And So They Sing
By David McGee

PLAYLIST: THE VERY BEST OF THE DIXIE CHICKS
Legacy Recordings

Well, folks, back in ought-five I was interviewing Rodney Crowell about his stunning album, The Outsider, a fevered howl aimed at a world that had lost its bearings, and the subject of the song “The Obscenity Prayer” came up, in particular a line in which he deftly slices and dices the hypocrites he was seeing all around him in the music business, to wit: “The Dixie Chicks can kiss my ass/but don’t forget my backstage pass.” Coming from one of the great American songwriters of our time, the sentiment carried weight. We discussed hypocrisy as a general phenomenon in our culture, and then Crowell got back to the specifics of the Dixie Chicks’ case.

“I really think one of the darkest times in country music history was the vilification of the Dixie Chicks,” he said. “I thought it was ignorant and there was no compassion whatsoever. These are bright young women who had given a lot to that genre, and they were vilified because they spoke out in a hostile environment. You know, nobody vilified Dick Cheney for telling that guy to fuck off.” (“That guy” was Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont, who had had the temerity to question the propriety of the Veep’s ties to Halliburton Co. To bring you up to date on Halliburton, investigators are looking into whether that particular company’s faulty cementing of the well led to the Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.)

The vilification of the Dixie Chicks to which Crowell refers came, of course, in the wake of lead singer Natalie Maines’s March 10, 2003 onstage comment to the audience at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire theater in England, saying, “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” You know how it went from there: charges of being un-American, album burnings, immediate deletion of the Chicks’ music from radio playlists, a flood of hate mail, a reported 40 percent loss of audience, even a death threat. Not to mention a public upbraiding by Toby Keith. The people who stood by the Chicks mostly wanted them to do as the title of a 2006 documentary about the band suggested: Shut Up and Sing.

What we see now, seven years-plus later, is how the unbelievable, near-surreal furor over Ms. Maines’s remark was but the first salvo in the lunatic right wing’s campaign to brand any and all dissent as traitorous and unpatriotic, a poisonous pattern even more prevalent now that the lunatics are questioning our President’s citizenship, trying to discredit his election, his administration and his policies (this all takes place during those interludes when they’re not caught in flagrante delicto with their mistresses, on the Appalachian Trail or elsewhere) or, as New York Times columnist Gail Collins recently observed, “cowering in the basement waiting for health care reform to blast the world into smithereens.” At the end of May 2010, nearly 5500 American soldiers had died in Iraq, and the number of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan had topped 1,000.

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From An Evening With the Dixie Chicks, ‘Travelin’ Soldier,’ a curious omission from Playlist: The Best of The Dixie Chicks

Forgotten in all this tumult is another chapter in Dixie Chicks history, when they did indeed shut up and sing, and the words were chilling and prophetic, had anyone really been paying attention. On February 8, 2003, the trio appeared on Saturday Night Live, performing an still but thundering version of Bruce Robison’s “Travelin’ Soldier” at the very moment the inevitability of a strike against Iraq was gathering unstoppable momentum in the press and in D.C. Robison’s song is not specifically anti-war, but rather a depiction of the human toll of war in its chronicling of a chance encounter between an 18-year-old soldier, seemingly with no family, on his way to serve in Vietnam, and a young lady he meets shortly before his departure. They exchange letters during his tour of duty, and she awaits his return. Suffice it to say he loses his life in battle, but she her love is unwavering (“I-I-I cried/never gonna hold the hand of another guy…). Much like Steve Goodman’s “The Ballad of Penny Evans,” Robison’s “Travelin' Soldier” brings the horror of war down to cases, one on one, and oh, how many have suffered since?

I don’t know that I would characterize Ms. Maines’s comment on the London stage as brave, but it was her right to say what she said, and it was the right of others to object to it, but those objections went way beyond mere disagreement and were every bit as vile as Crowell suggested. But I do believe it was brave of the gals to perform “Travelin’ Soldier” in the heat of the runup to war. A single off the Chicks’ Home album, the recording topped Billboard’s Country singles chart, so it’s not as if no one got the message. Or did they? It’s nowhere to be found on Playlist: The Best of The Dixie Chicks, which is otherwise populated by number ones and top tens and so forth. A curious omission indeed.

