With special programming this weekend (Dec. 16-17), CMT celebrates the Dixie Chicks and all that the trio has achieved in the three years since releasing Wide Open Spaces, their first album for Sony-owned Monument Records, in January 1998.
Guitarist and producer Paul Worley, who co-produced both Wide Open Spaces and its follow-up, Fly, with Blake Chancey, recalls that finding songs for the Chicks’ first Monument release — now certified by the Recording Association of America as a “diamond” album for sales of 10 million copies — was no easy task.
“Nobody really wanted to be on the Dixie Chicks record,” Worley reveals. “We had a hard time getting publishers to stop and focus and give us really good songs. We took the girls around to all the publishing companies, and they played in person, in the board rooms or whatever, for the songpluggers and songwriters. We were hoping they would get it from that. A few did and tried to get on board.”
Before the Chicks’ Monument debut, sisters Martie Seidel and Emily Robison — Martie and Emily Erwin at the time — released three albums themselves. Their very first was the western-oriented Thank Heavens for Dale Evans. Natalie Maines, the Lubbock-raised daughter of steel guitarist and producer Lloyd Maines, joined them in 1995, after the independent releases.
Initially, Worley says, some on Music Row assumed that Sony had put together a country edition of pop’s wildly successful Spice Girls to re-launch Monument, an imprint defunct since 1983.
“We had to overcome that and go, ’No, no, no. These are not Spice Girls at all,'” he recalls. “’These are not a bunch of actors that are being hired to play a part. These are musicians and they’re serious musicians — and they’re girls.’ Finally, people understand that.”
By delivering a solid album, Wide Open Spaces, on which Seidel and Robison played their own musical parts, the Chicks sent a very clear message to Music Row about who they were. But, as with everything else, it took a lot of work — and a little negotiation. For all their skill as players, Seidel and Robison were still less experienced in the studio than the session musicians normally enlisted to make a record in Nashville. For the Chicks, the process of recording was more akin to what a self-contained rock band might go through.
“When you’re making the record, you have to create the music, you have to conceive the parts,” Worley explains. “Somebody who plays sessions every day can think of a part to play in three or four minutes and proceed to play it. The girls need time. It takes more time for them to figure out what it is they want to play in a song. That makes it more special and more time-consuming to create.
“We might spend four or five or six hours of a day working on a Dobro part or a fiddle part,” he continues. “The fiddle part on ’Cowboy Take Me Away,’ with that long, long vamp, or the long vamps at the end of “Ready to Run,” not just the fiddle part but interweaving the fiddle, steel, Dobro and the banjo on both of those songs as they go out, and the Irish whistle … making it all make sense took a huge amount of time.”
Occasionally, it also took some time to reach a consensus about the repertoire for Wide Open Spaces.
“There was a lot of give and take,” Worley says. “Some of the girls were not necessarily instantly in love with ’There’s Your Trouble’ but became so after we’d recorded it. We all love the song now. Sometimes you can’t quite hear in a demo where you would fit the song.”
Natalie Maines brought in “Wide Open Spaces.” Her father had produced songwriter Susan Gibson’s band, The Groobees, who recorded it first. “I fell in love with it instantly,” Worley asserts, “but there were others in the organization who went, ’It’s cool, but …'”
Of course, Wide Open Spaces — the album — eventually went to No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart and to No. 4 on The Billboard 200 pop album chart. (It was the first Sony Nashville release to hit the Top 10 on The Billboard 200 since Mary Chapin Carpenter did it in 1994.) The Academy of Country Music named it Album of the Year. It also earned a Grammy for Best Country Album, and “There’s Your Trouble” received a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance/Duo or Group. “Wide Open Spaces” stayed at the top of Billboard’s country singles chart for four weeks.
All this meant that the Chicks had more material to choose from for their follow-up, Fly. “Everybody wanted to be on the Chicks album,” Worley relates, but he also explains that most people pitching songs knew the trio’s singles, but not the eclectic scope of their entire first album. The problem is common on Music Row.
