Home Girls

If Garth Brooks on a zip line with flash pots exploding below his airborne Stetson didn’t signal country music’s arrival as a mainstream music format, then the 1991 introduction of SoundScan to track Billboard chart activity certainly kicked the storm door open and left country’s muddy boot prints all over pop’s shag carpeting. Suddenly, country albums by Brooks and other superstars of the genre were found to be moving as many or more units as rock’s regular suspects. Just as the 90s suburbanizing of hip-hop transformed and further fragmented the music, country’s emergence as a format with the boot enough and scoot enough to make everyone plenty of boogy made friends in high places take notice. Now, in 2002, Toby Keith hawks phone service with Alf and Mike Piazza, and plenty of Nashville’s exports look and sound a lot like pop, if only for the occasional dobro or pedal steel moan. The Dixie Chicks are one of the most successful groups of the past 20 years in country or any genre. 1998’s Wide Open Spaces, the major-label debut of the current Chicks lineup, was the best-selling country debut of all time, moving 11 million-plus units. Together with new vocalist Natalie Maines, fiddle and banjo-playing sisters Marty Seidel and Emily Erwin saw Wide Open go on to win the Best Country Album Grammy. And like a particularly fast-moving tumbleweed, the Dixie Chicks were instant superstars.

They didn’t slow down.

Returning in 2000 with Fly, the Chicks debuted at #1 on both the Billboard 200 AND the Country Chart. The singles “Ready To Run” (Best Country Single Grammy) and “Earl” were monster hits, and Fly went on to sell a zillion records and secure the trio their second consecutive Best Country Album Grammy. Who’s still on the fence about country’s aesthetic and economic popularity?

Since Fly‘s release and subsequent tour however, country music has transformed itself yet again. And it has an ex-avant garde rocker to thank. When Jerry Harrison was tapped by the Coen Brothers to compile the soundtrack to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” it’s safe to assume that no one was thinking about 10 million copies sold and a roots revolution in country music. But “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow” took off with a bullet, and the record’s bluegrass and old-timey sounds were re-introduced to country and casual fans alike. “Constant Sorrow” and “O Brother” swept the major categories at the Country Music Awards, and suddenly Mutt Lange’s 1998 rockifying of wife Shania Twain and Faith Hill’s Celine-with-a-fiddle balladry was out of vogue in Nashville. Labels launched vanity imprints like Sony’s Lost Highway to capitalize on the trend towards all things roots, and an “O Brother” tour was so successful it went around the country twice.

Into this current country climate comes Home, The Dixie Chicks’ new album. There’s no question that the pairing of the blonde, cute Maines with the statuesque, whispy good looks of Seidel and Erwin contributed heavily to the Dixie Chicks popularity. But the trio has always balanced its sex appeal with considerable instrumental and vocal chops. “Ready To Run,” Fly‘s first single, included a Big Sky chorus from Maines and a great instrumental outro that featured Erwin’s rootsy banjo licks. It was a far cry from slick Nashville product like daisy duke sexpot Chely Wright or central casting retreads Trick Pony. Home‘s first single “Long Time Gone,” telling the story of a couple of Nashville ex-pats longing for the halcyon AM days of Merle and Cash, is currently ensconced at #6 on the Billboard Country Singles & Tracks chart. “Landslide,” the Chicks’ oddly charming cover of the Fleetwood Mac ballad (and a nod to their own 70’s AOR influences) is at #32. So given the Chicks’ actual, exceptional talent at singing and playing their instruments, it seems that the gold records and acetate pyramids marking Home‘s boffo sales figures will soon take their place on the mantle in Maines’ Lubbock, TX home. Because Home is a genius mixture of high-powered, can’t miss singles, bluegrass ditties just poppy enough to appeal to the broad “O Brother” crowd, and sensitive lyricism brought about by the record’s intimate, laid-back recording sessions. In another words, it’s an album that’s as mainstream as mainstream can get, that still retains enough downhome class and virtuosic instrumentation to appeal to more discerning fans. Yee hah! Shiner Bock for everyone!

