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Taking The Long Way

July 18th, 2008

I lived in Texas from 1976 to 1996, except for a brief two year period from 1980 to 1982 when I was in California and Oregon. As most anyone knows Texas is a land and a culture all to its own. The same goes for the music scene. There are literally hundreds of artists and bands who, for the most part, only play the Texas “circuit.” And I’m not just talking about “county” music either. There are plenty of rock, folk, singer-songwriter, jazz, blues, even soul and rap artists who have a significant following in Texas but can’t make much of a splash anywhere else. Some of these artists accept this reality and make a damn good living just working the Texas market (with maybe a jaunt now and then into Louisiana, Oklahoma or a few other neighboring states). There a plenty of clubs, dance halls and bars to support a very thriving music scene. Some of eeked out a niche in clubs and coffeehouses in other parts of the country that support their kind of music, but it is a patchwork network at best. Of course, there are always going to be artists who are not satisfied with a “local” following and want to make it big on the national scene. Many of them spend years slogging all over the country with nothing much to show for it. Occasionally one of them breaks through. But considering the amount of talent in Texas and the popularity some of these artists attain there, it is truly remarkable that more of them don’t manage to create more of a national following. I’ve never understood it.

Most people only know the Dixie Chicks through their “second” incarnation. They “burst” on the mainstream country scene in 1998 with the phenomenally successful album Wide Open Spaces. With two number one singles, another Top 10 single and quadruple platinum sales the Dixie Chicks were suddenly superstars, overnight it seemed. The truth of the matter is the band had been kicking around the Texas circuit for almost ten years. Their first album, as a four piece band, a very “classic cowgirl” collection entitled Thank Heavens For Dale Evans, was released in 1990. It was followed in 1992 by Little Ol’ Cowgirl. Everything about the band, including their clothes, songs and instrumentation promoted a very traditional approach to country music. But this was the early nineties. Country music was undergoing a huge transformation in Nashville with emerging superstars like Garth Brooks blurring the lines between country, rock and pop. The Chicks had a small, loyal following, but any hopes of hitting the big time seemed awfully distant. They lost one member, released a third album in 1993, lost another member and then didn’t release anything new for almost five years. But when they finally did everything had changed and everything changed. Wide Open Spaces saw the addition of Natalie Maines, major label backing, a complete image makeover, new management and new producers. In short it was a brave new world and everything just fell into place. Everything before Wide Open Spaces was shunned,forgotten, disowned. The three early records are not in print (haven’t been for a very long time) and fetch inflated prices at places like eBay and Amazon.com. As far as the band (and most fans) are concerned Wide Open Spaces was their debut album.

Now I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t pay much attention to the Dixie Chicks, even when they broke big. The songs I would occasionally hear on the radio didn’t generate enough interest for me to buy a CD. I became a fan when they became embroiled in the 2003 controversy over Maines’ remark that they were ashamed President Bush was from Texas. Damn right. They may have lost a lot of mainstream country fans during the ensuing firestorm but I’m sure they gained some fans like me as well. I picked up a copy of their current album at the time, Home, and played it some. But I was much more interested in the the 2006 release of Taking The Long Way as this was the first album to actually be written and recorded since the “incident.”

Produced by Rick Rubin, this is not a country album, it’s a pop album. Ok, sure there are fiddles and banjos, but for the most part they are mixed way down or featured in a distinctly non-country setting. This is pop music  through and through. And it’s very clear that’s the way they want it received. Just look at the cover, there ain’t a damn thing country about it: long sleek coats, high heeled shoes, dark heavy eye makeup, stark lighting. Hell this could be a Paris fashion shoot. Ringing acoustic guitars, driving drum beats and gorgeous harmonies provide the basic backdrop for most of the songs. The really good news is that this may be the best record they’ve ever made. “Not Ready To Make Nice” is certainly my favorite song they’ve ever recorded. It’s the centerpiece of the album, an angry, passionate, soaring rebuttal to everything they had to put up with in the preceding couple of years that cuts right to the heart of the matter. Songwriting on the album is a cooperative effort. All three women are credited as songwriters on all but one of the songs. Each song also features an outside hand, usually Dan Wilson or Gary Louris, though Sheryl Crow, Mike Campbell and Neil Finn also share a credit each on a song. While this kind of “group” songwriting can sometimes result in a watered-down, lackluster outcome it seems to work for the Chicks. The album is full of great songs, all fleshed out to near perfection by Rubin and the rather long list of musicians who are on board. Favorites of mine include “Everybody Knows,” the downright rockin’ “Lubbock Or Leave It,” “Voice Inside My Head” and the infectious, borderline funky “I Like It.” The album closes with the beautiful, inspiring “I Hope” that manages to cover a lot of well travelled ground without ever resorting to cliches and worn out dialogue. Keb’ Mo’ is credited as a songwriter on this and his influence is front and center. It’s unlike anything the Chicks have done before and a great way to close things out.

The Dixie Chicks had to put up with an enormous amount of shit for several years, but in the end they got their payback. Taking The Long Way may not have sold as many copies as their earlier albums but it won five Grammy’s in 2007, including the big kahuna, Album Of The Year. Revenge is sweet.

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