“The second album comes around, and you end up having songs pitched to you that are right on top of the singles off of the previous album,” Worley explains. “That’s not what you’re trying to do. Most people don’t try to repeat themselves.”
Fortunately, the Chicks themselves had written 50 or 60 songs, thanks in part to a Sony strategy aimed at ensuring that the group would have no shortage of good material for their album. “One of the things they did during the hiatus between the first and second album was develop relationships with Nashville songwriters,” Worley explains. “We helped them at the label. We had a couple retreats that we put together so that writers could come out and get to know the girls.”
Seidel told Billboard that renting cabins out in the country turned out to be a good idea. “It was the only way to really get time to write,” she said in an interview with Chet Flippo. “I think that gave us a head start, and the writing flowed more freely. We were ready to record again, to get some more music down on disc, because we wrote so much.”
In the studio, the Chicks, Worley, co-producer Chancey and the musicians took great care to turn those songs into quality recordings. Worley remembers a session for “Heartbreak Town,” a Darrell Scott tune.
“We were out in the studio, working on the arrangement, and Natalie was in the control room laying down on the couch with the talkback control in her hand,” he says. “She was making us play the song over and over again, because she wanted to keep experimenting with certain moods in certain parts of the song and whether we should play things down and kinda opened up or more full blown, with the band.
“It was very challenging to those of us who were out on the floor playing,” Worley recalls. “We were going, ’Where’s she going with this? Why is she putting us through this?’ At the end of it, it came out. It’s magical. It’s wonderful. That’s one of those moments when creativity is hard, but it’s still worth it.”
The proof is in the pudding. Fly debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s country and pop album charts in September 1999. The album pulled a prestigious Grammy nomination for Album of the Year (along with albums by the Backstreet Boys, Diana Krall, winner Santana and TLC). It won a Grammy for Best Country Album, and the group again took the Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance/Duo or Group for “Ready to Run,” a track from the album. Fly also was named Album of the Year by the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association.
The album fit well into a grand plan to make 2000 a breakout year for the Chicks. After touring in previous years as a support act with George Strait’s Country Festival, Tim McGraw and Lilith Fair, the trio undertook their first headlining tour, the ’Fly’ Tour, with a $3 million advertising budget and an itinerary taking them to more than 70 cities. (Their Washington, D.C., dates were taped for Dixie Chicks on the Fly, the hour-long NBC special re-airing this weekend on CMT as part of the “Chicks Music Television” programming.)
Conservative pre-tour projections had the group pulling a gross of around $35-to-$40 million, but, with added dates, the total — undisclosed at press time — is likely to go higher. The group made an important statement about their musical allegiances by tapping Ricky Skaggs, Willie Nelson and Patty Griffin as opening acts for the tour. Teen girls turned out in great numbers, dressed in splashy fashions inspired by the Chicks themselves. In October, the Chicks were named Entertainer of the Year by the CMA.
Maines remarried in June, to actor Adrian Pasdar, and the couple expects a child next year. So the Dixie Chicks will take time off, now that the Fly tour has wrapped. “They’ve got to write songs, get their lives together and feel like getting back into it, doing it again,” Worley reasons.
And when they feel like getting back into it again, Worley predicts that the early stages of recording will follow the same pattern as their previous albums. “We start off the project by taking the band, usually out to somebody’s house, and we sit around in front of a fireplace or something. We’ll play the songs and work the arrangements out there, slapping on our knees and playing guitars and so forth, before we ever go to the studio, so there’s less confusion once we get there.”
Once in the studio — perhaps in late summer or early fall — Worley expects big things from the trio as they cut their third album for Monument.
“The girls have indicated to me that whenever it is we do start to record, they expect me to be ready to set aside everything in my life for six months,” he says. “I look forward to that. I think this is the girls’ opportunity to make their Sgt. Pepper’s, their album that goes over any definable lines, the way a lot of the great bands have done.”