Home is also the first release on The Dixie Chicks’ new Open Wide imprint, which is a subsidiary of Sony, the heartless multi-national conglomerate the Chicks just finished suing. Seems that in the midst of their high-octane power drive to country stardom, Maines, Seidel, and Erwin were hoodwinked out of over $4 million in royalties. Now ain’t that a fly in your dumplings. Anyway, the two parties settled out of court, and now the girls have their own record label, and most likely a better accountant. If that little story illustrates anything, it’s Sony Music’s intent to keep a multi-million-selling artist on its roster happy, no matter what the music sounds like. “The Dixie Chicks are three of the most talented artists in music today and the release of Home is sure to be a major entertainment event,” commented Tommy “Mariah Carey? Not as hot as you’d think” Mottola, Chairman and CEO of Sony Music Entertainment. “I know that the entire Sony Music team is excited to bring the Chicks and their music to a wider audience than ever before.” And Mottola’s people have done their job so far, with the record’s singles tearing up country radio and Home expected to make a ten-gallon debut on this week’s Billboard chart with sales of over 700,000 units. There’s no question that The Dixie Chicks will find even more fame with their new material, both inside country and without. It will be more interesting to watch what effect Home has on the “O Brother” syndrome, and whether the Chicks’ fusion of Nashville-style sex appeal and a decidedly un-Nashville approach to recording (and actually playing) their music will further engender country’s next transformation.


26 thoughts on “Home Girls”

  1. I think the best I heard was a friend who called them – “The Hot One, the Fat One and the One with the Fucked Up Eye”

    You ever notice the one has that Columbo thing going where you don’t know where she’s looking? It’s pretty cool

  2. I think they each have there own beauty. They are very talanted and play there instruments beautifuly. They are number 1 in my eyes. I see nothing wrong with Emily’s eye i think its cute!!

  3. too bad whoever it is that visits this web site doesn’t have enough brain power to look at a band for what really counts, which is the music and not the looks. it makes me sick that this world is so shallow.

  4. Sorry to make you so sick sweetie, but we aren’t exactly talking about Emmylou Harris or Slaeter-Kinney or Allison Krauss or Gillian Welch or whomever…it’s the DIXIE CHICKS. How can you expect anyone to take their music seriously, when they don’t even take it seriously. When a performer is more concerned about their image than their music, then comments about how they look is valid. Time to get real – Dixie Chicks are no different than the pop queens, it’s just that instead of trying to turn-on pimply faced boys, they are trying to turn on slightly older suburban and country folk. As musicians or songwriters (excuse me, sorry, they don’t write most of their songs)the discussion is moot, as eye-candy they ain’t half bad – just take away the heifer that sings.

  5. Someone has lied to you if you are under the impression that Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch and/or Allison Krauss write most of their own material. There is a long standing tradition in country music of performers singing other people’s songs. The number of songs actually written by the Carter Family, the First Family of Country Music, is statistically negligible compared to the number of songs that they recorded. Granted those were all traditional songs and modern country performers generally use recently written songs but the point is still valid. The notion of performing and getting famous in country music by doctoring-up songs written by others is as old as country music itself, which is 75 years old, almost to the day. Now, I would much rather listen to Gillian Welch or Allison Krauss, but that is simply a matter of taste. However, given the foundation of country music, how it got started, and the intent of those that started it, the Dixie Chicks are as real to country as anyone else.

  6. Anonymous, it’s not fair to insinuate that the article slights artists like Harris, Welch, Kruass, or even Sleater-Kinney while elevating The Dixie Chicks to some sort of diva level above all other female recording artists.

    The piece is simply making the point that, within the environs of mainstream country music in 2002, the Dixie Chicks are among the better performers in the genre. The article also tries to get at the issue of Country’s direction, in relation to the “O Brother” phenomenon, and the Dixie Chicks’ role in that direction as gazillion-selling tastemakers.

    Each of the artists that you mention in your comment are amazing musicians, songwriters, and performers. I would add Lucinda Williams to your list. But the article was not about comparisons; it was an analysis of just one group.

  7. Understand….my point was just that an artist like the Dixie Chicks allows themselves to be judged on style over substance because that is what they promote. I watched the “60 Minutes” the other night where they interviewed these girls – and they spent a good portion of it talking about how they color their hair.

