By Eleni P. Austin
“You’re only as sick as your secrets, So I’m telling everything, half of the shit you won’t believe, but I know it’s not unique to me.”
That comes from the Artists Formerly Known As The Dixie Chicks (in these post-George Floyd times, their name was recently truncated to the less offensive Chicks), speaking their truth on “Sleep At Night,” a song from their new record, Gaslighter.
It’s been 14 years since the Chicks’ last album was released, practically a lifetime. Despite their lengthy absence one shot to #1 on Billboard’s Country charts. Quite an achievement for a band that courted controversy and almost saw their career go up in flames.
It wasn’t always so contentious, almost from the beginning, the Chicks were embraced by the Country Music establishment. Originally, the band was founded in Dallas, Texas, by sisters, Martie and Emily Erwin in the late ‘80s as a four-piece, with Laura Lynch and Robin Lynn Macy. Their Bluegrass sound was anchored by the sisters’ musical dexterity. Martie played violin, viola, guitar, mandolin fiddle and double bass, Emily was responsible for banjo, dobro, pedal steel, bass and sitar. Named for the sly Little Feat classic, “Dixie Chicken,” the band became mainstays at Bluegrass festivals and eventually wound up serving as an opening act for artists like Reba McEntire, George Strait and Garth Brooks.
Between 1990 and 1994, they released three albums on the tiny Crystal Clear Sound label, but nationwide success eluded them. As their style evolved, veering slightly from traditional Bluegrass, Robin advocated for a “purer” sound, and ended up leaving the band. They stuck it out as a trio and Laura took over lead vocals. But they still had trouble expanding their fan base beyond Texas and Nashville, making it difficult to attract a major label.
It was around this time that Nashville session musician (and Texas native), Lloyd Maines introduced Martie and Emily to his daughter, Natalie. An aspiring singer, she had won a full scholarship to the Berklee College Of Music. They also acquired a new manager, Simon Renshaw. Not long after, Natalie was in and Laura was out. Within a year, the trio inked a deal with Columbia Records, part of the giant Sony music conglomerate.
Released in early 1998, Wide Open Spaces, their major label debut, catapulted to the top of both the Country and Pop charts. Natalie’s Blues and Rock influences paired nicely with the sisters rootsy sound. By the end of the year, the trio sold more CDs than all other Country acts combined. The record won a Grammy and the Chicks were feted by the Country Music Association, as well as the Academy Of Country Music.
Their next album, Fly arrived at the tail end of the 20th century and debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200. Doubling down on their blend of Bluegrass, Contemporary Country, Pop, Rock and Blues, they achieved mainstream success. This time out they netted two Grammies and multiple CMA and ACM awards. The Chicks became the only Country band and only female band of any genre to hold the distinction of having two back-to-back RIAA certified diamond (10,000,000 sold) albums. No longer an opening act, they began headlining their own tours and cemented their crossover appeal by joining artists like Sarah McLachlan and Sheryl Crow on the all-woman, Lillith Fair tour.
Following some tense contract negotiations with Sony, the Chicks returned with their third stellar album, Home, in late 2002. Much like its predecessor, the album was an adroit mix of original songs from the trio and sharp covers from artists they admired like Patty Griffin, Darrell Scott, Bruce Robison and Radney Foster. They even added some down-home grit to Stevie Nicks’ signature Fleetwood Mac classic, “Landslide.” Once again, critical acclaim was unanimous and sales were through the roof. It was during their 2003 World tour that the shit hit the fan.
At a show in London, England, nine days before the run-up to the Iraq war, Natalie announced from the stage that the Chicks didn’t support the proposed Iraq invasion and were ashamed that President George W. Bush was from Texas. Many Country fans did support the war, backlash was swift. Thousands of Country stations blacklisted the Chicks, refusing to play their music. Soon, the band began receiving death threats. Natalie apologized for disrespecting the office of the President (three years later she rescinded the apology and declared George W. Bush didn’t deserve respect). In an interview with the German publication, Der Spiegel, Martie noted that the Country Music establishment had abandoned them. Not only had they received no support from fellow artists, the ACM awards shunned the band. Still, they managed to win three Grammys, so the trio was pledging their allegiance to the Rock community.
Even as they faced diminished sales, as former fans began burning their music (Who does that? How does that hurt the artist when you’re basically burning your own property?), and Toby Keith displayed a doctored image of Natalie and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the Chicks persisted.
