The Chicks, minus 'Dixie,' return with fiery new album

New York (AFP) –


Nearly two decades after country music shunned them for famously repudiating George W Bush, the trio formerly known as The Dixie Chicks have soared back with a new album, new name and renewed fearlessness.

The Texas group just weeks ago dropped "Dixie" from their moniker for its links to the slavery-era US confederacy, saying simply, "We want to meet this moment."

And on Friday, The Chicks release "Gaslighter" -- their first album in 14 years, which the coronavirus pandemic delayed several more months -- which leans pop but includes the group's signature spellbinding harmonies and vividly personal lyricism.

The iconoclastic trio catapulted to fame in the late 1990s, becoming one of the best-selling female groups in history with their foot-stomping fusion of bluegrass, rock and country that shook the oft-staid Nashville establishment.

But the group all but vanished from country's main stage after lead singer Natalie Maines told a London show in 2003 she was "ashamed" that then-president Bush hailed from Texas -- and that the band did "not want this war, this violence," referring to the impending invasion of Iraq.

The comment caught fire. Many country radio stations banned their music -- including hits like "Wide Open Spaces," "Goodbye Earl," "Travelin' Soldier" and a popular cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide."

They faced death threats as people burned their albums, and country singer Toby Keith toured with a doctored photo of Maines with Saddam Hussein.

The Chicks, who include Maines along with sisters Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire, appeared nude on the cover of Entertainment Weekly with many of the names they'd been called -- including "Traitors" and "Dixie Sluts" -- scrawled across their strategically concealed bodies.

Years later, many artists still fear getting "Dixie Chicked": scrubbed out if they voice opinions, political or otherwise.

"Throughout my whole career, label executives and publishers would say, 'Don’t be like the Dixie Chicks,'" country darling-turned-pop megastar Taylor Swift said in her autobiographical documentary.

"And I loved the Dixie Chicks."

- Country's flashpoint -

After releasing their Grammy-winning album "Taking The Long Way" -- a middle finger of a record aimed at the industry that blacklisted them -- The Chicks flew under the radar for more than a decade, dabbling in solo and side projects.

Few defended them in the early 2000s, but today many artists profess admiration for the three women who walked away from the line they were instructed to toe.

The Jack Antonoff-produced "Gaslighter" is a barbed but clear-eyed, righteous but fresh album chronicling the pain of a brutal breakup -- Maines divorced in 2019 -- that also nods to gun violence and climate change.

Its title track centers on the term "gaslighting," which describes someone who psychologically manipulates others into doubting reality, and often applies to the abuse and silencing of women.

Recently, critics have associated it with the behavior of convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein and President Donald Trump.

The Chicks' return comes at a moment of truth for country, a genre that originated among working-class Americans in Appalachia as well as black musicians in the rural south, and features elements like the banjo, originally an African instrument.

But the 20th century saw it doused in masculinity and whiteness, later becoming associated with conservatism, sometimes even jingoism.

As the male-dominated genre struggles to step up to a moment increasingly focused on racial justice, The Chicks have made a point of spotlighting the Black Lives Matter movement in their work and social media presence.

The video for their new blues-tinged single "March, March" features imagery of protests past and present, notably the recent explosion of anti-racism demonstrations.

"What the hell happened in Helsinki?" Maines sings, a clear reference to Trump's backing of Russian president Vladimir Putin over the FBI at a summit.

This time around, she's not concerned about blowback -- not least from the president.

"He won't even listen," Maines told New York Magazine.

"The man cannot listen to music. There's just no way. Can you imagine him, like, tapping his toe or like... slapping his knee?"