Eight years separate the 1998 Dixie Chicks release ‘Wide Open Spaces’, the group’s first album to feature Natalie Maines on lead vocals, and ‘Taking The Long Way’, the first album to follow the infamous 2003 Shepherd’s Bush gig where Natalie’s opine on the Iraq war and President Bush started the mother of all backlashes and witch hunts. If a year is a long time in politics then eight was a lifetime for Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire.
The contrast between the two albums is marked in a number of ways. The album covers give the first clue to the journey these women had undertaken. The three happy, smiling young women of the first album had been replaced by a much darker image, a neon setting, not a hint of a smile and dusky makeup to match.
‘Wide Open Spaces’ featured not one self-penned track and was produced by Paul Worley and Blake Chancey, both with their feet rooted firmly in the Nashville country music scene. Contrast that with the Rick Rubin produced ‘Taking The Long Way’ where every song comes from within the band. The music that first brought them such acclaim within the country music scene was now delivered with a much harder edge with clever, biting lyrics and a confident brashness.
After taking so much flak this was the album that saw the grown-up Chicks come out swinging. Opening track ‘The Long Way Around’ gets straight to the point “It’s been two long years now, Since the top of the world came crashing down, And I’m getting it back on the road now, But I’m takin’ the long way around……I opened my mouth and I heard myself, It can get pretty lonely when you show yourself, Guess I could have made it easier on myself.”
If that was the initial jab then ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’ was the Glasgow kiss. Every word, every line was written to directly address the hurt of the last couple of years. “Forgive sounds good. Forget, I’m not sure I could. They say time heals everything. But I’m still waiting………I’ve paid a price. And I’ll keep paying. I’m not ready to make nice. I’m not ready to back down. I’m still mad as hell…..It’s too late to make it right. I probably wouldn’t if I could.”
The song is sung with such passion and the lyrics spare no-one. The extent of the vitriol poured down on the band, and Maines in particular are laid bare “It’s a sad sad story when a mother will teach her daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger. And how in the world can the words that I said. Send somebody so over the edge. That they’d write me a letter. Saying I’d better shut up and sing. Or my life would be over.”
This is proper grown-up song writing and, having got those bottled up emotions out if the way early, the album settles into a groove of relentless quality morphing easily from gentle ballads like ‘Easy Silence’ to what the late lamented Terry Wogan would have called “hooligan music” on the out and out rocker ‘Lubbock Or Leave It’. There are 14 tracks on the album and not a duff one to be found. Maines’ glorious vocals have never sounded better, and Robison and Maguire deserve equal billing for both backing vocals and brilliant musicianship.
The album notes credit Rick for his confidence, decisiveness and talent. Rubin was clearly a perfect partner for this wonderful slice of catharsis. It was to be another 14 years before the rebranded ‘Chicks’ were to release another album but this Grammy winning album feels as fresh and relevant today as it did back in 2006. It would be a lovely ending to say that the USA had become a more tolerant society in the subsequent years. Alas………..