Taking The Long Way
Open Wide Records, 2006
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/05/2006
On some level, most crises can be reduced to a test of character. This is especially true when the stakes include one's career and personal integrity. The Dixie Chicks seem to attract these tests like some people attract mosquitoes.
They started out modestly enough, as a sweet-voiced trio reconstituted from the ashes of an ill-fated quartet, with second-generation country talent Natalie Maines (her father is noted steel guitarist Lloyd Maines) drafted into the group by founding members (and sisters) Emily Robison and Martie Maguire. Their 1998 debut Wide Open Spaces showed some sass but mostly stuck with professional songwriters working the tried-and-true Nashville template. In 1999's Fly they pushed their music in a pop direction and aroused the passions of country's old guard with "Goodbye Earl," a song that dared to make delicious fun out of a battered wife's revenge. Then they demanded that Sony rewrite their contract and, in a tribute to their market value, succeeded. At that point -- a point when some might have turned back for safer territory -- they decided their next album would feature acoustic bluegrass (2002's Home), with a Fleetwood Mac cover as the lead single ("Landslide").
The big turning point, though -- the event they still refer to as "The Incident" -- came when the Chicks were in England on tour on the eve of the Iraq war, in March 2003. Caught up in the moment, Maines told the restless, predominantly anti-war crowd, "Just so you know, we're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas."
Maines' words went against every flag-waving conservative redneck stereotype of the country fan and the country band, and the crowd that night loved it. As far as the country music establishment back home went, though, the Chicks might was well have donned plutonium earrings; they became, virtually overnight, radioactive. As newly-minted red-state pariahs, they were banned from hundreds of country radio stations, ridiculed by industry insiders, criticized publicly by peers, even subjected to death threats.
After issuing (and quickly retracting) a half-hearted apology, the Chicks seemed to refocus and fully appreciate what they were being pressured to apologize for -- speaking their minds, fearlessly, just as America's founding fathers intended. Their stance ever since has been simple and clear -- we have nothing to apologize for.
After taking two years off and having a remarkable number of babies (they are now parents to seven between them), the Chicks could have chosen to re-emerge with a "soft landing" strategy. By way of example, in the early 90s Garth Brooks raised country music eyebrows first by recording a Billy Joel cover ("Shameless") and then by issuing a single preaching tolerance for all races, religions and sexual orientations ("We Shall Be Free"). While he stuck by his views when pressed in interviews, he tended to downplay their significance, and his next album prominently featured "American Honky-Tonk Bar Association," a welfare-bashing sop to the red-state faithful. In time, all was forgiven.
The Chicks, on the other hand, seem to have decided to take Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as their role models, and come out with guns blazing. This is an album not just bound but designed to drive Nashville crazy, an in-your-face statement of musical, artistic and personal independence from the deeply conservative country community. It's a musically diverse, genreless album full of songs that directly address the circumstances the Chicks have lived through these past three years.
The centerpiece of the album, and first single, is basically a giant middle finger aimed at the trio's critics: "I'm not ready to make nice / I'm not ready to back down / I'm still mad as hell and / I don't have time to go round and round and round / It's too late to make it right / I probably wouldn't if I could / 'Cause I'm mad as hell / Can't bring myself to do what it is you think I should." And so on. "Not Ready To Make Nice" is the group's formal declaration of independence, and it is a powerhouse of a song, building steadily to a string-fueled crescendo as Maines wails out her indignation.
Lead-off cuts "Taking The Long Way" and "The Easy Silence" share the same sense of raw, almost voyeuristic revelation of life inside the Chicks' skin these past three years. Rather than coming off as navel-gazing or self-serving, though, they are frank and subtle, penetrating and perceptive. This, in fact, is the biggest difference between Taking The Long Way and previous Dixie Chicks albums -- this time, it's an intensely personal statement by a trio of artists with a lot on their minds. In a break from past practice, the Chicks wrote every single song here, drawing on a battery of A-list co-writers (chief among them Semisonic's Dan Wilson and the Jayhawks' Gary Louris) to help them.
Rick Rubin's clean, understated production and the relative dearth of instrumental flash only further underscore the power of the songs themselves here. There are country touches -- certainly, Emily Robison's stellar banjo work is all over this album, and Maines' daddy Lloyd again contributes slide guitar -- but it's no mere oversight that Martie Maguire is listed as playing violin this time around rather than "fiddle." The presence of supporting players like Wilson, Louris, and Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench still further distances this album from the group's country roots.
From the stripped-down knockout "Lullaby" to the screw-'em-all country-metal rampage "Lubbock Or Leave It," the Chicks are completely, gloriously unleashed here, not just outside the box, but dancing on top of it. The Neil Finn collaboration "Silent House" is soaring piano-pop with a side of banjo. "I Like It" -- another Wilson co-write -- is an ecstatic Motown homage that works stunningly well. And closer "I Hope," written with Keb' Mo', is a rich, stirring gospel blues that puts the trio's secret weapon -- gorgeous multi-part harmonies -- to better use than a posse of Nashville song doctors could ever hope to. Remarkably, none of these collaborations feel forced or artificial, and -- with the exception of the very Sheryl Crow-ish co-write with, well, Sheryl Crow -- every song feels like it's 100% Chicks.
Big wins often require big risks. In this case, the last laugh definitely goes to the three ladies on the cover of this album. The defiant Taking The Long Way opened at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, selling well over a half million copies in its first week on the street and leading the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson to call Maines, Maguire and Robison "by some measures the most successful female group in history." This latest test of character for the Dixie Chicks seems to have earned them the same grade from the music-buying public as from this reviewer.