One can only imagine the consternation at the Dixie Chicks' record company in 2003 when Natalie Maines, lead singer with the multi-platinum country music pin-ups, took George Bush to task for instigating the war in Iraq. The country music audience is not noted for its liberal politics; so for such a major act to voice what were, at the time, very unpopular opinions took real courage.
The response was predictable but shocking, with accusations of treachery from hawkish talk-show hosts followed by death threats and a radio boycott of the band's music. A few years on, the invective seems to have evaporated, as popular opinion has turned against the war. Last week, Taking the Long Way, their first album since 2002's six million-selling Home, entered the US charts at number one, making them the only female group to achieve this feat with three different albums.
Like most recent high-profile American albums, it's been produced by Rick Rubin, who has brought together a top-notch backing band blending the Heartbreakers' Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers' drummer, Chad Smith, the piano legend Larry Knechtel among others to augment the girls' violin, mandolin and guitar. The result is a blend of modern and traditional in equilibrium; a banjo adds a sprightly spring to a crisp rocker like "Lubbock or Leave It", where the myth of Southern hospitality is critcised for self-righteousness; and country-blues inflections lend a weary uplift to "I Hope", in which warmongering and domestic abuse are attacked.
With the likes of Neil Finn, Sheryl Crow and The Jayhawks' Gary Louris drafted in as co-writers, the material ranges courageously across several other adult subjects, from bereavement ("Silent House") and self-determination ("The Long Way Around") to infertility ("So Hard"), something that has afflicted both Maines's fellow Chicks Emily Robinson and Martie Maguire: "It felt like a given/Something a woman is born to do/A natural ambition/See a reflection of me and you/And I'd feel so guilty/If that was a gift I couldn't give".
But the strongest and angriest moments are those prompted by the brutal response to Maines's opinions, particularly the single "Not Ready to Make Nice": "Forgive sounds good/Forget, I'm not sure I could," she sings. "I'm not ready to make nice/I'm not ready to back down/I'm still mad as hell/And I don't have time to go round and round and round." It's the fury not of a woman scorned, but of one refusing to be silenced, and it draws a new line in the sand for country music after the bigotry of such as Toby Keith.
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