When I shared my guilty pleasures in pop culture a couple of months ago, I included country-pop superstar Taylor Swift. But I failed to mention the Texas trio who in many ways paved the way for Ms. Swift’s genre-crossing, media-savvy success as a young woman working within and transcending Nashville’s patriarchy…
Dixie Chicks, Fly
If I didn’t already have my “H” entry settled before I even started writing this series sampling my CD collection one letter at a time, I could have written about the Chicks’ best album, the acoustic Home, but Fly fits the “guilty pleasure” theme a bit better. For the life of me, I can’t remember what led a graduate student with such self-consciously snooty taste in music and aversion to Top 40 to buy such a wildly popular album — let alone one whose credits include hair stylists and make-up artists! And I still can’t listen to songs like the first track, “Ready to Run,” without looking over my shoulder to check that no one is seeing how much I enjoy it. (Though the rest of the song doesn’t really live up to the promise of Martie Seidel’s opening and closing Celtic fiddle parts.) And revenge fantasy “Goodbye Earl” doesn’t seem quite so fun when separated from its music video, starring Dennis Franz (remember Dennis Franz? man, I miss Andy Sipowicz…) as the titular villain/victim.
But Fly is also light years beyond most of what passed for country music in the Late Nineties, building considerably on 1998’s Wide Open Spaces (the first with new singer Natalie Maines) while pointing to the artistic breakthrough that was Home. Sure, Martie’s “Cowboy Take Me Away” recycles the themes of the prior album’s popular title track (quick quiz: which of the two songs has the lyric, “I wanna look at the horizon, and not see a building standing tall”?), but its more restrained arrangement and first-person lyric improve on “Wide Open Spaces.”
“Cowboy” is one of only five tracks that features one or more of the Dixie Chicks as a writer, but that’s four more than on Wide Open Spaces, and the choice of covers shows excellent taste, drawing from singer-songwriters more appreciated by fellow artists than country radio: Matraca Berg’s “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me,” Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller’s “Hole in My Head,” and, best of all, the closing track by Patty Griffin (more to come). Darrell Scott contributes “Heartbreak Town,” which is inferior to his “Long Time Gone” (which the Chicks selected to open Home) but vastly better than the similarly-titled “Hello Mr. Heartache,” one of the two pieces of Nashville filler on Fly (the other being “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” which seems to be included solely to appeal to fans of the likes of Keith Urban, who contributes guitar to the track).
The intriguing heart of the album is its middle, a cluster of three Chicks-penned songs that hint at what was to come when the Chicks dropped their Music City producers and charted a more independent course, reflecting the influence of non-Nashville country sub-genres like Western swing and bluegrass and a taste for the singer-songwriter school of the Seventies. Sure, “Without You” unnecessarily adds a string section, but it showed that the big-voiced Maines (a co-writer, as on the other two in this set) was equally strong on the quiet verses as when belting out the chorus. The same is true two tracks earlier with “Don’t Waste Your Heart” (co-written with Martie’s banjo/dobro/guitar-playing sister Emily), which finds the Chicks perfectly at home in a traditional country ballad. The stand-out, of course, is “Sin Wagon,” which features the kind of virtuosic playing (from the sisters, plus guitarist Bryan Sutton and Maines’ legendary steel guitarist father Lloyd) that would make Home such a treat.
But that song also points to a problem with the Chicks’ trajectory: the increasingly assertive role played by Maines. To be sure, her voice is the group’s #1 asset, what took them from regional appeal to international celebrity. (If you doubt, check out the sisters’ recent attempt at making a Natalie-less album, which is competent and entirely unremarkable.) On “Sin Wagon” it’s equally impressive an instrument as Martie’s fiddle and Emily’s banjo. But Maines’ lyric is — typically — not nearly as shocking as she thinks it is. Example: “Do a little mattress dancin'” isn’t that dangerous a line to start with, but tacking on a winking “That’s right, I said ‘mattress dancin”” makes it positively boring. (Inserting an a capella bar of “I’ll Fly Away,” on the other hand, was an inspired touch of blasphemy…) The net effect is to make Maines sound less like the establishment-frightening feminist she thinks she is (for better models, see Loretta Lynn and Lucinda Williams) than a whiny teenager trying to get a parent’s attention.
Fortunately, such instincts were largely reined in on the next album. Unfortunately, Home was followed by the wildly overpraised, increasingly forgettable Taking the Long Way, on which the group traded much of its strength (the sisters’ instrumental interplay) in order to kiss off country music and successfully seek Grammy validation, in the process indulging singing and songwriting traits of Maines’ that go down best in smaller doses. In that sense, Fly‘s Patty Griffin cover serves as quite the portent. Its acoustic instrumentation and soaring harmonies make “Let Him Fly” less the closing track on Fly than the first track on Home, which included two more Griffin compositions (“Truth No. 2” and “Top of the World”). And a lyric that starts brilliantly (“Ain’t no talkin’ to this man” — again, Maines has a thing or three to learn from other feminists writing within the genre) builds to a chorus whose advice the Chicks should have heeded before burning their bridges to Nashville in order to ride the freeway to L.A.:
There’s no mercy in a live wire
No rest at all in freedom
Of the choices we are given
It’s no choice at all
The proof is in the fire
You touch before it moves away
But you must always know how long to stay
And when to go
Release Date: 1999
Three Favorite Tracks: “Let Him Fly”; “Sin Wagon”; “Cowboy Take Me Away”
Other Nominees: Kathleen Edwards, Failer; Whiskeytown, Faithless Street; Semisonic, Feeling Strangely Fine; Norah Jones, Feels Like Home; The Byrds, Fifth Dimension; The Old 97s, Fight Songs; Fountains of Wayne, Fountains of Wayne; The Fray, The Fray; Dan Wilson, Free Life; Neil Young, Freedom; Tom Petty, Full Moon Fever.