For several years, fans have wondered when the long-dormant Dixie Chicks would reemerge from their holding pen. But now the question may be: Who let the dogs out?
That would be Court Yard Hounds, a side project formed by sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison. These two have been the mainstays of the Chicks since they formed that band more than two decades ago, but they've never taken on frontwoman roles before now. Even in the band's pre-Natalie Maines days, they stuck to background vocals in support of a couple of other lead singers. But for the Hounds' self-titled debut, which comes out in May, Robison in particular steps up to the microphone and into the spotlight.
"It was nice to discover that we had this other side to us that came pretty easily," says Robison. "And every day our confidence grew. Having each other is a comfort and a lot of security. So it doesn't feel as strange as I thought it was going to feel at this point. Of course, Martie and I, because we're sisters, can finish each other's sentences. And we're so alike in our sensibilities that I think it made it very easy to make this album. The harmony aspect is always there, and singing together has always been a natural thing. But," she adds, as a newly minted lead vocalist, "having to learn a new craft, almost, was a little bit of a daunting task."
Even though they started recording the album early last summer in Maguire's home studio, the existence of a Chicks' offshoot was a well-kept secret until a few weeks ago.
"We deliberately kept it under the radar, just for the freedom to not be putting out fires while we were trying to be in the creative process," Robison says. And by "fires," she mostly means Chicks breakup rumors.
"When you're doing something like this that's a step away from a different band, the rumor mills start, and it just becomes something other than it's supposed to be about, which is music," she says. "So, yeah, it was conscious on our part to just do it without all that distraction. And until you have the music and you can play it for people, it's uncomfortable and intimidating explaining what you're trying to do. It was important for us to get the music done first so that we had that confidence."
The Dixie Chicks were last seen triumphing at the Grammys in early 2007, where they swept album, record and song of the year for 2006's Taking the Long Way and its flagship single, "Not Ready to Make Nice." A hiatus was in store, with every expectation that there'd be another album and tour two or certainly three years down the line. But by mid-2009, it became clear that there were no prospects for a new Chicks project in sight, while Robison and Maguire still found themselves not ready to make retirement plans.
Maines "doesn't want to be out there making music right now and going through the whole process," says Robison. "But we saw her over New Year's, and she said 'When am I gonna hear the music?' I think it's hard for people to understand. I've had people come up and go 'Well, you don't need her anyway!' I'm like, that's not what this is about! People want to take sides or pick teams, whether it's in my divorce or the band, like, 'Oh, you'll show 'em!'"
She laughs, adding, "That's not my motivation here. This just frees us up, and it takes a lot of pressure off her, too. If Natalie doesn't want to be doing Dixie Chicks right now, then great, we'll go do this. And she does give us her blessing. Not that we have to have it, but of course it's nice that she's very supportive."
The Chicks didn't break up, but Robison and her singer-songwriter husband, Charlie Robison, finalized their divorce in 2008. When she got seriously underway in her songwriting, that gave her plenty of emotional material to work with. A few of the songs on Court Yard Hounds are 100 percent true to her own recent experiences (including the opening "Skyline"), a few are pure conjecture (the father/son story "Ain't No Son") or based on the lives of friends ("Fear of Wasted Time"). Others fall somewhere in between.
Robison describes the material as about 70 percent autobiographical but adds that, for the most part, "I'm not going to get specific" about which parts are which. "Keep 'em guessing," she demurs. "It's too much work to sit there and go 'Well, that line is just somebody else.' But," she adds with a laugh, "I'm sure my ex is gonna have to weed through all that."
Robison and Maguire have both contributed to the Chicks' songwriting over the years. "You Were Mine," a tune about their parents' divorce, was the only original song on the band's breakthrough album, Wide Open Spaces, and became a No. 1 hit in 1998. By the time of Taking the Long Way, band members were contributing to the writing of all the Chicks' songs. So when Robison decided to start writing during this extended hiatus, it was with the intent of bringing in ideas that Maines would ultimately end up singing on the next record.
"We didn't always write our songs, so if you look back at our early stuff and where we evolved to when we got to Taking the Long Way, we had started having more of our own voice and our own story, and that was a great progression, and it took a while to get there. But because they were such personal songs, I felt like they weren't necessarily Chicks songs," Robison says. That also scotched the idea that she would farm them out to other acts.
