslighter in your eyes?
Natalie Maines: “I have no idea! We’re so out of the loop that people have to tell us what’s important these days. They’ll tell us a number and we’ll go, ‘Is that good? Does that suck?’ We don’t know! I only ever feel competitive with ourselves to try to top the last album, the last tour, the last song.”
Emily Strayer: “I don’t know the measure of success as far as sales anymore. Apparently, we’re told
our audience still buys physical copies and we’re like, ‘What!?’ We all stream and that’s one place where we’ve lost a lot of time, but we’re trying to catch up. We want this album to be heard in as many places as it possibly can.”
Martie Maguire: “The tour’s more of a measure of success for me. Who’s going to actually buy a ticket, and do they know the words? Have they lived with the music? Are they passionate? If nobody wants to see you live, then you haven’t made very good music! It would break my heart if people didn’t come to the tour.”
In recent years, you’ve spoken about feeling alienated from country music. What is your relationship to the genre now?
NM: “I don’t give it any thought whatsoever. It’s not like I’m holding a grudge and wake up thinking about country music or radio. We saw the true colours. You just move on. I mean, bygones are bygones, but I felt like they had some magic power over our career, and just the fact that they all dumped us… If you’re looking at it as a relationship, that would be a toxic and self-loathing thing to get into.”
ES: “Anyone can play us if they want to play us, and that’s great, but as far as what I’m hearing, I don’t know that we fit that format anymore. There’s very few women being played on country radio, it’s just
male-dominated. I just know we’re not going to play that game because of the history. It doesn’t feel right.”
When you performed with Beyoncé at the CMAs, some of the reactions were dispiriting. How did that make you feel?
MM: “Yeah. I lived in Nashville longer than the other girls and I’ve kept my toe in the water socially. Personally, I felt a lot of love backstage, but it was either a lot of love or [being] totally ignored – people that I’d been friendly with before just walking past you. During the song I couldn’t see anybody because the lights were so bright, but I was disappointed when I heard what happened the next day. We started hearing about how so and so wouldn’t stand up, so and so left, so and so wouldn’t clap. I don’t know... I’ve read articles about how women still aren’t represented evenly in country music. I just think it takes time for the old people in charge to either die or move on [laughs].”
Has the rise of artists like Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini, who were inspired by you, made you feel different about country?
NM: “Yeah. Listen, when I say [about feeling alienated] I’m talking more about the business of Top 40 Country radio or certain executives, not the artists. That’s always great – and those are awesome women to be saying it, so it’s even better! And Taylor Swift talked about it in her documentary [2020’s Miss Americana], and she’s said it to my face how we inspired her so much. It’s interesting in her documentary, it was just wild to me that she’s in a board meeting letting people debate and contribute to whether she’s going to be political. I’m so glad she is taking that stance, but it was just a different world. We would never be asking our management, ‘Can we be ourselves?’ Or, ‘Can we be all of ourselves?’ She’s definitely being herself, but she was holding this thing back that is a part of her and it’s so brave and so awesome that she did it.”
The post-Bush era was often framed as a political backlash. How much was just misogyny?
NM: “Yeah, in the media, and even the president [Bush] talked about us, like, ‘Those little girls shouldn’t get their feelings hurt’. What was so disappointing was the country music industry had been very accepting of us. Radio was playing more females than they had been for decades. It made them money as well. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we hate playing girls’. We were the first wave of people where the internet could get a campaign going to sabotage someone. It was the Free Republic, there were not that many people outraged by what I said. I don’t think people would fall for it today.”
ES: “You know what makes me really mad? When people go, ‘It’s like when Ozzy Osbourne pissed on
the Alamo and he’s known for that forever’ [laughs]. It’s nothing like that! We didn’t piss on something, we gave our opinion. Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard… There’s a history of dissent and saying whatever the hell you want to say in country music. But it’s all men. It’s cool when you’re a guy, but with ladies it’s like, ‘Stay pretty in the corner’. That’s still happening today.”
Finally, in light of the success and longevity you’ve enjoyed since being “cancelled”, do you think the definition of being ‘Dixie Chick’d’ needs updating?
NM: “I still, to this day, hear somebody occasionally on the news talking about somebody that’s been cancelled in culture and they say, ‘Yeah, they got Dixie Chick’d.’ Or you’ll hear artists still say they wanted to speak out on something and people tell them, ‘Don’t do it, look what happened to the Dixie Chicks!’ I guess people can look at it either way. But I’m glad about what happened.”
PHOTO: Robin Harper