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Leaving Dixie behind, the Chicks get even more personal — and political
Judy Woodruff: They remain the bestselling female band of all time in the U.S., and the bestselling country group since Nielsen SoundScan started tracking in 1991.
But the group formerly known as the Dixie Chicks may be best known for a single comment the lead singer made in London in 2003 during the lead-up to the Iraq War, which led to death threats and a virtual ban from country radio.
Fourteen years after their last album, The Chicks are back, with new music and a new name.
Jeffrey Brown has our story.
It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: A gaslighter is someone who sows seeds of doubt to make others question their own perceptions or sanity. And The Chicks are back to call out a few, this time without the Dixie, but still with all the trappings of the group that once dominated the country music charts, three-part harmony, powerhouse vocals by Natalie Maines, backed by sisters Martie Maguire on fiddle and Emily Strayer on banjo.
This is the first album in 14 years, and I wonder why. I mean, what took so long?
Natalie Maines: Well, we have nine kids between the three of us.
Emily Strayer: And then once they got to be teenagers, I think we were all like, I think it's time to go on the road, do music again.
Martie Magurie: Then we finally had some more baggage to write about, I guess you could say.
Jeffrey Brown: Much of "Gaslighter" is a deeply personal reflection on life, loss and resilience after divorce, which all three have experienced.
Emily Strayer: We found that, almost the more personal you are with a song, the more it relates to more people, because you think your story might just be your own. But most things that people go through in life are universal to everybody in one way or another.
Jeffrey Brown: With the help of producer Jack Antonoff, The Chicks stretched well beyond their country and bluegrass roots.
Maguire is still on the fiddle, Strayer still on the banjo, but:
Martie Magurie: There are a lot of layers in there, and they're not as, like, up-front. And so that is hard for me, because I certainly love to -- a good fiddle solo up in the spotlight.
But I definitely am a believer that you do what's right for the song.
Jeffrey Brown: The new sound is the latest twist in one of the wildest rides in music history.
The Dixie Chicks formed back in 1989, when Maguire and Strayer, still teenagers, played Western swing and bluegrass in Dallas with two other women. Maines, also from Texas, stepped in as lead singer six years later, as the group shifted to mainstream country and climbed the charts with a long string of hits, including "Wide Open Spaces," "Goodbye Earl," and "Cowboy Take Me Away."
They sold out stadiums and sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl. And then, in 2003, as they began a tour called "Top of the World," it all came crashing down with one statement at a London concert made amid the run-up to the Iraq War.
Natalie Maines: We're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
Jeffrey Brown: After that, their number one song "Travelin' Soldier" was pulled from country radio nationwide, as seen in the 2006 documentary "Shut Up and Sing."
Woman: Good morning, 61 Country.
Man: They should send Natalie over to Iraq, strap her to a bomb and just drop her over Baghdad.
Jeffrey Brown: Does that bother you, that that is always the lead, and will probably be in the obituary? Not that I'm trying to put you there anytime soon.
Natalie Maines: No, no, I mean, I'm proud of how we handled it, for the most part. I'm proud that we stuck to our guns. I think it freed us up musically.
Jeffrey Brown: In the years that followed, country radio shifted toward so-called bro country, drinking and party anthems.
Do you ever think that country radio would have been -- would be better today if The Chicks were played and if you had stayed really in that world?
Martie Magurie: That's a -- that's a loaded question. I am a country fan. You know, it really has not grown over the years and broadened itself.
And I think that's -- it's important for that to happen. I want that to happen, because I do love it.
Jeffrey Brown: This summer, as the group prepared to release "Gaslighter," they came under new pressure, this time for their name, evoking the Confederate South.
As the Black Lives Matter protest grew, they announced the name change, and release their song "March March."
Emily Strayer: As time went on, we did get uncomfortable with it.
It's like a huge weight off my shoulders, our shoulders, really.
Jeffrey Brown: Most recently, Maines has been plenty vocal on social media about her views of President Trump.
Natalie Maines: Do you care about the foundation of America and what it means to be free in this country? Because it will be taken from us if Donald Trump gets reelected.
Jeffrey Brown: In August, they performed at the Democratic National Convention.
Martie Magurie: Band or individual, I feel like we have a responsibility to be engaged in what's happening in our world, in our country.
Jeffrey Brown: So what's next, and for how long?
Natalie Maines: I'm open to doing it as long as it stays fun and we have something to say, and we're not hobbling up there with a walker.
Jeffrey Brown: For a band that's always refused to just shut up and sing, finding something to say hasn't been an issue so far.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.
Judy Woodruff: Still making beautiful music, The Chicks are.
Thank you, Jeff.