They refer to it as "The Incident."
At the heart of "The Incident" are 15 words that frontwoman Natalie Maines of the Texas-based Dixie Chicks spoke at a London concert in March of 2003: "Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas." To say that their conservative fan base didn't take too kindly to the declaration would be one hell of an understatement; record sales plummeted after country radio stations boycotted their music, and some former fans even threatened their lives.
"We're the most harmless people you could meet, and all of a sudden we're the poster children for dissent," recalls Martie Maguire, who rounds out the Grammy-winning, multi-platinum-selling trio with sister Emily Robison. Now, as the group prepares to launch their North American Accidents & Accusations Tour this summer, legendary producer Rick Rubin has helped to refocus their talent on the intimate, classic rock-flavored comeback disc, Taking The Long Way.
Though Maines hopes that people purchase their first studio album since "the incident" went down "just to make a statement," "Taking The Long Way" is as personal and poignant as it is political. "We co-wrote the whole record," she explains, "and we've never done that before. Even the songs we've written in the past were 'story' songs or humorous songs about a made-up character or someone we knew. Nothing was ever revealing about us as people, but this album is very honest and vulnerable."
Meaningful highlights include "Silent House," a heartbreaking look at Maines' grandmother's battle with Alzheimer's, and "It's So Hard," a tender exploration of the emotions attached to Maguire's and Robison's history of infertility problems. “Lubbock or Leave It,” an upbeat ode to small-town narrow-mindedness, was inspired by the documentary The Education of Shelby Knox, in which a 15-year-old girl attempts to install sex education at schools in Lubbock, Texas, where Maines was born. "This is the first time in our career that we've sang about anything important," Maguire says. "It feels good to finally be talking about something that we care about."
Though bound to ruffle some feathers, the decision to release the defiant "Not Ready to Make Nice" as the first single was a no-brainer — especially for Sony Music executives. "I was expecting battles," Maines admits, "but Sony has surprised us at every turn during these last three years. They've been very supportive."
According to Maines, sweeping the sensitive issue under the rug on the new album was never an option. "We would've gotten criticism for not coming out initially with a sort of statement about everything because it would've looked cowardly or safe," she says. Adds Maguire: "The people that the song is pointed at are those people who hate us no matter what. It made sense to stick together and say, 'This is bullshit.'"
"Not one word in that song is wasted," says Maines, who reveals that the lyric "It's a sad, sad story when a mother will teach her own daughter that she oughta hate a perfect stranger" is based on an actual concertgoer's verbal attack: "She turned to her little boy and said, 'Say, screw 'em!' And I just started crying. We witnessed this kid learning hatred from his mother. It was the saddest thing."
While it's been a No. 1 download on iTunes, the bluntly unapologetic Billboard chart-climber has been largely ignored by country radio, as anticipated. "People say, 'Oh, you're just antagonizing people,'" says Maines, "but I never even thought about it pissing people off. To this day I can barely sing it in front of an audience without getting choked up. The emotions were much more raw then, but I can still take myself right back to that place."
It's not a pleasant place to revisit. Even in their home of Austin, Texas, which she refers to as "a little blue island among the red," Maguire felt uneasy. "I didn't even want to go to our grocery store because I hate confrontation," she says. "I would start breathing heavy and get these anxiety attacks, worried that some woman was going to come up to me and let me have it."
Maines eventually had to move after the location of her home was revealed in an Austin newspaper. "I had an armed security guard outside 24 hours a day because I couldn't sleep unless I did," she recalls. "I would just lay in bed and think of all my escape routes and how I would get my kid out of the house if someone climbed a tree and broke through my window."
No longer scared or nearly as "mad as hell" as the lyrics in "Not Ready to Make Nice" might suggest, the Dixie Chicks claim that writing and recording the song helped the healing process. And even now, despite all the drama "the incident" caused, they have no regrets about those 15 fateful words. "It's the best thing that ever happened to us," says Maguire. "We're so much more in touch with what's going on in the world."
"One of the things that has just disgusted me in the last few years is the whole controversy over gay issues," Maguire continues. "Knowing what it feels like to have the tiny amount of hate that was thrown our way, it made me so upset to see it flung at a whole population..."
Maines, who has a home across the street from Maguire in Chelsea, Manhattan's queerest 'hood, acknowledges that the gay community has fiercely returned the support. Though lesbians usually outnumber gay men at their shows, a Dixie Chicks-inspired drag queen trio once paid them a special visit. "It was a total compliment," Maguire recalls with a laugh. "Their 'Emily' was super skinny, so [Robison] was really flattered!"
Aspiring impersonators should take note of the ladies' new style, sleeker and more sophisticated than ever. In fact, Maguire proudly admits that a significant amount of her earnings supports her obsession with high-end clothing and accessories. "My husband's awesome," she says. "I'll come home with a handbag that costs more than one month's rent in our New York condo and he doesn't bat an eye. I'm so glad I don't have to hide my Gucci from him!"
Maines — who counts Dolce & Gabbana, Yves Saint Laurent, and Stella McCartney among her favorite designers — has even prepared a fashionable response should either of her boys ever drop the "Mom, I'm gay" bomb: "I'd say, 'Great, let's go shopping!'"
Controversially outspoken liberal heroes or not, chicks will be chicks.
In Magazine, May/June 2006 issue.