"I really credit my co-writer, Martin Strayer [who also plays acoustic guitar on the record], for egging me on," she says. "As we did demos, I'd be like, 'We should get this person in to sing this demo,' back when I thought we were going to be pitching it. He would say, 'Why would you do that? You can sing it. You can do it.' It was nice to have a cheerleader. Really, it took me a year and a-half or two years to find out how I was going to sing these demos, practicing over and over again. Garage Band [a digital recording program for the computer] was my friend as I would edit things together and figure out what worked and what didn't work."
When they got around to recording the album in a couple of spurts last year, it went so quickly that the title of the closing song, "Fear of Wasted Time," may have applied to the project.
"It was amazingly quick for how long Chicks records usually take," Maguire says. "But the songs were already there." And it seemed like a given by the time they started in earnest that Emily would be fronting this material, not Martie. "It's her baggage," Maguire jokes.
"Mostly my baggage," chimes in Robison, "but Martie sang and wrote a song about maybe co-baggage."
"Emily's singing lead on everything except 'Gracefully,' which I wrote," Maguire confirms. "And she just rose to the occasion. I don't really enjoy singing lead. I was happy to sing that song, and maybe I'll grow to want to sing more lead. But I love Emily's voice, and they were her story anyway."
Four of the 12 tracks were sent to radio as a music sampler and are streaming to the general public at the Court Yard Hound's official Web site. The breeziest of these, literally and figuratively, is "Coast," which is about neither the East nor West but the coast in their home state.
"It's a phenomenon in south Texas," Robison says. "'Where you going?' 'I'm going to the coast.' That one's not about me, it's about somebody else, but I do spend some time down there. People from Austin and San Antonio go to Port A [Port Aransas] or Rockport, and it's just a different world with a little slower pace, where everyone goes fishing."
On the opposite end of the relaxation scale is the angry "Ain't No Son." This song's bluegrassy intro is from the point of view of a disenfranchised young man. The rest of the song, as it shifts into rocker mode, describes the narrow viewpoint of his angry father. The lyrics aren't specific about the exact points of family contention, but Robison had a story in mind.
"I turned the TV on, and it was A&E or one of those documentary kind of shows about these poor teenage kids who are devastated that their parents won't let 'em stay in the house because they found out they were gay," she explains. The lines, 'You ain't no son to me/Eight pound baby boy I bounced on my knee' were around from the very beginning. That idea, how can you have kids and love them so much and one day decide not to -- it just boggled my mind."
Among the songs fans haven't heard streaming yet, one sure-to-be-favorite is "See You in the Spring," a witty duet with the Wallflowers' Jakob Dylan. He plays the part of a Chicagoan who's in love with a Texas girl but can't take the heat. Robison's part of this vocal exchange, of course, is all in favor of global -- or at least local -- warming.
"Texas summers are just brutal," Robison notes. "Martie's in-laws come over from Ireland, and you see them sweating all the time, and the idea that a relationship wouldn't work because of geographical location I thought was an interesting premise for a song. I just know that I could never spend a winter in Chicago or some place like that. I'm just not a cold weather person. Jakob Dylan did a great job on the duet. We wanted to find a male voice that could blend and have the right personality for a song like that, and we've always been a fan of his. It's nice when you can make a phone call and the answer is just yes."
"April's Love" is one of the record's more downbeat ballads, and the sisters agree it was the breakthrough when it came to determining whether this would be a real album or just a private experiment.
"It was the first time I heard us having our own sound," says Maguire. "Even though I wasn't on the demo, I could hear where I wanted to play fiddle or harmonize. But it stood alone even without me. I felt that could be a sound we could make, that kind of acoustic, singer-songwriter-y, Alison Krauss thing." Maguire also likens her sister's writing and performing style to Shawn Colvin's. Other listeners may listen to the material and think of Sheryl Crow, who Robison admits provided the inspiration for the funny, fast-talking "Then Again."
How will Chicks fans take to the Hounds? Anyone who enjoyed the last two DC albums, Home and Taking the Long Way, will most likely cotton to this as a follow-up, though some might miss the more overt twang of earlier efforts like Fly.
"Obviously we're two-thirds of the band, so it's going to be a little bit of a reflection of where we've been," says Maguire. "I think because we're the only remaining founding members, it has to be at least a branch of the story that's connected. And we have had so many different incarnations and style changes and everything. But I don't think we have to try and be anything in the past. It's just a matter of just doing what we do and to hell with the rest."
