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.