In 2006 they released Taking The Long Way, produced by Rick Rubin and were the subject of a documentary, “Shut Up And Sing.” Insisting on one song they were “Not Ready To Make Nice,” several tracks on the record addressed the controversy The record received nearly unanimous critical praise, and most interestingly, debuted at #1, making them the first all-female band to manage that feat. Nominated for five Grammys, they swept the awards. The film, directed by famed documentarian, Barbara Kopple, opened in four theaters in late 2007 and expanded to a wider release.
In the ensuing years, the Chicks have toured sporadically and also taken lengthy hiatuses. Martie and Emily fronted a Folkier side project, The Court Yard Hounds, releasing two albums. Natalie recorded a solo album, Mother in 2013, comprised of covers from disparate artists like Pink Floyd, Patty Griffin, Pearl Jam, Jeff Buckley and the Jayhawks.
But the trio has always remained ready to upend convention. At a 50th anniversary celebration for the CMA, the Chicks appeared with fellow Texas native Beyonce, offering a rollicking take on the latter’s Country-flavored “Daddy Lessons.” The audience was delighted, but the performance elicited a series of racist attacks online. Following a collaboration with Taylor Swift on her seventh album, Lover, the band confirmed they were back in the studio working on a new album. Originally scheduled for release in early May, the pandemic delayed it a bit, but now Gaslighter is here.
The record opens with the one-two punch of “Gaslighter” and “Sleep At Night.” The title cut is a bit of a barnburner, from the shout-it-out chorus, to the anthemic bridge, buttressed by sugar rush acoustic guitars, 12-string electric riffs, pliant keys, piquant banjo runs, swooping violin throbbing bass lines and a thumpy big beat. It’s tempting to think the title refers to the taint-stain currently occupying the White House and his predilection for denial, misdirection, contradiction and misinformation. But lyrics like “you thought I wouldn’t see it if you put it in my face, give you all my money you’ll gladly walk away/You think it’s justifiable, I think it’s pretty cruel, and you know you lie best when you lie to you.” are directed at a duplicitous, adulterous ex.
The aforementioned “Sleep..” continues the confrontational theme over a clackity metallic beat, rippling banjo, sawing violin, swooning pedal steel, a wall of guitars and whooshy Mellotron and Moog. Natalie’s mien is arch and sardonic as she caustically confides; “Not that you asked, but I’m getting past everything, everything, I’m doing okay, just glad it’s not yesterday/ “My husband’s girlfriend’s husband just called me up, how messed up is that? It’s so insane I have to laugh, but then I think about our two boys trying to become men, there’s nothing funny about that.” Her righteous indignation is cloaked in an insanely hooky melody.
While the Chicks have never been afraid to weigh in on social issues or current events (prompting one right wing harridan to instruct them to “shut up and sing”), on this record the personal is political. Inspired by Natalie’s recent divorce from actor Adrian Pasdar, the band has co-written every track here save one. Bent on baring their souls like never before, the trio takes it to the limit, and the results are pretty thrilling.
Rather than appear martyred by betrayal, two tracks, “Tights On My Boat” and “Texas Man,” display the Chicks’ wicked sense of fun. The former is a slice of finger-popping cool. Half shit-talk Torch song, half campfire sing-a-long, it’s fueled by wily acoustic licks, tart ukulele, wiggly keys, sly organ notes, sputtery violin and slippery bass, tethered to a ricochet rhythm. The opening couplet, “Okay, I hope you die peacefully in your sleep, just kidding, I hope it hurts you like you hurt me, I hope when you think of me you can’t breathe” sets the stage for a series of verbal smart bombs that Natalie lobs in the direction of her ex.
The latter blends plucky banjo, tensile bass, buzzy guitars, shuddery keys, prickly violin and a propulsive beat. The lyrics are by turns confessional, flirty, self-deprecating and honest. Here, Natalie sends out a musical S.O.S. to all the single fellas residing in the Lone Star State; “I could use a Texas man, but one who can feel at home, yeah here in the California sand, who holds me like he’ll never let go/It’s been way too long since somebody’s body was tangled with mine.” As the arrangement accelerates, she concedes experience, she’s a little “traveled” and “unraveled,” but she’s ready to be swept up in a real romance “cause the way to my heart is through my mind.” A wolfish guitar solo is unleashed on the break
“My Best Friend’s Wedding” likens the relationship to a wildfire, tracing it back to the beginning. Tight, soral harmonies line up in Doo-Wop formation, gliding around churchy keys, willowy guitars, sparkly banjo, spectral violin and subdued percussion. Midway through, is this epiphany; “Strangest thing not having you here with me, then I realized I prefer my own company to yours anytime.” As the arrangement gathers speed, the lyrical pledge to “go it alone,” repeats like a prayer, like a mantra, until the song builds to a stunning crescendo.
