Dixie Chicks

Open Wide Records, 2002


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


The Dixie Chicks have come a long way in four short years.

It was in 1998 that they released Wide Open Spaces, their first album with new lead singer Natalie Maines after three independently released discs that barely registered on the Nashville radar screen. Maines had just been recruited into the band by founding members and sisters Emily Robison (banjo/dobro/harmony vocals) and Martie Maguire (fiddle/harmony vocals).

The road since then has been a rollercoaster ride to say the least. In those four years, the trio from Texas sold about a zillion copies of the radio-friendly Wide Open Spaces and Fly, its somewhat sassier follow-up; won an armful of country music awards; courted controversy with songs like "Goodbye Earl," a lively tune about murdering an abusive husband; sued their music label (Sony); got married; had a baby; settled the lawsuit; and came roaring back with Home.

While on hiatus (and in court), the Dixie Chicks started recording a few things at home, almost on a lark. While their first two albums together had featured a slicked-up, full-band, modern Nashville sound, the new material took shape free from the label's watchful eye in a more organic setting. With no drums and precious little electric guitar, Home's sound relies heavily on the playing of Chicks themselves, along with Natalie's father, steel guitar legend Lloyd Maines, and a small group of loyal sidemen for support.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The end result flirts heavily with bluegrass without ever committing. As much as the Chicks clearly love this most traditional form of country music, their pop instincts are too strong to ignore. What you get, then, is some of the most vigorously played, melodic, high-spirited, mostly acoustic country music you'll ever be lucky enough to hear. Darrell Scott's "Long Time Gone" is the perfect kick-off (and first single), a frothy rant against narrow-minded music industry types that's full of allusions to old-line country icons like Johnny Cash and accusations that "the music ain't got no soul" anymore.

As a bonus, "Long Time Gone" and the touching (if predictable) story-song "Travelin' Soldier" offer a sustained taste of the real secret to the Chicks' appeal. Not only are sisters Maguire and Robison fabulous players, their achingly pretty harmony vocals form the perfect backdrop for Natalie Maines' stunningly rich, powerful lead voice. In terms of pure vocal talent, she's the Natalie Merchant of country, hands down.

Still, what was most notable on this album to me was the musicianship on display. Never mind the strong melody lines Robison and Maguire play on upbeat tracks like "Truth No. 2" (from Patty Griffin) and "Tortured, Tangled Hearts"; check out the lightning picking and bowing on the brutally on-target (and strangely touching) "White Trash Wedding." Acknowledging the sisters' chops, renowned mandolin prodigy Chris Thile of Nickel Creek sits in for not one but three tracks, the heartfelt ballads "A Home" and "More Love," and the rip-roaring instrumental "Lil' Jack Slade."

Home was clearly a labor of love for the Dixie Chicks, a first breath of renewal after their lengthy tussle with Sony. The fact that the album is a steady number one right now on the country charts and holding strong on the pop charts as well tells you all you need to know about who won the musical side of the argument. A belt buckle shown in the album's packaging says it all: "CHICKS RULE."

Rating: A-

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© 2002 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Open Wide Records, and is used for informational purposes only.