The Chicks Look Back And Laugh
The Chicks — formerly known as the Dixie Chicks — is back with a new record called Gaslighter after 14 years. Why the long time gone? Martie Maguire, Emily Strayer and Natalie Maines say they wanted a break to raise their kids, among other things, but after a 2016 reunion tour, they felt the hunger again. Their new album is rooted in failed relationships, some good ones, anger and a lotta humor. Maguire says life experience never hurts writing.
"We're between the ages of 45 and 50 — I'm the oldest, probably with the most baggage — but we've had relationships break up, marriages break up," Maguire says. "Different things happen in our lives, just like everybody else, so when we write a song it's not necessarily about one person. Maybe one line might be a contribution about somebody that did somebody wrong, but it's never one thing. It's not all one bad man."
"There's so many bad men!" Maines interjects amidst laughter.
Gaslighter still sounds like The Chicks with three-part harmony — angelic, even when they're mad — and a fiddle, a banjo and a mandolin. People still call the group country even though that industry "canceled" it in 2003. That's when lead singer Natalie Maines criticized President George W. Bush right before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Fans rebelled; country stations pulled the band's music. But now, The Chicks returns at a time when the world is both vastly different and surprisingly the same. Artists are no longer canceled for criticizing the president, but it's still shockingly common for women — and artists of color — in country music to have trouble getting played on country radio.
NPR's Noel King spoke to Martie Maguire, Emily Strayer and Natalie Maines about looking back at the Bush controversy 17 years later, the decision to drop "Dixie" from the band's name last month and how they don't actually identify as country artists. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for an extended transcript of the full interview.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Noel King: This is your first studio album together in 14 years. You've kept your fans, including myself, waiting for a very long time. What brought you back together now?
Emily Strayer: We're getting asked this question all the time, and I think the main impetus was the tour we did in 2016. It was putting our toes in the water, seeing who was still out there in fandom. Our demographic was still the same, but had changed as well, so we had mothers bringing daughters, we had all walks of life; it was just really, really a fun tour. I think after that, we're like, "Okay, let's do another album." And the fact that it's our last album on Sony didn't hurt either.
Natalie Maines: I was going to say, yeah, that was the real motivation. We only had one more album to deliver to complete the contract, so that was good motivation.
There's a fair amount of anger on this album, and it is you all, so there's anger tempered with humor. But if you were asked to characterize the new album, is it an angry record?
Strayer: I don't think so, no. We tend to put enough time between whatever's going on in our life and songwriting so that we come to it with a sense of humor, like you said. We always want to be raw and real, but to me, that leads to great songs, which leads to a great time. So I never think of our songs as being angry, really, or us being angry. Nat, you might want to talk about that.
Maines: I was going to say, to me, anger comes from pain, and there's a lot of pain on this album, so maybe that's getting maybe mislabeled or -construed. But there's definite pain.
My favorite song on the album was "Julianna Calm Down" because it reminded me so much of being 17 and shouting your lyrics along with my girlfriends. The song itself is delivered as advice to what seems to be a younger woman. Is Julianna a real person?
Strayer: Yeah, Julianna is my daughter, but all of the young women in the song are either our daughters or our nieces. I forget how many girls' names are said, but the woman who wrote the song, Julia Michaels, she started the song and we heard it and were like "Oh my gosh, can we have this song?" And Natalie left the studio that night and she didn't really wait for a reply from Julia, she just finished the lyrics. She changed them all. But the song was "Julia Calm Down," and so the Julianna came naturally as the first name. I wish I had somebody telling me in a song to just relax, everything's going to be okay. When I was at that age, I was so wound up. It's a love letter to our younger selves as well.
Let me ask you about the song "March March." To hear the lyrics of that song and to watch the video, the song itself seems very much to be about recent protests we've seen in this country around anti-racism, spearheaded in large part by the Black Lives Matter movement, but you must have actually written it before all this happened. When did "March March" come into being and what it is meant to be about?
