Dixie Chicks Assert Their Authority

Country Trio Holds Nashville Audience Captive

When the Dixie Chicks piled up trophies at last year’s Country Music Association Awards, host Vince Gill announced, “There’s three new sheriffs in town; you’d better get used to it.”

Saturday night (Sept. 9), the Chicks came riding back into Nashville, well into the headlining “Fly” tour they started June 1 in Winnipeg. With a concert at the Gaylord Entertainment Center that lasted nearly two hours, they served notice that they’re ready to take charge of the country music world. Anyone who doubts the Chicks’ staying power had better get out of Dodge.

There has been a “Dixie Chicks” for 11 years, but the group as it’s constituted now — vocalist Natalie Maines and musical sisters Emily Robison and Martie Seidel — has released only two albums, in 1998 and 1999, on Monument Records. They made both count, stacking them with songs varied in style and first-rate in quality. In concert, they played all but one song from the new collection, Fly, and sampled generously from their first, Wide Open Spaces. Only Sheryl Crow’s “Strong Enough,” performed during an acoustic segment, and a “Cotton-Eyed Joe”/”Dixie Chicken” medley with opening act Ricky Skaggs, came from outside their albums.

Proclaiming themselves “ready to run ” in the opening number, and heading for “wide open spaces” by the closer, the Texas-bred trio entertained with expansive, self-aware panache. The concert began with a zippered fly opening from ceiling to floor. The curtain fell away to reveal the trio on a crescent-shaped riser surrounding their black-clad band. The elaborate props and crowd-baiting theatrics came during intermission, however, not during the concert itself. The Chicks relied on solid musicianship to connect with their audience. None of the members ever asked, “Are y’all having a good time?” or encouraged the capacity crowd to “Put your hands together.” There was no need to. The crowd seemed to know the words to all the songs — they were especially active on “Cowboy Take Me Away” — and they cheered wildly for the opening chords of virtually every selection.

Like girls next door, the Chicks shared slide images of their early years, making it easy for their audience — predominantly young and female — to identify with them. A picture of Maines, her front teeth displayed prominently, prompted Seidel to ask, “How much wood could you chuck?” Other photos brought comments about “mall bangs,” big glasses and early Madonna — the kind of stuff that probably gets discussed at slumber parties.

The slide show was only a temporary diversion from the matter at hand, however, which had to do with music. The group handled with aplomb country shuffles such as “Hello Mr. Heartache” and “Tonight the Heartache’s on Me.” Maines let her voice move and break in fine honky-tonk style on “Don’t Waste Your Heart.” The raucous “Sin Wagon,” the cover of Bonnie Raitt’s bluesy “Give It Up or Let Me Go” and the heartbreak power ballad “Cold Day in July” connected with their audience, which stood through most of the presentation. Seidel’s fiddle and Robison’s banjo and Dobro colored the songs and recalled the group’s earlier incarnation as a more bluegrass-oriented group.

For “Goodbye Earl,” one of two encores, the Chicks left the stage. Maines appeared on the floor at the back of the arena, while Robison and Seidel went to the upper balconies on opposite sides of the hall. The ploy, and the Dennis Franz-graced video projected on three screens, seemed to drive the faithful into a frenzy.

When she spoke to the Nashville crowd at the outset, Maines recalled that the Dixie Chicks had played the arena once before, as opening act for Tim McGraw. She wondered then if the group would ever be able to sell out the large hall. Now they’ve done that, and it’s easy to imagine that they will do the same thing when they ride into town again, their badges shining.