The Chicks (formerly known as Dixie Chicks)
Members: Emily Erwin, Martin Erwin, Natalie Maines
Origin: Dallas, TX, USA
Years Active: 1989 – 2020 (Dixie Chicks)
Years Active: 2020 – present (The Chicks)
From their origins in 1989 as a quartet busking on the streets of their hometown of Dallas, Texas, the Chicks have wowed audiences with technical mastery of acoustic stringed instruments and a repertoire steeped in the American roots music of Bluegrass, Country, and Folk. The original line-up consisted of multi-instrumentalists and sisters, Emily and Martie Erwin, primarily on banjo and fiddle respectively, as well as bassist/lead vocalist Laura Lynch and guitarist/lead vocalist Robin Lynn Macy. Known as the Dixie Chicks until 2020, the promoted story is that the women chose their name after hearing the song “Dixie Chicken” by the band Little Feat, another group known for an eclectic sound that drew from multiple genres and styles. While the Chicks may have taken their name from a more contemporary band, they recal traditional American music artists, like Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe, and the music of regions across America, from the mountains of Appalachia to the swamps of Louisiana, onward through the Texas terrain, and farther west.
For their first few years the Chicks released three studio albums independently, beginning with Thank Heavens for Dale Evans in 1990. The title referenced the cowgirl entertainer Dale Evans and the Chicks onstage attire embraced the novelty of cowgirl imagery and harkened back to American Western folklore. Building a strong live following with touring and award-winning performances at festivals, the band was soon the support act for marquee Country artists associated with the genre’s original Country & Western musical characteristics, like Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Alan Jackson, and George Strait. The Chicks also performed on a broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry concert show, a rite of passage for Country artists. Nevertheless, the band did not receive much airplay on radio and received no offers of a record contract.
Seeking to expand their fanbase outside of Austin and Nashville, the Chicks pivoted to a more contemporary Country sound and enlisted studio session musicians to broaden the production quality for their second album, Little Ol’ Cowgirl, released in 1992. The change did not suit the band’s guitarist, who favored maintaining a more traditional Bluegrass sound, and Macy left the group. The Chicks were now a trio, and Lynch the sole lead singer. Quickly following in 1993, the Chicks’ third album, Shouldn’t a Told You That, found the group continuing to focus on updating their sound. With studio musicians again contributing to the album, famed steel guitarist Lloyd Maines contributed to the recording sessions, when he realized the Erwin sisters might be looking to bring in a new lead vocalist, he passed along his daughter Natalie’s Berklee College of Music audition tape.
By 1995, Lynch had left the group and was replaced by Natalie Maines. Maines brought a powerhouse voice to the revamped trio. Her vocals were rougher around the edges tonally when needed and highlighted her Blues, Pop, and Rock influenced style. Maines’ arrival marked a permanent embrace of a broader sound that was comfortable balancing refined dobro strumming with raunchy distorted guitar and Pop hooks. With the Chicks line-up now solidified and the group signed to Sony Music, they began work on a new album.
Released in 1998, Wide Open Spaces is the Chicks’ breakthrough album. As their major label debut and first album with Natalie Maines as lead vocalist, it quickly became a landmark album in the history of Country music–selling more copies in 1998 than all Country music artists combined. It has achieved diamond status in the United States for sales of over ten million copies, a certification surpassing platinum. Nominated for three Grammys at the Grammy Awards in 1999, the album won two: Best Country Album and Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for the single “There’s Your Trouble.”
The band quickly followed-up with another album, Fly, released in 1999. It debuted at Number One on the Billboard 200 chart and, as with Wide Open Spaces, sold in excess of ten million copies in the United States. The album spawned eight singles, with “Goodbye Earl” as one of the standouts. An upbeat Pop Country romp, “Goodbye Earl” garnered some controversy for its narrative of an abused spouse who, together with a childhood friend, murders her abusive husband and disposes of his body. While the song was frowned upon by some in the Country music industry and certain radio programmers, it fostered on-air discussions in some markets about domestic abuse. The controversy also illustrated how the Chicks were becoming much more confident in expressing themselves artistically and socially, pushing the envelope within Country music’s often conservative cultural approach.