Maguire: It was written in 2018, and we all took our children and families to the March [For] Our Lives on Washington and stood in that sea of people with our kids and got very inspired. We have had our eye on activism that has happened over the last many years, whether it be gay rights or inequality or women's issues; I did the Women's March in Austin, we've all done different marches. That song stemmed from the gun violence-era recently, and then just women's pro-choice sentiments. This new Black Lives Matter movement, it had happened before, it had already begun, but it really made us want to thrust this song forward in the public. It might have been just another track on the record, not necessarily a single, but then it just became so poignant with what was going on and we just felt like it had to be out there.
Different genres of music in this country have often had an activist message to them, but often the point of telling a story in a song in country music was to make a bigger point. On this album, some of these songs are clearly very personal, but what's the balance between making a song that's about something larger and making a song about something very intimate and personal?
Strayer: There's a lot of different genres that have that kind of storytelling behind it, whether you call it activism or you just call it real-storytelling. We've always tried to tell a story and we're drawn to that kind of narrative; I think that more than anything defines what's attractive to us. Country music definitely had a history of the people who were shootin' straight and telling the stories without any sort of gloss on them, whether it's [Loretta Lynn's] "The Pill" or other songs that people put out there, but I don't think it's just country. Rock and roll can do that. But I think it's more the kind of song we're drawn to, it's not necessarily the genre.
Maines: I don't necessarily see a separation in a song being personal or being a comment on something in culture or the sign of the times. "March March," even though it is a protest song, it is a personal protest song. I don't know that there's a huge separation. You know how the Indigo Girls can write really smart songs about Galileo or Native Americans? I am not good at that sort of songwriting. I love listening to the Indigo Girls and admiring it, but I don't think I'm good at that. It has to be personal.
Maguire: We try not to get too personal, usually, because we want people to take their own ownership of the message. It's funny how people will write us and say "I know this is about this but I feel like this relates to something entirely different." So even when the lyrics get pretty specific, they find something in there that they can tether to their own life. That's what we want them to do.
Do you still identify as country artists?
Maines: I never have identified as that. I think we have acoustic sound and singer-songwriter [sound] but to me we're more bluegrass, if we're labeled in that arena. We're always going to have that rootsy sound because we're three-part harmony and fiddle/banjo/mandolin, but what we like to do is explore beyond maybe what that music would sound like naturally and try to broaden our sound. But The Chicks has always been different than country, for me.
Strayer: As the banjo player, it was interesting when we did get our record deal on Sony and went to Nashville to record, how many people were telling me, "Well, you know we're going to have to take the banjo off before we can put it on country radio." Isn't that crazy? And so we really did come up more through the acoustic bluegrass channels. So country was actually like this other world to us, and once we got there, we kind of had to break down those walls so that we could get our instrumentation on the album. We've always had to buck the system a little bit to be who we were and then once we were successful in country, then they welcomed us in and that was great, then they kicked us out. [Laughs] So we don't really know where we live anymore.
In 2003, the band got in trouble with the public — I think is the best way of putting it — after Natalie criticized President Bush in the context of the US invasion of Iraq. 17 years later, do you look back and think "the push back on us was so severe because we were identified as country music artists," "because we were women who dared to say something unpopular among our fan base," or "because it was 2003 and no one was doing that yet"?
[Cross talk] All of the above. Perfect storm.
Maines: We were one of the first examples of the Internet coordinating and gathering people to have an effect on another person and their living or their job. We were not the only people saying things, there were loads of people saying things, but I think because we were in country music, we weren't supposed to be liberal, honestly. Apparently that wasn't allowed. And then I think it was easy to bash us because we were women after the fact, but I've never been a believer that what happened to us was because we were women.
Maguire: I always think there's a little bit of sexism in it, for sure. Especially in country music, that's still happening. Women are still treated like the second-class citizens in country music. Even though we're not really entrenched in it right now, we hear about it all the time. Like SaladGate. And if you talk to women in country, a lot of them feel like they're underrepresented because they're women —
Maines: Yeah, but we never felt like that. We were at the top of the charts and played on every station. I'm not saying sexism didn't exist --
Strayer: — in the good times, but I'm saying if the criticism of us for what was said hadn't been wrapped in this misogynist rhetoric of "You're sluts because you said that," to me, that is definitely geared towards a female --
Maguire: "Bimbos." [Cross talk]
Strayer: — all of the sudden, we're bimbos because we differ with their political views.