On the other hand, for those who believe the Chicks should shut up and sing, you got your wish on both fronts: it’s been four years since a new DC album appeared, so they’ve shut up, at least as a group—sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire are doing a bluegrass thing, having released their first album as the Court Yard Hounds; and here they all are, singing and harmonizing beautifully, and soulfully, and letting the songs speak for them (many are originals) and through them. Even in recycled form, it’s nice to have the Dixie Chicks back. Behold what they have wrought thus far.

Taylor Swift can protest and rant all she wants about her teenage romantic debacles, but look to the Dixie Chicks for women of strength, resolve, self-sufficiency and daring, able to take their lumps in love yet remain undaunted in their quest to be fully realized—women who demand “room to make a big mistake,” as Emily, Martie and Natalie sang in their career launching smash, “Wide Open Spaces,” from the pen of Susan Gibson, herself a woman who knows about following her own muse; women who can have a frisky romp between the sheets (“Sin Wagon,” with its memorable declaration about “mattress dancing”), but will reat with searing, explosive indignation at betrayal and abandonment, as they do to stunning effect in the Erwin sisters’ (Emily and Martie by their maiden name) “You Win,” inspired by their parents’ divorce and landing with the impact of a blunt object, thanks to Maines’s tear-stained, blues-tinged vocal; women who love fully and unequivocally when the moment arrives, as the trio articulates with soaring anticipation in the Siedel (that's Martie)-Marcus Hummon gem, “Cowboy Take Me Away.”

Ms. Swift may be breaking ground in addressing the lovelorn of her generation, but the more mature women populating the Chicks’ songs hearken back to those roaming through the work of groundbreakers such as Jean Shepard, Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton. Martie and Emily, with Natalie joining in as a writer on later albums, know how to get their message across in song as well as anyone out there, but in choosing outside material they have tapped the wells of formidable practitioners from the distaff side such as Patti Griffin, who is represented here by two songs, including “Let Him Fly,” the spare, guitar-and-fiddle-driven treatise on cutting loose from a self-absorbed beau, which Natalie scorches with a savvy, nuanced performance balancing heartache and exultation—the former arising from a suffocating situation, the latter emanating from the prospect of being able to breathe fresh air anew. That is to say the Dixie Chicks are in a long line of assertive country women, and in their case assertive on and off the stage.

This Playlist collection from Legacy, arriving in time to take advantage of the reconstituted band being on the road again this summer, is but a dollop of the rich music the Chicks have delivered on four studio albums, but it’s a satisfying overview of the breadth and depth of the group’s art. If a powerful performance such as “Travelin' Soldier” is missing from the tunestack, its absence (if not its topicality) is somewhat mitigated by the textured, emotionally riveting country rocker “The Long Way Around,” a group composition chronicling the singer’s determinedly iconoclastic prescription for climbing from the ashes of cataclysmic personal trials. No matter the inclusion of “Sin Wagon” and the churning, agitated kissoff “Lubbock Or Leave It,” the album comes down hard on the side of the trio’s more sensitive explorations of love and loss, in productions realized in grand, orchestral terms (“Easy Silence”) as well as in simple, basic country band formulations (guitars, mandolin, dobro, fiddle), calm and soothing, supporting the lovely harmonies and Natalie’s evocative lead vocals, as heard on a subtle cover of Stevie Nicks’s “Landslide,” for example, and in the delightful backwoods swing of Patti Griffin’s accusatory “Truth No. 2.” In addition to explaining why the Dixie Chicks have sold some 32 million albums—these women can play, they can sing, they can write, and they communicate fiercely and fearlessly—the songs here underscore another basic truth: Time for some new music, gals. We miss you. (Note: When inserted in a computer drive, the CD opens to reveal a pdf containing credits, notes, discography, images and wallpaper options. The no-plastic digi-pak is made from recycled and recyclable material.)

Playlist: The Best of The Dixie Chicks is available at www.amazon.com

THE BLUEGRASS SPECIAL
Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024