It's a Chick Thing

Michael McCall is a freelance writer based in Nashville

The Dixie Chicks enjoy bursting preconceptions. Because they're young, blond and call themselves chicks, country music's hottest new act has skeptics wondering if they're yet another prefab group foisted on the public. Maybe the Country Fried Spice Girls?

No way.

The members of the Texas trio are, in fact, experienced performers and capable instrumentalists--qualities that sometimes surprise both fans and doubters.

"We like proving ourselves," says singer-guitarist Natalie Maines, who replaced the group's original lead singer in 1996. "We like it that people get a kick out of the idea that we're blond and we can really play instruments. People find that humorous, and that's OK with us.

"We know people say things like, 'Wow, that girl looks like Julia Roberts and she plays the heck out of the banjo!' As long as they can see we are for real and we can play, we don't mind the rest of it."

Right now, the Dixie Chicks are the hottest act to hit country music since the rise of Shania Twain in 1995. After three hit singles--"I Can Love You Better Than That," "There's Your Trouble" and "Wide Open Spaces"--the trio's major-label debut album already has sold more than 1 million copies since its release in the spring.

The Chicks--whose "Wide Open Spaces" album recently reached the Top 10 on the pop charts--also were the surprise of the recent Country Music Assn. Awards, winning the group of the year honors and the Horizon Award, which goes to the artists who've shown the most growth.

The timing couldn't have been better for country music.

With even the most consistent country stars suffering from dwindling sales of records and concert tickets, the Chicks have given Nashville renewed hope that the popularity gains of the early '90s can be sustained.

"The Chicks have tapped into that audience that first started listening to country music during the growth spurt of a few years ago," says Allen Butler, president of Sony Music Nashville. "This band is reaching young listeners, those that wouldn't normally buy country albums, and they're appealing to the core country music fan."

If it seems as if the Dixie Chicks were born to be stars, the reality is much different. When Butler signed the trio to Sony's Monument Records, colleagues questioned his sanity.

"The Chicks were seen as a fun, quirky club band," Butler says. "I was asked, 'They've been around forever--why sign them?' There wasn't anybody in Nashville who wasn't aware of them. But they'd gone through some changes, and the time was right."

The success of the Dixie Chicks has become a triumphant story that underscores the values of hard work and perseverance. Considered too offbeat for the mainstream for nearly a decade, the group never gave up. Now, with a key personnel change and a resulting shift in musical direction, the band finds itself as country music's newest, brightest stars--an overnight success story nearly 10 years in the making.

"We don't mind if people think we've come from nowhere," Martie Seidel says. "Because once they've become fans, they'll delve deeper in and will be surprised to find we've been around awhile and that we've had a lot of experience doing this."

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Two of the three current Dixie Chicks formed the group in 1989. Emily Erwin was a 16-year-old high school student and her sister Martie was in her first year of college when they joined with singer-bassist Laura Lynch to perform acoustically on the streets of Dallas. (A fourth member, guitarist Robin Lynn Macy, left amicably in 1992.)

The two had been recruited by Lynch, who was 12 years older than Martie Erwin (Seidel is her married name). Even by then, the Erwin sisters were experienced performers. Seidel began playing fiddle at age 5; her sister was playing the banjo by 10.

"We came out of bluegrass, so we could play," Seidel recalls.

Lynch wanted to start a band that played old-time western swing, cowboy music and bluegrass. She dressed the group in colorful western wear, hung a rubber chicken from the neck of her acoustic bass and dubbed the band the Dixie Chickens. The name was inspired by an old Little Feat song, "Dixie Chicken."

People kept shortening the name to the Dixie Chicks, and the group soon followed that lead.

"If we had known we were going to get beyond the street corner, we probably would have thought about the name more," Seidel now says with a laugh. "But every time we thought about changing it, our fans wouldn't stand for it."

In the early 1990s, the band became a popular concert group, especially in Texas. Ross Perot adopted them as his favorite band, hiring them to play at corporate functions, big family parties and even campaign rallies during his presidential bid.

Along the way, they earned concert slots rarely given to bands without record deals. They performed at Dallas Cowboys games, at the Grand Ole Opry and at the 1993 presidential inaugural gala. They toured Europe, became regulars on the Nashville Network cable channel and even earned an endorsement deal with the Justin Boot Co.

When interest from record companies didn't come, they created their own independent label in 1991 and released their own albums. Eventually, their three records sold more than 90,000 copies, largely from sales garnered at shows and through the mail.

Even with a Nashville manager and booking agent, the trio wasn't able to stir up recording interest from a major label. That's when the band knew it was time for a change.

"We felt limited creatively," Erwin says.

Austin-based steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, a well-regarded musician and producer who has played with Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, had played on two of the Dixie Chicks' indie albums. Through him, Emily and Martie met his daughter, Natalie Maines, who had earned a vocal scholarship to the Berklee School of Music.