Maines: Well the aftermath was definite sexism. I'm just saying, do you think it happened because we were girls?
Strayer: I think they like to put us in our place. Yeah, I do.
Maines: If more women had been in charge in country music, maybe it wouldn't have happened? I don't know. Everybody has to answer to a board and they got all scared because they think they're getting all these emails or phone calls saying "I'll never listen to your station again if you play The Chicks," and that was all fake, but nobody wanted to hear that. Who knows? It was a blessing. [Laughs] We still haven't figured it out, but we're fine with it.
You were the Dixie Chicks from the late 1980s until last month. You dropped "Dixie" from your name. Why?
Maguire: Thank goodness. It feels good. It feels liberating. OK, to be completely honest, we've always hated our name. We always thought it was a silly name.
The whole time!?
Maguire: Oh yeah. We've hated our name. It came about when Emily was 16, I was 19, and we went down to the street corner with two other female musicians and people were asking us what our band name was and we didn't have a band name. They were throwing us tips and we went home and said "Gosh, OK, if we go back tomorrow, we gotta have an answer for these people. What's our band name?" We were driving down to the street corner and the Little Feat song "Dixie Chicken" was on the radio and we thought "Oh, that's cute! Love this song. Let's be the Dixie Chickens." So we were the Dixie Chickens for about a week until I, with my super self-conscious self, didn't want to be a chicken. I was so terrified that some boy I thought was cute was going to come walking by and there I am in my 10-gallon hat and fringe and I'm a Dixie Chicken.
Maines: You should have been more worried about [your outfit] than being a chicken.
Maguire: Totally! So we shortened it to "Chicks." We had a "Chick" tip jar. We had our first business card, it was chicken with eyelashes. So everything was "Chick this" and "Chick that," and we really didn't think about the "Dixie" until I think we were older. I went to Southwestern University in Georgetown [Texas] my freshman year and one of the fraternities had a Dixie flag hanging in the front. I remember that was the first time I just kind of was like, "I don't know why, but I have kind of a weird feeling about that." But then people were more concerned with the fact that we were calling ourselves chicks, and in interviews they would say "Don't you think that's degrading to women?" The emphasis was not on the "Dixie."
Strayer: But like you said, over time we did get more uncomfortable and more uncomfortable and even on some of our merch or on tours we would shorten it to DCX or we'd water it down, it'd be The Chicks. We've always called ourselves The Chicks for short.
Maines: I feel like it correlated with the [Bush] controversy. I just remember feeling so gross that people thought, because of the genre of radio we were played on, that we wouldn't be pro-choice and want peace and love and not war. So I just wanted to distance myself from that whole scene and the word "Dixie" just started feeling really gross. And I can only speak for myself. When I joined the band, I thought their name was the best thing about them. [Laughs] Because we said "Should we change the name?" and I was like "No! No, it's awesome. It's catchy, it's memorable." For me, it really hadn't registered as something that would be hurtful and I would ask friends "Do you find this offensive?" "No." So I don't know.
Strayer: I would say, with what's going on right now, it was just kind of the last straw for what we were already feeling in our hearts, and I just have to say I am so happy about it. When people say something I'll be like "Well, you know, I'm just happy about it."
Maines: It wasn't just a feeling. In our mind, we would have the conversation. "Can we change our name? Can we drop 'Dixie'?" It just seemed like a really big ordeal. We tried to go by DCX or we tried as much as possible, visually, to not have Dixie, but people didn't get the subtlety. They didn't take the hint and start calling us DCX.
But I love that this whole time you were subtly undermining your own name, and now we all know the truth.
Maines: The Chicks is such a better, cooler name. Why didn't we think of that?
Strayer: But think of all the paperwork. We're in the midst of changing, it's really a difficult job.