The action slows briefly on the pensive, piano-driven “For Her.” As the arrangement expands and contracts, adding banjo, Wurlitzer, shaded guitars cello, viola and violin, it remains anchored by stinging bass lines and a chunky backbeat. Natalie’s soulful vocals are shot through with regret and reflection as she confesses “I wish I could go back and tell my younger self you’re a fighter.”
Meanwhile, acoustic guitars, banjo and dobro lattice over billowy mellotron, delicate piano and angular bass on “Young Man.” Stripped-down and intimate, the lyrics seem to directly address Natalie’s young sons about her divorce; “Your hero fell, just as you came of age, and I had no words but now I know what to say.” Over keening Country fiddle, she lets them know the betrayal she feels shouldn’t be their burden; “And my blues aren’t your blues, after this storm there’s nothing you can’t navigate, point to the truth, you’ll see it’s the only way.” Her honesty and wisdom offer a measure of catharsis.
A couple of tracks take some sharp left turns. “Juliana Calm Down” opens quietly with droning keys and some, um, sincere advice for Julianna, Harper, Katie, Eva, Violet, Juna, Yaya, Berta, Hesper, Ameila and Naomi in the face of spousal defection; “Just put on, put on, put your best shoes, and strut the fuck around like you got nothin’ to lose/Show off, show off, show off your best moves and do it with a smile so he doesn’t know it’s a put on, put on, put on.” As the arrangement opens up, a walloping beat kicks in under nimble keys, spidery bass, buoyant banjo, fluttery violin, sticky guitars and weepy pedal steel envelope this wise-ass pep-talk.
Meanwhile, “March March” is explicitly topical. Bloopy keys and a tribal thump connect with spitfire guitars, flinty fiddle, cascading banjo notes and plinking piano, before locking into a martial cadence. Slyly referencing the Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays,” The Chicks pledge solidarity with the Parkland school shooting victims as well as their own children; “Standing with Emma and our sons and daughters, watchin’ our youth have to solve our problems.” As well as calling out the hypocrisy of certain right-wing politicians who advocate for gun owners’ freedoms, even as they attempt to take away a woman’s right to choose; “Tell the ol’ boys in the white bread lobby, what they can and can’t do with their bodies.” Just for good measure they fire a shot over the bow at the Cheeto-In-Chief; “Lies are truth and truth is fiction, everybody’s talkin,’ who’s going to listen, what the hell happened in Helsinki?”
The record winds down with “Hope It’s Something Good” and “Set Me Free.” “Hope…” hews closely to the Chicks’ patented Bluegrass blueprint, blurring ethereal vocals with plenty of back porch banjo, flickering violin and weepy pedal steel. The lyrics offer a brittle post mortem with just a soupcon of artistic revenge; “Highs and lows, we fought our wars with our silence, I’d have called you out, but Baby, I knew you’d deny it/And now that you’re done, I get to write this song.”
The closing track is something of a restless farewell in ¾ time. Feathery ukulele is matched by spare acoustic guitars, mournful pedal steel, incongruous vibes and Mellotron plus some crosscut violin and viola. The lyrics simply plead for sweet release. It’s a poignant end to a powerful record.
The album was produced by Jack Antonoff, who made a name for himself fronting Indie Pop bands like Bleachers and fun. Recently, he has supplied sympathetic production for artists like Lorde, St. Vincent, Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift.
Gaslighter represents a new era for the Chicks. The trio was a victim of “cancel culture” long before that term became part of the lexicon. But as their detractors went low, the Chicks tried to remain high. To paraphrase Donny and Marie, the music presented here is a little less Country and a little more Rock & Roll, but it’s clearly their most personal album to date. Unafraid to appear vulnerable and vindictive, their defiance is on full display. Exactly as it should be.