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These Chicks ain't whistling Dixie

By Jeffrey B. Remz, January 1998

The Dixie Chicks knew they wanted to take their music to the next level, and that meant Nashville.

After three self-released albums, it was time to move on. And after Sony label executive Blake Chancey caught the reconfigured band at La Zona Rosa in Austin, Texas, he signed them up a few years ago.

In this day and age of country, some artists put out pop music masquerading as country.

But that did not seem to affect sisters Martie Seidel and Emily Erwin and lead singer Natalie Maines.

Maines said that was not a worry. "That question to me is funny because I don't think you can have fiddle, dobro and three-part harmony and have it turn pop," she says with a laugh from the band's Dallas offices.

The debut, "Wide Open Spaces," comes out Jan. 27 on the relaunched Monument label, one-time home of Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton and Kris Kristofferson.

Erwin says the "most important thing to get across is to really highlight our strengths because we had these horror stories of you go Nashville, and these guys will change you. We really got to play our own instruments and play and sing everything we could sing and play. To me, it's important to get our sound across, and I think we did that."

Seidel, 28, plays fiddle, while Erwin, 25, plays banjo, dobro and guitar. The band made that a stipulation of signing with the label.

The album is a departure from the previous efforts, "Thank Heavens For Dale Evans" (1991), "Little Ol' Cowgirl" (1992) and "Shouldn't a Told You That" (1993).

The debut was steeped in bluegrass, while the second album ventured more into jazz and Western swing leanings. "Shouldn't..." bears the most similarity with a more commercial sound.

One key difference is the arrival of Maines, 23, two years ago, replacing Laura Lynch. Maines' vocals are powerful and more upfront than Lynch.

Seidel says the band always had a career direction, which seemed to lead to the exit of former lead singer Laura Lynch after the third disc.

"We had been paying dues for a long time," Erwin says. "When we're on the road, we were gone for (a few) months. She had a teenage daughter (and said) 'I'm not willing to be out here paying dues and be on the road for another five years.' We are. She was ready to pass the baton on."

"We knew what sounds what sounds we wanted to create for the future," Erwin says. "We all agreed that Natalie had that kind of change for the more commercial push."

Maines joined the band in 1995 after going to Berklee School of Music in Boston. Erwin and Seidel had heard demo tapes Maines recorded at Berklee.

The label asked the Dixie Chicks to consider a name change. The name came from their street corner performing days in Dallas circa summer 1989. While doing well on the street picking up money from passersby, the fledgling band was nameless.

After hearing Little Feat's classic "Dixie Chicken" on the radio while en route to the street corner, the group settled on the name Dixie Chickens, later shortened.

"That was up for discussion early on," Erwin says of the name change with Sony. "We have a big fan base here in Texas. We felt like there was enough energy and stuff behind the name that it didn't become a big discussion. It's almost like a thing they had to put it up for discussion. People don't understand (the name)."

Eventually with name intact, the trio finally recorded over a five-month period ending in August.

The disc is musically diverse from the honky tonk shuffle, "Tonight the Heartache's On Me" to the rocking "Let Her Rip" to the bluesy closer, "Give It Up Or Let Me Go."

Seidel said she harbored no concerns about the musical direction. Referring to co-producers Chancey and Paul Worley, she says, "They want to keep country music country music. You can tell in the things they've produced. Personally I was never afraid it would go in a pop vein at all. If anything, we have a quirky side us and a very folky side to us in our live show. One of my concerns was making it commercial enough We play an Irish song in our shows. We play blues. We don't know what we are. I want it to be a commercial success. That's the only way to get your music out there."

So far, they are as the catchy, uptempo debut single and disc lead-off track, "I Can Love You Better Than That" has bounded up the charts, gaining the group at least a beginning foothold. Kostas co-wrote the song.

The initial play is all important given the almost manic necessity by record labels that an artist gain airplay or else.

"We wait from Monday to Monday to get the charts," says Erwin.

"We're interested in the numbers games. It's a creative business. On the other hand, we have to create our own destiny on the business end...Of course, we've had good news every week."

Maines says picking the single was no big deal. "When you're with a big label, you got major discussions about everything. There weren't big discussions about it."

If the Maines name is familiar, it should. Her father is Lloyd, the well known steel player and producer. "He's full of advice," says his daughter. "He played on 11 of the 12 songs. It was great to have him there because I have always loved my dad's ideas in producing the music. We used several of his ideas on the songs. We liked that because certain songs wouldn't have had the certain little thing I like about them."

"He doesn't really give me advice about signing with the label," Maines says. "He was excited for us even though (his group from the Eighties, the) Maines Brothers didn't have best relationship with Mercury (Records). He realizes it's the luck of the draw. That's not how it is for everybody. There are these people who do succeed and become huge stars."

Maines said she also was told "Don't get too excited over anything. It's all about the music. It may not be everything you want it to be, but you always got to try."

The Dixie Chicks won't be sitting idly by. Usually doing about 150 dates a year, the trio expects to do about 200 this year.

Erwin feels the title track may sum up where the band is up. "The words mean a lot, kind of where we've been gone and where we're heading. It's about taking a chance she needs to, to do what she needs to do."

And for Erwin, Seidel and Maines, that means trying to take it to that next level.