Maguire: And that's why it didn't happen when we wanted it to happen. I think people were waiting for an answer. We were definitely feeling and hearing a strong call for us to drop the "Dixie," but we had to get our ducks in a row and make sure we were respectful to this other group — sisters, which is cute — in New Zealand and make sure they were cool with it and we could co-exist together. We definitely wanted to do it right.
Maines: And it's still an ongoing process.
Strayer: It'll be a while. But it was interesting, I was trying to look up something to make sure something had changed on our website and I made the mistake of going to chicks.com, so don't ever go to chicks.com. You'll be in for a big surprise.
Maguire: You just promoted it, Emily.
Strayer: Make sure it's thechicks.com.
There's a comparison I've heard a bunch over the past couple of days, comparing The Chicks to Lady Antebellum, the band which of course has changed its name to Lady A. But I actually think there's a more interesting comparison to NASCAR and the way in which NASCAR seems to have decided to have done away with the Confederate flag at events, but also decided that if it wants to be real and successful and representative of the people who like it in the year 2020, it just can't be exclusionary in the way that it was in the past. I'm thinking of what you said earlier about how you'd have concerts and you'd see your demographic changing. Bearing in mind that you don't identify entirely as country artists but country fans identify with you, do you think fundamentally there just needs to be a change in the way the country music industry looks at Black fans, Black consumers of music, Black Americans more broadly, and needs to invite them into this space and say "You're part of this, too"?
Strayer: Just like anything that doesn't change over time, it's going to not be around forever. I was really intrigued and happy about the NASCAR thing and thought that was a smart business move, if nothing else. Why would you exclude and keep such a narrow focus and exclude a whole race of people or races of people? Because there are tons of country music fans of all stripes but when you take Lil Nas X off the radio when he has this amazing country song, it's just very blatant and it's hard to stand behind that.
In researching this interview, I marvel at the number of music industry insiders who've told you not to do things and then you've done them. And because you've done them, people end up loving you more. Today, in 2020, it is very common for young women to criticize the president of the United States if they think he's doing wrong. When you look back at how you made it through all of this, do you look back and feel pride? Do you back and laugh? Do you want to say "We told you so"?
Maines: I definitely look back with pride. Just because we are ourselves and we're good people and I think we're on the right side of history. I feel proud — and I laugh. A lot.
Maguire: I have three daughters — all teenagers, basically — I finally let them watch the documentary [Shut Up and Sing]. I didn't want to before because my youngest was too young, I think, to understand what was going on. I didn't want them to be upset by it, I wanted them to learn what had happened. I think I'm really so thankful that we have this opportunity, this teaching opportunity for the kids we're raising, to go back and go — because they watched it and they're like "I don't get it. Why couldn't you said that? Why couldn't she say that? Why did it matter he's from Texas?" They were just so confused. And that's beautiful. And it has been a long time. Things have changed so much, and that is not their world. These days, I feel like these three women in my household, young women, know they can say what they want to say as long as they're respectful and not hurting other people and not being destructive or hateful. If that's the only thing that came out of it for me, I'm thrilled.
Maines: Did they think we were funny?
Maguire: They thought it was funny that I wanted to put "If I was gonna carry a gun, I'd put it in my crotch" — if I was going to sneak a gun into a show. They liked that part.
Strayer: We've always said, in a weird way, it's been a blessing. I truly feel like that. I had to go on a journey of understanding myself and why I felt certain ways. Maybe part of it's just getting older, but not caring so damn much what people think and it's OK when, if you believe in what you're standing for, you just have to shake off the troll-type people. I think that was hard for me to do, it's just my personality. So now I feel like I'm just so much more emboldened as a person. I feel like it was better for the longevity of this band, believe it or not, to have gone through something like that. You say when you're in war, when you go through the trenches with somebody, it makes you even stronger. It makes you connected in a way that you can never explain to other people. So when people say "Why are y'all getting back together after 14 years?" Well, we've never really been apart. We haven't made albums, but I think it's just — Yeah, it was hard to go through, but I wouldn't change it for the world.