    I’m not saying that style of substance is necessarily a bad thing, there is always a place for it in pop music, it’s just that to stand up for “the music” or “the art” in the case of a “Dixie Chicks” et al, is a bit silly. And I understand that it’s been a country tradition to do other people’s songs, but again this isn’t traditional country. This is Nashville sugar-pop. That’s like comparing John Mayer to traditional blues artists.

  8. Johnny,

    It is funny that country is borrowing so much from bluegrass. The two forms of music started out basically as the commercialization of the wide pool of tradition music. I don’t mean that as a slight to either camps although the intent behind the commercialization of tradition music into country was and still is much less honorable than traditional to bluegrass. What is saddening is the fact that country music has grown into an unreckognizable hobgoblin. Bluegrass, however, (the much younger of the two forms of music) has stayed tasteful (in no small part due to the sometimes fervently dogmatic bluegrass musicians). This allows, however, for the incorrect notion that bluegrass is at the roots of country music simply because it sounds more traditional. Anyhoo, money has always been at the root of country music production. Nashville will do whatever it can to make money and that is nothing new to country music (even if it means putting some banjos in the group). However, I wouldn’t be surprised if some marketing group in Nashville has calculated exactly how many banjo breaks/song are acceptable before people think of a song as funny, hillbilly song but nothing that they would buy.

  9. Also Johnny – sorry, I wasn’t commenting on your article. I was commenting on the person that said it makes her sick that people in the world judge the Dixie Chicks on their looks and not their music. Later

  10. Anonymous,

    Who would you consider a “traditional country” artist? Country music was designed to take music that people had been playing at home, at dances or by themselves for years, dress it up a little bit and sell it. This whole act in many ways defines country music and allows people to say things like “country music is 75 years old” because 75 years ago people figured out how to do just that. With this in mind I would argue that there never has been a “pure” era in country music where it as all about the music and image played no part (even the anti-Nashville image). In this vain (sp?) there is not much that separates the Dixie Chicks from Johnny Cash. Now, that wasn’t meant to be simply argumentative. The irony of this whole conversation (or maybe just confusing this whole conversation) is the fact that the Dixie Chicks new hit beckons for a day gone by when country was “real”. A day that never existed.

    Now, that being said, let me add few caveats: 1) I am not a musicologist; as such, 2) all the words leading up to these should be taken with a grain of salt. If some song gives you chills then you like it. It’s that simple. Listen to it until you can’t any longer. If you like a little image with your music, well that’s fine too. You’re the one listening to it. 3) I unapologetically really enjoy older country music.

  11. Well, you referenced the Carter Family and I guess that is what I was referring to. You mentioned that you don’t seen a big difference between these Dixie Chicks and Johnny Cash and I think is where the difference is occuring. Example: Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain and Johnny Cash all have new albums coming out — who do you think is going to get played on country radio?? It ain’t Johnny. Steve Earle isn’t getting played, neither is Gillian or Emmylou. Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain and these Nashville performers are putting out pop songs and then just add a fiddle in the background so it breaks on Country radio. In the case of the Dixie Chicks, from the songs I’ve heard, they basically do Sheryl Crow and Jewel songs with the one girl playing her fiddle over the bridge. Not really trad. country….

  12. Anon,

    My point is that since its inception country music has been about selling records. Country music has never, ever been about perserving a tradition, or keeping certain songs alive. It has always been about changing those songs in a manner that will make them more listenable to a larger audience and thereby more profitable. As such, there is nothing “roots” or “pure” or traditional about country music and I think it is a mistake to think of certain older country musicians as “real country”, the “good country”. From the beginning, it was about making money.

    There are older country musicians, or new country musicians whose music sounds a lot like older musicians’ music but given the foundation of country music I think it is a mistake to think of any country artists (after, say, late 1930s) as keeping with any tradition beside the tradition of making money by selling records. In this manner, The Dixie Chicks are as country as country gets. Steve Earle is great. Gillian Welch is great. Of course, I would listen to them over Shania Twain, etc. I am not a barbarian. But they don’t get played because they don’t conform to a formula that sells. That’s how country music has always worked. Unfortunately, the music has gotten progressively horrible, but that formula has always stuck.

