These Chicks Ain’t Whistlin’ Dixie

Dumb blond jokes are absolutely out of the question and if you’re a firm believer in the cliche’ that says “three’s a crowd,” think twice. Sultry songstress Natalie Maines and the phenomenally talented Erwin sisters, Martie and Emily, have come together full circle, trio style, to give the music world something to scream about. Ironically, the Dixie Chicks keep screaming back with one success story after another.

Simply point your finger in their faces and say, “You gals are a little too wild and radical for country music — just can’t quite figure ya out!” Great chances are they’ll point right back and say, “Yes siree, we’ve got us another fan.” Of course, the Chicks, who very well could be described as country’s Spice Girls, except with a sturdier rack, aren’t even close to being that vain. But continuing this routine of reeling in fan after fan after fan has been ’happening heaven’ since they first debuted on a Dallas, Texas street corner in 1989.

Such a pace plus an almost mind-bending, three-part talent chemistry has landed the Chicks their first No. 1 single with “There’s Your Trouble,” a top-selling and gold certified debut album for Wide Open Spaces, two CMA nominations for both Horizon Award and Group of the Year, and a fan base that couldn’t be any more booming. True — their energy on stage is electrifying; they have tattoos on their feet; have been known to do some drama dressing from time to time; and can even play up on the sassy sister attitude, but when it comes to bridging all the gaps in country music history from early traditional origins to today’s lava lamp-lit funk-twang, the Dixie Chicks are writing the book. What’s so very cool is that folks across the world are reading it devotedly.

“I don’t know,” says lead vocal chick Natalie. “I think it’s because the album has something to offer everyone — as far as musical styles, the instruments that are on it and the song choices. We get a lot of people who come up and say, ’We don’t ever listen to country music, but I love ya’ll.’ We relate to that, I do especially, because I didn’t listen to a whole lot of country. I was a little rebellious against it when I was younger. But that natural twang is just in me,” she laughs. “I think it’s just the diversity of the album and that was a goal that we set for ourselves. We wanted every song to be different and we wanted a lot of different people to relate to it in their own way.

“And we do have a direct line to our fans, not just only through the shows, but through our e-mail address,” Emily adds. “We get hundreds and hundreds of e-mails a week and we’re trying to read them all, which is a hard enough task. But they let us know how much they appreciate just the fact that we’re doing something that’s different. We’re not following somebody else’s sound. They can’t quite put their finger on it, which we like. We don’t like to categorize what we do because we like to not be able to be compared to anybody. I think they like the fact that we play our instruments. They’ve figured out that we’re real and not just something that’s been put together by Nashville. It took us nine years to get to this point. And even though since the album has been released and wonderful things have happened, it’s still taken a long time up until now.”

Before now, when the question was asked “Why did the chicks cross the road?” the answer could have easily been “Just to get to play another gig.” Today, while in the midst of creating one of the biggest booms country music, their answer is still “Just to get to play another gig.” Martie (short do) has played violin since the age of five and has been recognized in several national fiddle competitions. Emily (long do sis) has been playing various instruments professionally since the age of 12. Natalie (Spice Diva), a Lubbock, Texas native and daughter of world renowned steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, is vocally carrying the legacy of West Texas music into the next generation. Combine the Erwins’ impeccable harmony blend and amazing musicianship with Berkeley School of Music scholarship honoree Natalie and its easy to see just how confusing it is to put a finer on what the Chicks are about.

In addition to the trio of talent, its the guts-n-glory leap the Chicks continue to take that truly make them excited with what they’re doing. While some may call them different, they call it being happy.

“I think people in Nashville especially are ready for new blood,” Martie explains, “and I think they felt like things we’re getting kinda stagnant the way they were. It was a relief to us that our label was so into us playing on the record and doing our own sound and not just doing the same ole-same ole on the album.

“And when you think about it,” adds Natalie, “it’s the people who do something new that have the longevity. Shania Twain was the first Shania Twain and anybody who’s tried to follow isn’t quite Shania Twain or Garth Brooks or George Strait. So we definitely wanted to be the leader in this trio thing. Coming in later I think there are just more obstacles to overcome because of being compared.”

The Dixie Chicks so far don’t have the comparison blues to sing about. No other act has, is and most likely will not come close. But like many country artists throughout history, if it seems like the Chicks are bending the standard rules a bit in what’s often a fenced-in format, they’d be the first to confess. In fact, they’ll perhaps admit to having already busted through a few locked gates. If they keep happy and the fans keep coming back for more, mission accomplished. Break a few rules?

“Oh yeah!” exclaims Emily, who’s now engaged to new Lucky Dog Records artist Charlie Robison.

“I feel like we’re just being ourselves and maybe that’s what people are connecting to,” Natalie explains. “I look at it like I just get to live this life once and if I can’t live it being myself then that’s kind of a shame. I mean I get myself in trouble sometimes, but it’s worth it, because I’m not going to be something that I’m not. And I think that’s one thing that people our age can relate as well.”

“We always say that our biggest goal is longevity,” admits Martie. “It’s the journey and the little things that keep you going. Because we’re working so hard right now, we’re on the road constantly and have maybe a couple days off a month. So when you hear about CMA nominations or going gold and things like that, it just makes that hard road life so worth it.”

Soaking up just a few of the perks that come along with success has also been worth it for the Chicks, who for years roughed it as artists traveling across the country playing one festival, fair and rodeo after another. While Natalie recently purchased a Nashville home, Emily bought a long overdue mattress and Martie is just happy traveling in a real tour bus.