Fly was nominated for four Grammys in 2000 and won two, again for Best Country Album and Best Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. The success of Fly allowed the Chicks to hit the road on their first headlining tour. Stretching over seven months, the tour took the band across the United States and Canada. In response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the Chicks performed “I Believe in Love” on the America: A Tribute to Heroes benefit concert program broadcast on the major U.S. television networks.
The band released its sixth album, Home, in 2002. A return to their origins in many ways, the songs provide a bevy of Americana: Bluegrass, traditional Country, and Folk. The album’s instrumentation is all acoustic and the group co-produced the record with Lloyd Maines. Heading out on the road to support the album on their Top of the World Tour in early 2003, a concert date in London would alter the course of the band’s career.
Days before armed forces invaded Iraq to start the Iraq War in early March 2003, the Chicks were performing in London. With marches taking place around the world to protest the looming conflict, and a historic number of people marching specifically in London, lead singer Natalie Maines commented at the band’s March 10th show that the band did not support the approaching invasion and were “ashamed” that the current U.S. president, George W. Bush, was from their home state of Texas. Maines’ remarks resulted in a severe backlash, especially from the Country music community and some conservative political commentators and media organizations. The group was dropped from radio station playlists across the U.S. as many Country music listeners vociferously condemned the remarks. The band experienced a drop in record sales and attendance at concerts. The trio, especially Maines, received personal threats of intimidation and violence. Notably, as the Country music industry sought to distance itself from the group at its own award ceremonies in 2003, the Chicks surpassed their previous number of Grammy wins that year, winning four awards for Home at the 2003 ceremony, including Best Country Album.
As the schism between the Chicks and the Country music community took hold, the group began broadening their fanbase, establishing support in Canada and overseas in Europe and Australia. And for their next record, the band’s seventh, the also brought in legendary producer Rick Rubin, known for his work with artists as diverse as Johnny Cash, Public Enemy, and Metallica. Taking the Long Way was released in 2006 and featured a large cast of players on the record, including singer-guitarist Bonnie Raitt, as well as members of Tom Petty’s band. With a blend of acoustic and electric instruments showcasing the band’s deep Country roots, the record also highlighted how the Chicks’ sound had moved closer to Americana – a music style that reflected their origins and evolution due to the its blending of traditional American music with strains of Rock and Roll and Gospel.
Taking the Long Way won five Grammys at the 2007 ceremony, including Record of the Year and Song of the Year for “Not Ready to Make Nice,” the Chicks’ response in song to the controversy surrounding the Iraq War comments in 2003. The album would be their last release for fourteen years. Following the tour in support of Taking the Long Way, the group went on hiatus. Over the intervening years, they intermittently played concerts and toured as a headlining and support act. In 2010, sisters Emily and Martie released the debut album for their new duo, Court Yard Hounds.
Following a collaboration with Taylor Swift in 2018, the band began working on a new album with producer Jack Antoff, a member of the band, fun. Prior to the album’s release, the band changed their name. In June 2020, responding to the outpouring of marches, protests, and uprisings over the murder of George Floyd in May, and a robust movement to address systemic racism throughout American society, the Chicks dropped “Dixie” from their name. “Dixie” is often associated with the Antebellum South in the U.S. and the group cited the word’s offensive relationship to the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War and the nation’s history of enslaving people for hundreds of years.
Gaslighter debuted at Number One on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, as well as Top Album Sales chart in July 2020. It also debuted in the top spot in numerous other countries. With strong leanings toward Country Pop in sound, much of the lyrics for the songs on the album are about singer Natalie Maines’ divorce and social issues in America, including criminal justice reform. In the time since the group released their debut album, they have become the best-selling female band and best-selling Country band of the last thirty years in the United States.