As for the seemingly never-ending pause the Chicks are on right now:
"What I've learned and all of us have learned is: You can't force art, and there's no way you could force somebody to do something that they didn't want to do in this line of work," says Maguire. "I really had a lot of fear about when we were going to do this again. Then it just hit me on one of the days that Court Yard Hounds were recording: Natalie's not just wanting to take this break. She actually is a genius, and when the Dixie Chicks do reemerge, it's going to be so amazing. I mean, if you think about 12 years of us together doing this and the music and the controversy and everything we went through, we really probably needed a break. The last record took so much out of us, and we said so much we felt. Now, with a little perspective, I feel this is exactly what needed to happen. Emily and I come from just a different place, and we do need the constant creative outlet, and this is providing that.
"And I think people were a little sick of the Dixie Chicks after a while, you know. We were so in the media, media, media and then the Grammys, Grammys, Grammys. Where do you go from there? I feel like finally at least we personally have a little perspective on our career. We'll know what to do next. But you've got to wait for it to come. It's life, it's a career, and it's been long and good, and I don't see it ending anytime before I'm just too old to do it."
One benefit of going out on their own with a new project is the ability to release an album that can be received as music and not a statement. It's hard to separate Taking the Long Way as a piece of song craft from how the tunes were taken as obliquely or overtly commenting on the Chicks' situation after their 2003 war with country radio. After Maines infuriated much of the mainstream country world with her anti-war, anti-Bush statement on a London stage, it was clear the trio would never be seen as "just" musicians again. But as a duo, Maguire and Robison have that chance.
"It did become about the story," sighs Robison. "Everything was so weighted, whether it was with politics or 'What's Natalie gonna say next?' or this or that. It was so not about 'What music are they coming out with next?' Every time I'd key into the Internet, if I would catch a glimpse of our name, I'd cringe before I'd click on it because I'd be like" -- she draws in a deep breath -- "'Oh, what's it going to say?' It did become about the sensational story of whatever it was for the day. I don't think that tends to be good for the psyche."
When it comes time for the Chicks to rise again, Court Yard Hounds won't necessarily be going away. "We'll figure out how to marry the two," Robison says. "When we do regroup, it'll be because it's going to be so much fun and so awesome and everyone wants to be there. But right now, you just have to go with what you know is happening. And we're excited about this. We kind of created this monster with the Chicks, with touring expectations and how much it costs to walk out the door and put on a Chicks show. It's nice and freeing to be able to be a bit more mobile and do something without that monkey on your back."
Tour plans haven't been announced yet, but the group's public live debut is set for the South by Southwest Festival in Austin in March. "We're terrified a little bit of getting back on the road because it's been so great to have three and a-half years of not having a 'job.' It's been a total luxury to be with our kids." (Robison and Maguire each have three children. Maines has two.) We're about to get really, really busy."
Robison is looking to reclaim the lead-singer confidence on stage that she found in the studio. "I'm so terrified of that," she confesses. "But we have a killer band, and that's a huge confidence I have. When we would sit in the studio and hear these guys play, I was like, "Yeah. Let's do it! It's very infectious, so that's what I hope takes over, because it's definitely not going to be the 'here I come, hear me roar,' stage banter," Robison laughs.
"Oh, it's going to take five concerts, and then you are gonna be fine," Maguire says to her sister. "We still have each other, too, and I have no fear of you being the frontwoman at all."
"I'm starting to have anxiety dreams," Robison admits. "My dream the other night was that I was backstage at some club and someone goes, 'You're on!' Then I realized it was a comedy club, and I was expected to go do a one-woman routine. I'm like, 'But I'm not funny! I don't have any jokes!' I had to run to the bathroom and write all these lame jokes. It doesn't take too long to figure out that one when you wake up."
"You know," Maguire interrupts, "Cher told me that it was going to be the best year ever."
"That's Martie's personal psychic," explains Robison, chuckling.
"I was concerned about being 40," Maguire says, "and for my 40th birthday my wish was to go see Cher, and I got to meet her. She took me into the hallway and told me she knew -- felt it -- that this was going to be the best year. So I believe it. I feel like I'm in great hands!"