Way back when, early in the reign of George W. Bush (kind of miss him now, don’t we?), musical country trio The Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks) did the unthinkable. Not only did they speak their minds about Bush’s presidency, but they also expressed their displeasure that, like them, he was also a Texan.
The reaction was swift and unnecessarily merciless. Airplay and record sales came to a screeching halt. But not being ones to sit idle, Natalie Maines, Emily Robison, and Martie Maguire stood tall and came back with 2006’s Grammy-winning Taking the Long Way Home. Following that, the women worked separately on some side projects. Now, thankfully, they’ve reunited for the amazing new record Gaslighter (Columbia/Sony Music). The album contains everything you love about The Chicks, including breathtaking vocal solos and harmonies that expand their style into modern pop territory. They also chose to include a few political statements, which they were kind enough to discuss during their recent chat with OutSmart.
Gregg Shapiro: Your previous album, Taking the Long Way Home, was released in 2006. In the interim, Natalie had a 2013 solo album, and Emily and Natalie had a couple of albums in 2010 and 2013. Why was now the right time for The Chicks to reunite and release a new album?
Emily: I think the 2016 tour was really fun. It was a great reconnection with our fan base. At the same time, we were able to do the live album that Sony took as one of the last of our two albums for the label. So the prospect of having one more studio album to do was a motivator to [then become] free agents. But we were also having a lot of fun. If we were going to tour again, we definitely wanted to have some new music.
“Tights on My Boat,” as well as the title track and “Hope It’s Something Good” sound like 21st-century updates to the classic country cheatin’ song. How cathartic is it to create and perform these types of songs?
Martie: [Laughs] Well, we don’t get to perform them yet, really. The tour was supposed to start June 6, and that’s not going to happen for a while. We have heard a lot of people calling it a great divorce album. I don’t think we think of it that way. We pull from all of our experiences, and from our songwriters’ experiences, [which gives] those songs a common thread.
Incorporated into all of the seriousness on the album is a display of The Chicks’ sense of humor in the song “Texas Man.” Is it important to you, as performers and songwriters, to include that kind of thing?
Natalie: Yeah. I feel like there’s humor in “Gaslighter,” there’s humor in “Sleep At Night,” there’s humor in “Tights On My Boat.” There’s humor in a lot of our songs. I think, a lot of times, humor can make a jagged pill easier to swallow, right? [Laughs] We do like to stay light, even when it gets really heavy.
Emily: I’m not sure if we’re conscious of it. But on certain days we’d go, “Let’s do something fun today, or something a little bit less than what we’ve already been talking about.”
“Texas Man” is one of four songs on Gaslighter co-written by gay singer/songwriter Justin Tranter. In recent years, a growing number of queer female country and Americana artists such as Brandy Clark, Jamie Wyatt, Brandi Carlile, H.C. McEntire, and others have become more visible. What do you think about that?
Martie: I think it’s the way the world hopefully is changing to become more accepting. Country has a reputation of being very exclusive. I can only think of two gay artists from when we were coming up in the ranks. That was Ty Herndon and Chely Wright. Hanging out with them, I definitely got the sense that they always felt kind of on the outside. They were amazing artists, and there was no reason why they shouldn’t be played just as much. So we’re just hoping that the world is getting a clue. Everybody is equal.
Natalie: When we first met Ty and Chely, weren’t they still in the closet? They weren’t allowed to be out then.
Emily: I think other people and other artists who knew them knew.
Natalie: I’m happy that they can come out now, in an industry where they had to be closeted just 10 years ago. That’s very cool.
“Julianna Calm Down” is one of my favorite songs on the album, with the lines about putting on your best shoes and showing off your best moves. It made me wonder what it would mean to The Chicks to have one of the queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race perform “Julianna Calm Down” or another song from the new album?
Natalie: [Laughs] That would be great! I know there’s been a couple of drag revues called Chicks With Dicks. [All laugh] Natalie: But we never got to see one.
Texas has been hit particularly hard during the COVID-19 pandemic. With your deep roots there, I’m sure you’re as anxious for the 2020 presidential election as many of us are. What can we do in the meantime?
Emily: Get people to vote! Get as many people to vote as we can.
Natalie: Lobby your officials to get mail-in voting so they can’t scare people away from the polls. I wouldn’t go vote in a pandemic. Luckily, in California we have mail-in voting and I have been doing that for several years. Even though [we call it] mail-in voting, a lot of times I’ll fill it out at home and then go to the polling place to put it in the box.
I do the same thing.
Natalie: I still get to feel a part of it all, but I don’t have to wait in a line. [Laughs] I won’t be doing that this time. I’ll just be mailing it in.
I live in Fort Lauderdale, and Dixie Highway runs right through Broward County. Riviera Beach, in Palm Beach County, renamed a stretch of Old Dixie Highway as President Barack Obama Highway. Following your band’s name change and other such examples, do you think the term Dixie is not long for this earth?
Emily: I think it’s always going to be a place and a time, and people will know it in a historical sense. But I don’t know that we need to celebrate it.
Natalie: I do think that word will disappear. With products and businesses and, yes, even us. Yes, I think it will be part of the past.
This article appears in the August 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.