A drag king couple on the power of their art
With new name and album, The Chicks’ voices ring loud again
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Dixie Chicks are no more. Breaking their ties to the South, The Chicks are stepping into a new chapter in their storied career with their first new music in 14 years.
The Texas trio of Emily Strayer, Martie Maguire and Natalie Maines have been teasing new music for a year, and “Gaslighter” finally drops on July 17 when the nation is embroiled in divisive politics, cancel culture and a racial reckoning.
“It just seemed like a good reflection on our times,” said Maines. “In 20 years, we’ll look back at that album cover and title and remember exactly what was going on in the country right then.”
“Gaslighter” is a term that describes a psychological abuser who manipulates the truth to make a person feel crazy. In recent years, it’s been used to describe powerful men like Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump.
“I think most everybody has a gaslighter in their lives somewhere,” said Strayer. “But, yeah, it was so weird how it echoes our current administration.”
As the best-selling female group in RIAA history, The Chicks appealed to a generation of country fans who saw themselves in the band’s stories, whether it was “Wide Open Spaces” or “Cowboy Take Me Away.” Their first major label record in 1998 has sold 13 million copies in the U.S. alone.
With Maguire on fiddle and Strayer on banjo, they were all steeped in bluegrass and classic country, but relished in fun country pop on crossover songs like “Goodbye Earl.” They were country music’s next big thing until suddenly the door was slammed on them.
In 2003, as then-President George Bush was preparing to invade Iraq, the trio were playing a show in London when Maines announced they were ashamed that the president was from Texas.
The fallout became country music lore, a warning to stay away from political talk, especially of the liberal kind. They were booed on awards shows, radio stations pulled their music and fans destroyed their CDs. Maguire only recently showed her daughters the 2006 documentary called “Shut Up and Sing,” that showed how the backlash affected them behind the scenes.
Maguire feared her 11-year-old might be too young for some of the material, which included death threats.
Instead, her social media-savvy daughters were confused by the reaction to Maines’ tame comments compared to today’s vitriolic criticism.
“And it was just funny hearing 16- and 11-year-olds going, ‘Why? What? Wait. She said that? And people got so mad?'” said Maguire.
The trio are all now parents of teenagers when youth activists are taking the lead on gun control, climate change and racial inequality. Their song, “March March,” which was released the same day they announced they were dropping the word Dixie from their name, was inspired by student-led gun control demonstrations in 2018.
On “Juliana Calm Down,” their daughters and nieces are name-checked in a song that encourages young women to keep their heads held high when struggling through life’s obstacles. Maines speaks to her two teenage boys on “Young Man,” a song for all those divorced parents who feel like they’ve let down their kids.
Hit pop songwriter Justin Tranter, who has co-written hits for Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Lady Gaga, helped The Chicks co-write some of the album’s most raw, vulnerable break up songs, including “Sleep At Night.”
“Some of those pre-choruses are not songs,” said Tranter. “Natalie was just talking and I was literally writing down what she was saying and then I found a way to put it to a melody.”
“Gaslighter” was recorded and co-written with Jack Antonoff, a Grammy-winning producer-artist known for recording with Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey and Lorde. He pushed them to use their core strength, the three-part harmonies backed by fiddle and banjo, in new ways.
Their last album, 2006’s “Taking The Long Way,” earned five Grammys, including album of the year, and won over masses of fans who never listened to them before. But it’s unlikely the fans who turned their back on The Chicks 17 years ago are going to feel any different about their return.
When The Chicks and Beyoncé performed at the Country Music Association Awards in 2016, a vocal minority unleashed their anger on social media at the idea that both artists would be invited to perform.
Although their fallout occurred before Twitter or Facebook, The Chicks have a unique viewpoint on the rise of cancel culture, when prominent people are attacked online in an almost mob mentality.
“On one hand, you know, it’s freeing now. People just are way more vocal,” said Maines. “But then the downside is one slip up, one major slip up, and no publicist can make that go away.”
Maines said for movements like #MeToo, those speaking out online held people accountable. “And you can’t silence or quiet them when you’ve got so many women coming forward.”
The phrase “shut up and sing” is still used as a weapon against women, minorities and anyone straying from their musical lane. But The Chicks think younger music fans don’t adhere to that idea.
“There’s not a whole lot of respect anymore if you’re just going to smile and entertain,” Maines said. “They want you to have a point of view.”