Dixie Chicks Preview Home at Ryman

Lucky radio winners and music biz types got more than a sneak peek of the Dixie Chicks ’ forthcoming album Home at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on Tuesday night (Aug. 13). In fact, the Texas trio performed the entire album — start to finish — accompanied by many of the musicians who played on the project.

A shimmering backdrop of metallic columns bathed in purple light provided a somber backdrop for the early part of the show, a set-up perhaps more appropriate for a folk trio. Yet, if the album (due Aug. 27) proves to be as warm and heartfelt as the show, then the understated presentation may have been perfectly inspired.

The Chicks stepped into the spotlight with very little chitchat and launched into the album’s debut single “Long Time Gone,” followed by a stellar version of “Landslide,” a Stevie Nicks song from Fleetwood Mac’s 1975 self-titled album. Noting that the band had always wanted to record “Travelin’ Soldier,” which they performed at the 2001 CMA Awards, Natalie Maines remarked that it seemed a natural fit for the acoustic album. The ballad, written by Bruce Robison about the Vietnam War, may be the saddest-sounding song the Chicks have ever recorded.

For their Fly tour in 2000, the Chicks picked rock singer-songwriter Patty Griffin as an opening act for a number of dates. At the time, Griffin was involved in a battle with her record label, resulting in an album that was never released. Not all was lost for her, though, as the Chicks plucked two songs from it for Home. One of those, “Truth No. 2,” is pure Griffin — holding out hope, despite the stacked odds. (It’s named “Truth No. 2,” because she had already written an entirely different song titled “Truth.”) Griffin, who now lives in Austin, also contributed “Let Him Fly” for the Chicks’ album Fly.

The Chicks raised the roof with “White Trash Wedding.” Declaring that the previous day was “my second one-year anniversary,” Martie Maguire related her attempt to secure a Catholic wedding, despite the fact that she’d been married before. Before launching into it, she quietly admitted, “Maybe this one’s partly about me.”

“No, it’s all about you,” her sister, Emily Robison, slyly added. With the infectious hook “I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring,” this is the only song on Home written exclusively by the Dixie Chicks. The pounding rhythms prompted Maines, who has reverted to the 1980s habit of hair-crimping, to stomp the stage and head-bang like the Ryman has rarely seen. Still, when a band can whip an audience into a frenzy with a banjo and a fiddle, all that can be said is, “Chicks rule!”

Maines’ vulnerable vocals fully complement the intricate melody of “A Home,” from songwriters Maia Sharp and her father, Randy Sharp. Similar in spirit to the early Chicks’ hit “You Were Mine,” this one could be a smash — and would effortlessly lend itself to a music video. With so many young marriages crumbling, this one may hit especially hard amid fans in their late 20s — around the same age as the Chicks themselves.

From the stage, Maguire announced she was nervous because bluegrass star Tim O’Brien was in the audience. She recalled taking lessons from him when she was a 13-year-old on a family vacation in Colorado and declared that she owns every record he’s ever made.

“More Love,” the O’Brien song chosen for Home, comes from Real Time, an independent album he recorded with Darrell Scott. (Scott wrote “Long Time Gone” and “Heartbreak Town” on Fly.) Tin whistles and woodwinds lent a Celtic vibe to the reaffirming message, without drowning it out.

Though they may not have known it, Marty Stuart watched the Chicks from a seat on the main floor — probably tickled to hear back-to-back performances of two songs he wrote with Maines and Maguire. While “I Believe in Love” is a yet another ballad (although a heartfelt one), “Tortured, Tangled Heart” finds the band squarely in bluegrass territory.

“Marty Stuart is like Dolly Parton ,” Maines said, telling the story of inviting him to Austin, where they recorded the album, to co-write with them. She added, “You hope he shows up in those tight pants and the jet black hair, even if it’s just for a writing session. And he did!”

The hot instrumental “Lil’ Jack Slade” nicely balances the tender lullaby “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams),” written by Radney Foster . He previously co-wrote “Never Say Die” on the Chicks’ first major label album, Wide Open Spaces.

The second Griffin song, “Top of the World,” closed the set. Before singing it, Maines explained that it was written from the perspective of Griffin’s dead grandfather, who looks back at his life’s regrets, especially the cruelty to his wife. The Chicks performed it with a string section, with Maines losing herself in the melancholy lyrics.

Judging from the show, Home will hold its own for listeners unfamiliar with the heritage of country music, as the Chicks’ other albums have done. But for the millions who have always loved country and called it their own, the Chicks’ affinity for tradition is most welcome, and Home promises to be a landmark album in the Chicks’ career.

Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.