“I did buy a 2,500 dollar mattress,” nods Emily. “To me spending that much on a mattress is unimaginable. The funny thing is that I won’t spend any time at home to enjoy it.”

“We haven’t gotten a raise in a year and a half,” quips Natalie. “My house is way beyond my means, but I’m taking my manager’s word for it that I’ll be able to pay for it. I can’t believe the bank is giving me the money,” she laughs.

“We really haven’t seen any perks, because once you get to this level, you have to have so many more people on the road to take care of things. You can’t take care of everything yourself. I used to be the road manager, and it just doesn’t work when you’re so busy. Then you gotta have a bus because you gotta make those long drives and everything. So we’re waiting for the day when we can give ourselves a little raise. It’s just the little things,” she continues. “It’s having people on the road to help you out. We used to travel around in an RV, so just having the bus is still great for us, and definitely the nominations are really cool. Because it’s other people in the industry who are saying ’Hey, we’re taking notice of what you’re doing.’

“What I was most impressed with is how many artists who may or may not have even met us before sent us flowers or personal handwritten notes,” says Natalie of the Chicks’ recent CMA nods.

“One was Steve Wariner,” says Martie. “I think we met him years and years ago and he took the time to write this letter of encouragement and congratulations. I just like that about country music. I like it that the artists are so supportive of each other. And being new on the block, you need that reassurance from the other artists because they’re your peers and you want to be respected by your peers more than anything. So that’s been really neat.”

Another “neat” to hit the Chicks’ path recently is the release of their latest video for the title track of their Monument debut disc, “Wide Open Spaces.” The clip was shot in the Rockies, site of the recent Michael Martin Murphy hosted West Fest, an annual event at which the Chicks have performed for the past four years.

“Well it was raining that day, so we were afraid it was a bad omen,” Martie admits. “But it actually turned out great and when we first saw the first cut of it I actually got tears in my eyes just watching it, because I really feel like it sums up where we’ve been and where we’re going. I think that’s what we’re most proud of.

“And hopefully, it will cast a little light on that we are a little goofy and we like to cut up and have a good time on the road,” Emily adds.

“Someone said that with every video,” Natalie explains, “a little bit more of our personalities are coming out. Like a lot of times people think that Emily is the nice shy one and in this video you see that she’s stranger than any of us,” she laughs.

“I’m glad it took place at West Fest,” Martie says, “because Michael Martin Murphey used to book us when we were doing our little independent albums and he would let us play his festivals in between someone like Collin Raye and another huge act. He really had a lot of faith in us. That’s what’s really great about that festival is that it takes people from all genres of country and puts them all together — whether it be a cowboy poet or straight-ahead top 40 country, or someone a little bit left of center like us or someone with a little bit more bluegrass flavored stuff. This was the first year we got to be there as a major label act.”

Besides hit records, gold albums, award nominations, tattoos (part of a pact the girls made for every No. 1 single, gold or platinum album they earned) and Pick Hit videos on CMT, what else are the Chicks blessed with for being on such a roll of success? Answer: Very interesting e-mail messages and attachments.

“There are scary ones; there are funny ones and there are cute ones from kids and lots of marriage proposals,” Natalie tells.

“Natalie gets the most marriage proposals,” adds Emily, “and the men like to send naked pictures of themselves.”

Fortunately though, instead of fearing the future, the Dixie Chicks are looking forward to what tomorrow will hold.

“I don’t have any fear,” explains Natalie, “not because I believe that we’ll be around forever or anything. I just believe you can’t worry about stuff like that. We make the music that we want to make and we hope the public accepts it and we’re very grateful if they do, but we can’t base our entire careers off of making other people happy. So I don’t worry about stuff like that. They’re either gonna like it or they’re not. If they don’t like it, then I believe that it means that it’s time to just let it be and that’s obviously the path that’s been chosen for us. If you spend so much time worrying about it, I think it taints the well of what you’re trying to do. If you add in worry and uneasiness about doing the right thing, then that automatically is opposite of who we are and what we do.

“I was telling somebody yesterday that I felt very lucky to be in this position and they said ’Well, luck to me means when preparedness and opportunity meet.’ So I think we feel prepared for what’s about to happen. We just had our little meeting with our producers about songs for the next album and we’re not really recording full time until January. It’s just something that we can be really proud of and we’re not stressing about the sophomore album.”

Their new “little chick feet tattoos” will hopefully serve as momentos of both everything they’ve accomplished as well as those to feats to come.

“I had mentioned this, but I didn’t think they’d get one,” admits Natalie about getting a tattoo for every No. one single or gold and platinum album. “I already had one, but we were trying to think of some sort of pact we could make with each other, and I just mentioned ’Let’s just get a tatoo for every No. 1 or gold or platinum album. They said yes and I couldn’t believe it. So I made them stick with it and we started telling everyone and I knew they couldn’t turn back. Then they kept labeling me as the veteran who was going to comfort them through it and I got mine seven years ago. I was scared myself and I was thinking who was going to comfort me through it? But it didn’t hurt.

“I think it’s great to document what’s happening,” adds Martie, “to us right now because we will never be a new act again. So the first gold, the first No. 1 and all those things are going to be so sentimental to us. Just to have a marking on our body to remember all of that when we’re old and gray is just kinda neat.

“But they will probably have sagged down below our foot by then,” concludes Emily.