In 2003, just days before the United States invaded Iraq, Dixie Chick Natalie Maines stood on a concert stage and said she was ashamed to be from the same state as the president. The fallout was instantaneous: The Texas trio was blacklisted by country radio and rejected by red-state fans, and received death threats.
How thrilling, then, to hear Not Ready to Make Nice, the unrepentant first single from the Dixie Chicks new album, Taking the Long Way. Bold, passionate statements fill the album, which arrives in stores tomorrow. Lubbock or Leave It is a biting indictment of small-town hypocrisy that rocks hard and wont win the Chicks any new hometown fans. The breezy gait and chiming chords of Everybody Knows belie the songs uncompromising look at the cult of celebrity. And while the bulk of the collection is more concerned with matters of the heart than state or society, Taking the Long Way is top to bottom the strongest, wisest work the Dixie Chicks have ever made.
Produced by ubiquitous studio guru Rick Rubin, the album finds the Chicks venturing still farther west from their Nashville roots all the way to the coast. My friends from x high school/ married their high school boyfriends/ Moved into houses in the same ZIP code where their parents live/ But I could never follow, Maines sings on the opening track, The Long Way Around. Its a loping, wind-in-your-hair track that marks the distance between the Chicks trad-cowgirl beginnings and the sun-kissed SoCal vibe that colors their seventh studio collection.
Rubin assembled a feisty band that includes Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith and Heartbreakers Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell, and the Chicks whose records, for all the outspoken commentary, seem to err on the mild-mannered side responded in kind. Collaborators such as former Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson, singer-songwriters Pete Yorn and Neil Finn, and Sheryl Crow help fill the disc with folk-rock hooks that place the Dixie Chicks circa 2006 closer to the Indigo Girls than the Judds.
Finns distinguished fingerprints are all over Silent House, an elegant heartbreaker about Mainess grandmother, who has Alzheimers disease. Likewise, Crow has had her wistful, winsome way with Favorite Year. And yet the Dixie Chicks who share songwriting credits on every track stamp each song with humble, clear-eyed harmonies, signature fiddle and banjo, and plain-spoken sentiments. It requires at least as much courage to deliver the emotionally naked lyrics to Voice Inside My Head as any loaded political barb; you can practically hear Maines steeling herself at the start of each verse and collecting herself at the finish. That transparency is only one of the ways the Dixie Chicks set themselves apart from, and above, their country music brethren.
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.