"We felt we needed the next caliber of singer," Erwin says. "We talked to Laura. We knew she was getting sick of not progressing further than we had. She had a teenage daughter and road life was really wearing her down. We approached her, and she said she didn't want to keep going unless something happened. She sort of understood we had to make a change."

In a separate interview, Lynch confirmed that account. "We were still knocking on the same doors and nothing was happening, so something had to give," she said.

Lynch admitted that she "bawled a lot" in the wake of the split, but added that she has no regrets about the decision, and that she is "overjoyed" at the success of her former band.

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Maines, now 24 and the youngest member of the group, had seen the Dixie Chicks play a few times.

"I was always impressed at how well Martie and Emily played their instruments," she says. "But as far as the cowgirl music they were playing, I wasn't really into it."

Still, when the two sisters considered new singers, Maines was the first to come to mind.

The sisters sent Maines a song they'd co-written, "You Were Mine." It was a contemporary country song rather than a retro-swing or cowgirl tune.

"I was surprised at how it sounded," Maines says. "I figured that if they wrote that, then that's where they wanted to go with the music. I could go there, I told them. I couldn't be the bluegrass-cowgirl singer. But I could sing 'You Were Mine.' "

"I've always loved the band," says Sony's Butler. "I've been watching them for years. I used to go down to Dallas and Houston just to see them. But what they were doing then wouldn't have worked on record. . . . I wouldn't have wanted to sign them then. But then they got Natalie, and it all changed."

Blake Chancey, vice president of artists and repertoire at Sony Nashville, had cut a few studio songs with the Dixie Chicks with Lynch as lead singer. But, he says, the project didn't really gain steam until Maines came in.

"It was the girls who decided to change direction," Chancey says. "I think Natalie fit what Martie and Emily wanted to do. Once she came into the fold, it just seemed like they were destined to be together. It fit like a glove."

The trio had a stronger say in choosing songs than most new acts, Chancey says. Besides "You Were Mine," which made it onto the album, the three band members brought in songs that some might consider outside the usual Nashville fare.

Among those that made the final album were "Am I the Only One (Who's Ever Felt This Way)," an old Lone Justice tune written by Maria McKee; "Loving Arms," a Dobie Gray hit written by Tom Jans; "Give It Up or Let Me Go," an early Bonnie Raitt song; and "I'll Take Care of You," written by J.D. Souther, who is best known for co-writing some Eagles material.

That headstrong attitude is evident in person as well as in performance and on record. Before the interview begins, the trio runs down its upcoming schedule, voicing strong opinions on what they want to do and what they don't. Of all the numerous media requests coming their way, the group shows the most interest in a fashion spread in Vogue (the magazine's first-ever by a country music act) and an appearance on MTV's advice show "Loveline."

"Any excuse to talk about sex is all right by us," cracks Maines, part of what seems an ongoing stream of quips, jokes and laughs among the three band members.

Despite a frantic schedule brought on by their sudden success, they've managed to maintain their cool and keep up with their obligations without complaints, say associates.

"We've never minded working hard," says Seidel.

All three say they miss their families and loved ones, though. Maines, the most outgoing member of the band, is married to Austin musician Michael Tarabay. Martie's husband, Ted Seidel, is a pharmaceutical salesman. Emily Erwin is engaged to Charlie Robison, a well-regarded Austin singer-songwriter who recently put out his major-label debut on another Sony affiliate, Lucky Dog Records.

"We're lucky in that our husbands, or in Emily's case, her boyfriend, all understand what it takes and how important this is to us," Maines says.

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The trio's unconventional musical style helped make the music distinctive, Chancey believes. Putting the acoustic sounds of Seidel's fiddle and mandolin and Erwin's banjo and dobro within an energized, contemporary country format distinguishes what the Dixie Chicks do from other modern Nashville acts.

"They're playing on every song, and it really gives the songs a personality," Chancey notes. "It's their sound, their harmonies, their playing. The sound is more organic--there's less reverb, and the acoustic instruments are more prominent. Nobody else out there sounds like the Dixie Chicks, and that's one of the reasons they're having this success."

At this point, even skeptics are starting to realize that the Dixie Chicks are an honest-to-goodness band. "They are the music," says Sony's Butler. "It's completely their sound. They didn't walk in and have someone say, 'I can make a you a star.' They've worked hard and paid their dues. The experience is deep and its real."

As for the name, the band admits it still raises eyebrows. "We sometimes get flak about the 'chick' part," Seidel says. "It sometimes rubs people the wrong way, especially some women, because we're all trying to get away from all the condescending labels women used to get stuck with. But when they see us play and see we've taken control of our own careers and our own lives, they usually say, 'Oh, yeah, now I get it.' It's an empowerment thing."

Or, as Maines puts it, "We've come up with a motto: Chicks rule! Not just us, but all the chicks out there."

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