Wide Open Spaces

Dixie Chicks

Monument / Sony Records, 1998


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


"You can't judge a book by its cover." How many times have you heard that old chestnut? Well, there's a reason -- there's a kernel of truth in it that bears repeating.

The packaging for the breakthrough album by this Nashville-by-way-of-Texas trio practically shouts "slick trendy lightweight Nashville girl-group!" One flip through the photo-laden, mostly lyric-less booklet and the editor at People magazine would be titling my review "Spice Chicks or Dixie Divas?"

I mean, exactly how many glamour shots do we really need of this alarmingly well-scrubbed, plucked, dyed and coiffed trio? Eight, you say, plus two individual portrait shots of each Chick? Yes, they are blond and effervescent, long-legged and not the least bit hard to look at, but even a red-blooded American male like me has limits. Are they musicians or Revlon models?

Guess what -- they're musicians, and damn fine ones. (Whew!)

Sisters and founding members Emily Erwin (vocals, dobro, banjo, guitar) and Martie Seidel (vocals, fiddle, mandolin) are both outstanding players, providing a rich range of backing to more recent addition and lead vocalist Natalie Maines, who has got a major league set of pipes that she isn't afraid to let loose with. The heart and soul of this group, though, are the rich, sweet three-part harmonies that are featured on nearly every song here.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Nowhere is that more true than on the #1 hit "Wide Open Spaces." Despite its done-a-thousand-times leaving-home-and-busting-loose story-line, the Chicks' soaring harmonies make it sound fresh and warm, and the chorus is as radio-friendly as they come.

What may be most impressive about this album from a creative standpoint, though, is that the Chicks (misogyny disclaimer: they chose the name) challenge you with a terrific range of musical styles rather than sticking to the solid-but-safe approach of the title tune.

Standouts include the smartly-written bluegrass ballad "Never Say Die"; the twangy, banjo-driven, Grammy-winning, relentlessly catchy "There's Your Trouble"; and the anything but pro forma honky-tonk hoot "Let 'Er Rip." The latter is one of the wittiest and most convincingly delivered tunes of the well-worn kiss-off genre I've heard in a long time.

Most of the songs here are penned by outside pros ranging from new country mastermind Kostas to veteran folk-rocker Maria McKee. One of the very best, though, is composed by Erwin and Seidel: the heartfelt ballad "You Were Mine," whose classy, understated strings and knockout vocal arrangement are brilliantly executed. The other two principal ballads, "Loving Arms" and the J.D. Souther tune "I'll Take Care Of You," also feature arrangements that highlight the raw power and beauty of the trio's voices, whether blended and juxtaposed.

Not content to leave on anything but a high note, the Chicks close out this album of tightly constructed three-point-five minute tracks with the five-minute rowdy instrumental and vocal rave-up "Give It Up Or Let Me Go" (written by none other than Bonnie Raitt). Maines' lead vocal growls right up to the edge of a nasty blues-boogie, Erwin and Seidel knock off a pair of whooping, jitterbugging solos on banjo and fiddle, and it's party time beyond a shadow of a doubt.

The Chicks click on all cylinders here: the song choices are diverse and excellent, the playing is smart and confident, and the three-part harmonies are simply gorgeous. This album is rich with the kind of life and sass and creativity and integrity that far too many of the Chicks' competitors at the top of the country charts never even bother to reach for.

Back on the "image" front, the best news of all may be that the Chicks have achieved so much success with Wide Open Spaces (quadruple platinum, three #1 hits, two Grammys) that they shouldn't have any trouble bucking the label next time around when it comes to the packaging. A group with this much raw talent at its disposal should never leave itself open to being labeled "Spice Chicks."

I mean, they even have better hair.

Rating: A-

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© 1999 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 Monument / Sony Records, and is used for informational purposes only.