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Music Friday: Happy Birthday, Dixie Chicks!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Dixie Chicks

This week, we celebrate the birthdays of two of the three members of the country group the Dixie Chicks. Martie Maguire was born on October 12, 1969, and Natalie Maines was born on October 14, 1974. The group's third member is Maguire's sister, Emily Strayer, who was known as Emily Robison when the group was at its peak.

The sisters founded the Dixie Chicks in Dallas in 1989; they were instrumentalists and backup vocalists, with lead vocal duties shared by Laura Lynch and Robin Lynn Macy. With that lineup, the Dixie Chicks had a more traditional sound, strongly influenced by bluegrass. They recorded three albums for a small independent label. Macy left the group after their second album, unhappy that the band's sound was moving away from bluegrass and toward a more modern pop-influenced country style.

The band had a strong following in Texas, and was beginning to get some attention in Nashville, but the major labels weren't convinced that an all-female band would sell, and Lynch was perceived as the group's weak link. In 1995, the Dixie Chicks signed with Sony, and Maines replaced Lynch as the group's singer.

Maines brought more rock and blues influences to the band, and the Dixie Chicks moved squarely into the mainstream of contemporary country. The new sound, combined with the stronger marketing push they got from being on a major label, worked. Between 1997 and 2002, the Dixie Chicks released three albums—Wide Open Spaces (streaming | CD), Fly (streaming | CD), and Home (streaming | CD). All three reached #1 on the country charts, and all three won the Grammy Award for best country album of the year. The band placed more than a dozen singles in the top ten of the country charts, and a few even crossed over to pop success.

Then the controversy hit.

In March 2003, the Dixie Chicks were performing in London when Maines said to the audience, "We're on the good side with y'all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas." American country fans were outraged, and country radio stopped playing their music. Their single at the time, "Travelin' Soldier"—a tearjerker about a soldier killed in Vietnam—dropped from #1 to off the chart entirely in two weeks.

The Dixie Chicks went ahead with their planned US tour, and ticket sales were reasonably strong. But the band's members, especially Maines, were receiving death threats; those threats were convincing enough in Dallas that the band was given a police escort from the stadium directly to the airport. A Colorado radio station fired two of its DJs for playing Dixie Chicks songs, and Maines got into a very public feud with conservative country singer, and enthusiastic flag-waving patriot, Toby Keith.

It was 2006 before the Dixie Chicks released their next album, Taking the Long Way (streaming | CD); it was preceded by the release of the first single, which made clear that the group was not withdrawing from the controversy. The song was a defiant statement of non-apology called "Not Ready to Make Nice." Fans didn't seem to mind; Taking the Long Way topped both the pop and country album charts, and "Not Ready to Make Nice" was the group's biggest success ever on the pop charts, climbing to #4. The music industry as a whole seemed happy to have the group back; the new album not only won (again) the Best Country Album Grammy, but also took the Album of the Year award. But country radio was not ready to forgive, and "Not Ready to Make Nice" barely scraped into the country top 40.

In 2006, the documentary Shut Up and Sing was released, following the group's members through the three years since the controversy began. For the next decade, the Dixie Chicks were mostly on hiatus, though they did reunite for short tours in 2010 and 2013, and made a guest appearance on Steve Martin's bluegrass album Rare Bird Alert in 2011.

Sisters Maguire and Robison have released two albums as Court Yard Hounds (streaming | CD); they move closer to the the traditional country and bluegrass sound of the original Dixie Chicks lineup. Maines's solo album, Mother (streaming | CD), moved in the other direction, toward rock and blues.

In 2016, there were signs that the Dixie Chicks were ready for a full-scale return. They made a world tour, and they performed with Beyonce at that year's Country Music Association Awards. There were reports this summer, as yet unconfirmed, that the Dixie Chicks were back in the studio, recording what would be their first new album in more than a decade.