  13. Like any other music genre, there is a constant civil war inside country music. And it basically boils down to this: legit or not legit? For example, is Allison Moorer more legit than, say, Leann Womack? Or are the watered-down bluegrass licks of The Dixie Chicks less legit than the bluegrass licks appearing on an Allison Krauss record?

    I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I will say that the argument is exactly the same inside any genre of music. Take the either/ors above, and plug in the names of some indie rock groups. Example: Is Sleater-Kinney more legit than The Donnas? Or is Ellitot Smith more legit than Badly Drawn Boy?

    There are gradiations and opionions and gray areas in every genre, whether we’re talking about the Grand Ole Opry or the Internationl Pop Underground. It’s part of what makes music and music scenes work, right?

  14. My point is NOT that some country artists are legit while others are not. On the contrary, my point is that none of them are. The goal of country music has always been the production of music that retains somewhat of a down-home feel but most importantly music that PEOPLE WILL PURCHASE. The people that first recorded and sold “hillbilly” music as it was called make absolutely no bones about this fact (look up Ralph Peer, who incidentally hated the music that he recorded). Knowing this I think it is a mistake to think of ANY “country” artist as “the real deal” or “authentic”. I would equate this to thinking that McDonald’s intent is to produce the best burger because they are truly interested in the art of burger-making and, in turn, put out a “true” burger. On the contrary, Burger King is just out for money and their burgers show it being a bastardized version of the McDonald’s burger. They sell hamburgers. Country musicians sell records. That being said, both fast-food outlets make a tasty treat and listening to country music (even new country music) can be fun. But I wouldn’t debate whether one country musician is more traditional or legit than the other. Country music has never been about that so that debate would just be needless overanalysis.

  15. Poopy, I think you’re forgetting that the whole point of GLONO is needless analysis. Also, I think you’re thinking way too black-and-white on the whole “country” vs “traditional” issue. I’m sure there were snobby folks in the Appalachians in the early 1800’s who were debating whether or not that guy in that one cabin’s banjo pickin’ was true enough to its Celtic heritage, or whether he fancying it up to impress the ladies. Because you know that even if old-time music wasn’t about making money, YOU KNOW it was still about getting pussy!

  16. Mr. Jake,

    I will agree with you on the subject of pooswa and the five-string banjer but that conversation would fill volumes. I wasn’t trying be all traditional vs. country. In fact, the more I read the more I find out that there have actually been very, very few sounds in American music that have not been influenced/distorted in some part by commercialization. The book “The Half-barbaric Twang” does a good job of dispelling any sort of sentimental feeling based on “tradition” that you may have towards any type of American music and I would recommend it. In some areas of Southern Appalachia, however, there was the custom of music being very personal. People would only play their instruments by themselves where others, even family, were not invited. Not because it was sacred or anything but more because others wouldn’t be interested. It was their music. You wouldn’t watch someone read, would you? Actual recording of this type of music, as you would guess, are almost impossible to find and coupled with the source of documentation this may be more myth than reality. Two fairly good, young examples would probably be the Hammons Family (to a certain extent) or Morgan Sexton who wasn’t recorded until he was in his 70s because he couldn’t imagine that anyone else would want to hear his music. This area of the country was never as isolated as the stereotype, however, so they were indeed influenced by others (they all played the same songs). Other examples would probably include music played by slaves but that was more social so you never know. That, of course, predates the ability to record music and was completely destroyed by the ugly, ugly minstrel tradition of the late 1800s, early 1900s. I guess what I am trying to say is that it is not just country music but almost every form of “American” music that has been distorted by commercialization. That would include the “field” recordings that people use today as the foundations of modern-traditional music. It’s just that it is obvious, well documented and accepted in country music. Can you tell that today is a slow day?

  17. Poopy,

    See that little box right under the bigger box where you write your ramblings? The real little box that says “Remember info?” Click that and a little check mark magically appears. Then you won’t have to remember to put your name in every time. Now, go back to the mountains you nutty hillbilly.

  18. Boy, what a lot of useless drivel I have posted over the last day or so. Woo-woo!! Here’s to me. As for you, Mr. “Big-Swig Computer Man” Phillips, if I had a clever retort to your making fun of me for not knowing computers very well, you can bet I would put it right here. By the by, this is not the proper forum but I am awaiting the arrival of the CD of that damn band.

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