The Chicks’ New Album Abandons Dixie but Finds Strength in Country

On Gaslighter, the bandupdates its sound but still finds the political in the personal.

By CARL WILSON

The Chicks perform at Qudos Bank Arena on March 29, 2017, in Sydney Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Don Arnold/WireImage/Getty Images.

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“Dump your racist boyfriend.” The video for “March March,” the solitary conventionally political song on the first new album in 14 years by the artists formerly known as the Dixie Chicks, pauses pointedly on a picture of a woman of color in a mask holding that sign, amid its montage of protest actions. Simultaneously, titles flash a long list of names of Black victims of police shootings. The song itself, from this week’s Gaslighteroriginally meant to be released in May, is more grounded in the Women’s Marches against Donald Trump, the March for Our Lives teen movement around school shootings, and Greta Thunberg’s anti–climate change youth protests. The video smartly updates it to take in the recent anti–police wave. But by lingering on that photo, it adds a spin that’s classic Chicks—both relevant and irreverent.

The 2003 backlash against singer Natalie Maines’ acerbic comments about President George W. Bush drove the Chicks off mainstream country radio at a time of post-9/11 patriotic fervor. But before that, their record-setting sales and popularity were built partly on stinging fantasies of revenge on duplicitous dudes, most famously “Goodbye Earl.” It was a trendy subgenre at the turn of the century, before female country artists were shunted to the margins in the wake of both the Chicks’ travails and the rise of “bro country.” Every bit of that history comes to mind in seeing that “Dump Your Boyfriend” message—and while hearing Gaslighter in its bracing whole.

After her Grammy-sweeping, middle finger–raising 2006 retort “Not Ready to Make Nice,” Maines retreated mostly to domestic life, aside from one rock-leaning solo record. Her bandmates, sisters Emily Strayer (banjo) and Martie Maguire (violin), put out two folk-duo albums as the Court Yard Hounds.* The remaining release the trio owed Columbia was planned to consist of covers, until Maines got caught up in a heart-mangling divorce, which gave her songwriting a new impetus. Those new songs bring a post-#MeToo energy to the maneuvers she’s been making all along, forged here with Strayer and Maguire as well as Jack Antonoff—the decade’s most prominent boy-genius helpmeet to outspoken young female songwriters (LordeTaylor SwiftLana Del Rey)—plus a handful of Los Angeles studio-pop designated players.

Meanwhile, in short order, the nation’s piqued awareness of systemic racism has toppled not only historically offensive statues and brands such as Aunt Jemima and the Washington NFL team, but the slavery-fetishizing name of the Chicks’ Nashville peers Lady A, formerly Lady Antebellum. The Chicks always had a more knowingly ironic, perhaps too blithe relationship to their handle, which originated as a saucy twist on the Little Feat song “Dixie Chicken” long before Maines joined them. But the three followed suit last month, finally ridding themselves of their Southern sobriquet and its associations with Blackface and the Lost Cause. (Also, unlike the newfound Lady A, which quickly took the head-slappingly self-contradictory turn of suing the Black blues singer who previously recorded under that name, they went above and beyond their due diligence by reaching out to a 1960s New Zealand band also called the Chicks.)

Very few platinum-level artists have legacies so oversaturated with signification as the rechristened Chicks’. This is the wire Gaslighter walks with surprising poise. Despite its many non-country moves, it still sounds like the same trio—the setting of Maines’ individualistic lead vocals into the sibling harmonies of her partners is unmistakable, and the banjo and fiddle integrate well with Antonoff’s synths, organs, and beats. Maines’ newer Los Angeles base (you can hear a little Haim in songs like the thirsty “Texas Man”) clasps hands with her partners’ Southwestern druthers. Above all, it overcomes the dilemma of how to live down the Chicks’ own legend—by interlocking with the succeeding generation. The last time the Chicks put out a record, pop songs were not bound up in celebrity metanarratives nearly so much as they are today. On Gaslighter, Maines explores how her habitual frankness might fit in with that new style of self-disclosure.


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