I’m not ashamed to admit that the first time I heard a Patty Griffin song was when it was covered by the Chicks (née Dixie). The band are kind of a gateway drug after all, with even Ashley Campbell (singer-songwriter and daughter of the late Glenn) admitting that she didn’t like mainstream country until she heard the Chicks in all their bluegrass infused glory on ‘Home’: “I got the Dixie Chicks’ ‘Home’ album. I didn’t even know that was bluegrass” she said in a 2018 interview. “I thought bluegrass was annoying old guys in suits, you know. I didn’t even like country back then, because I wasn’t a fan of the production style in the late 90s and early 2000s. But I heard Dixie Chicks and it was all bluegrass. I thought, This is the kind of country I like and I didn’t even know what to call it”.
When ‘Home’ opens with ‘Long Time Gone’, it kicks proceedings off with a heck of a bluegrass bang. It’s a cover of a song originally written and performed by Darrell Scott and the Chicks don’t change things up too much, except to add maybe a little more pep. It’s the first of two covers of songs originally recorded by Scott on the album, the second being the sincere but much more forgettable ‘More Love’. Indeed, the Chicks have always had a thing for covers and out of the 12 tracks on ‘Home’, eight of them were originally written and recorded by other artists.
‘Landslide’ is of course a very famous song for Fleetwood Mac in their own right, but the Chicks certainly made an impression with their version; so much so that it went on to become their biggest single outside of the constraints of the country music charts. Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines has said she was in part drawn to cover the song due to being the same age as Stevie Nicks was when she originally performed it, and that level of earnestness comes through loud and clear in Maine’s powerfully moving vocals and the Chicks always stunning harmonies.
While Bruce Robison’s original ‘Travelin’ Soldier’ is fine as far as soft acoustic country songs go, it wouldn’t be controversial to state that the Chicks, or more accurately Maines and her predictably flooring vocal performance, blow it right out of the water. Robison originally wrote the song in 1990 after a friend he worked with at a diner in Texas was called up to serve in the military after Iraq had invaded Kuwait, but the lyrics of a waitress falling for a soldier never go into specifics, so it’s easy to imagine events occurring at any time or place. While people around the waitress tell her not to wait for the man who has been deployed, she is defiant that she knows better.
“I cried / Never gonna hold the hand of another guy / “Too young for him,” they told her / Waitin’ for the love of a travelin’ soldier / Our love will never end / Waitin’ for the soldier to come back again / Nevermore to be alone / When the letter said, “A soldier’s comin’ home”,” goes the chorus, only for the hopefulness of the final line to get sharply removed in the final verses. “One Friday night at a football game / The Lord’s Prayer said and the anthem sang / A man said, “Folks, would you bow your heads / For a list of local Vietnam dead?” / Cryin’ all alone under the stands / Was a piccolo player in the marchin’ band / And one name read, and nobody really cared / But a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair”.
‘A Home’ is an utterly affecting take on the age-old trope of ‘the one that got away’. “Not a night goes by I don’t dream of wandering / Through the home that might have been / I listened to my pride when my heart cried out for you / Now every day I wake again / In a house that might have been / A home” laments Maines regretfully on the chorus of the song that was originally composed by Randy Sharp and his daughter Maia. While ‘Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)’, written by Radney Foster, is a sweet ode to a child (Foster suggested the track to Maines as she had recently had a baby), it feels somewhat insipid when competing alongside so many stellar songs.
But out of all the covers, it’s the songs written by the aforementioned Patty Griffin that shine the brightest. ‘Top of the World’ is told from the perspective of a man looking back on his life and wishing he’d done certain things differently. “I wished I’d a known you / Wished I’da shown you / All of the things I / Was on the inside” sings Maines softly at first. “I’d pretend to be sleepin’ / When you come in in the mornin’ / To whisper goodbye / Go to work in the rain / I don’t know why / Don’t know why,” she continues, the intensity growing as the genius of Griffin’s lyrics and the beauty of Maine’s voice marrying together to create something utterly heart shattering. ‘Truth No. 2’ is a cleverly written but more straightforward song about a broken relationship, with one partner begging the other to open up and confront the problems before them (“You don’t like the sound of the truth / Coming from my mouth / You say that I lack the proof / Baby, that might be so”).
As great as all the covers are, the Chicks original material matches up so well you’d be hard pressed to tell one from the other; and If it’s bluegrass that you came for, then they have that fully covered with ‘Lil’ Jack Slade’ (named after Maines’ son). Entirely instrumental, it’s two minutes and 23 seconds worth of down home country heaven. Famed country producer (and father of Natalie) Lloyd Maines even has a co-writing credit on it, and his traditional influence shines through.
‘White Trash Wedding’ is a whip smart, harmony laden and banjo heavy story of two people being forced into a “shotgun wedding”: “You can’t afford no ring / You can’t afford no ring / I shouldn’t be wearing white / And you can’t afford no ring”. ‘Tortured, Tangled Hearts’ sits pretty neatly alongside it, so much so that it’s easy to picture it as the aftermath to the hasty union: “Well there was a little falter at the altar of confession / Down on its knees true love did fall / After 31 days of sleepless nights, she woke up to end it all / With “I love you” on a fresh tattoo engraved upon his chest / She tore her name right off his heart”.
‘I Believe in Love’ in turn tackles a distinct lack of love. “Told my heart we’d wait it out / Swore we’d never compromise / Oh, I’d rather be alone / Like I am tonight / Than settle for the kind of love / That fades before the morning light” sings Maines with true depth of feeling, turning what could have been a clichéd fairytale of sorts about waiting for true into something real and tangible.
The Chicks have strayed further from their country roots in recent years, working with indie producer du jour Jack Antonoff on their most recent album ‘Gaslighter’, but there is still that hint of American roots music running through everything they do; maybe even enough to make a new generation realise that this country music thing isn’t so bad after all.