“We’ve all been in therapy,” Emily Strayer concurred. “We’ve got some gaslighters.”
If you know anything about the Chicks (Maines, Strayer and Martie Maguire, previously known as the Dixie Chicks), it’s that they do not hold back. This is still true on their first new album in 14 years, “Gaslighter,” out July 17. “I mean, it’s the word of the times, right?” Maines said.
Some initially thought the music must be political. Maines did recently play the title track in an Instagram video that criticized Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, accompanied by the hashtags #liar, #murderer and #narcissist. A music video for their single “March March” features scenes from protests throughout history, including the Black Lives Matter movement.
But mostly, the album centers on grief and devastation at the end of a long relationship and, occasionally, the small glimmers of optimism that emerge from the pain.
The Chicks are 17 years removed from the few seconds on a London concert stage that changed their lives when Maines sparked outrage by criticizing President George W. Bush. They even have a new name: The group had previously felt uncomfortable with “Dixie’s” association with the Confederate South, and when NASCAR announced a ban on the Confederate flag in June, they sped up the process to drop the word entirely. “Let’s not be the last people on the planet to make this change,” Maines said dryly.
But after all this time, it's difficult to completely separate the Texas-native trio from the defining controversy of their career. In that way, the themes of "Gaslighter" are similar to those of their last album, 2006's "Taking the Long Way," which was a response to the fallout. On both records, the group sings about watching your world crash down around you while hoping it will ultimately lead to something better.
When the Chicks were writing for “Gaslighter” with producer Jack Antonoff, they said, his go-to suggestions for lyrics and melodies were always, “Burn it up! Tear it down! Fire! Light it up! Light it on fire!” During a songwriting session for “My Best Friend’s Weddings” — about the dissolution of the protagonist’s relationship in the time between a friend’s first and second marriage — they had an illuminating conversation about how forest fires can often lead to some of the most beautiful growth in the aftermath. The soil is rich and new life starts blooming.
“I’m never looking for that fire and that growth,” Maines said. “But it’s a positive thing that comes from bad times.”
The story of the Chicks, one of the top-selling bands in history, exists in two parallel universes.
In one, they are a cautionary tale that scared half a generation of country singers into never saying anything about current events, lest they get “Dixie Chicked.” Everyone in the industry is well-aware their country career imploded in 2003 when Maines told an overseas audience just before the Iraq War: “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.” Afterwards, even as Maines emphasized her support of the troops, the band faced death threats and an online mob. Country radio stopped playing their music; some stations provided trash cans so fans could throw away their CDs.
In the other, they are outspoken heroes that inspired the second half to defy anyone who dared to tell them to shut up and sing. The incident not only made the group a household name, it freed them to have any kind of career they wanted. No longer compelled to appeal to corporate radio, they roared back three years later with the double-platinum “Taking the Long Way,” firing back at critics with tracks such as “Not Ready to Make Nice,” and won album, song and record of the year at the Grammy Awards. After a decade-long hiatus working on separate projects — Maines recorded a rock album, sisters Maguire and Strayer formed the Court Yard Hounds — the Chicks returned in 2016 for a reunion tour in front of sold-out arenas around the world. Two years later, they started recording “Gaslighter.”
While they don’t pretend that the controversy didn’t have a major impact on their lives and career, they have also long moved on. (At this point, how you feel about the Chicks says more about you than it does about them.) Still, they recognize it will usually be the first part of any story written about them, and observers who know nothing about their music will typically associate them with that one moment.
“Even if we never said another word, I feel like they want us to be controversial,” Strayer said from San Antonio in a recent Zoom call, along with Maines in Los Angeles and Maguire in Austin. “They want to make us angry all the time, and we’re not angry people.”
Case in point: On a panel this year at the annual Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, executives discussed female artists who left the country genre, such as Taylor Swift. When one programmer brought up the Chicks, another dismissed the group as an example: “They didn’t really leave the format, they just decided to get mad at us.”
When told that quote, Maines looked surprised and then amused. “Rest assured, I’ve never spent one minute of my life, thank God, being ‘mad’ at country radio,” she said, noting that the trio’s choice to not engage with country radio anymore is out of logic, not anger. Why make an effort when so many stations shunned them? “It’s like going back to your abuser. Or doing something a second time and hoping for a different outcome or result. It’s just called learning from your life.”
After spending years playing the Texas circuit, the Chicks’ career exploded in the late 1990s when Maines joined the band and they released a string of nonstop hits, including songs about a bride who skips out on her wedding day (“Ready to Run”); a woman who poisons her abusive husband (“Goodbye Earl”); and the urge for room to make big mistakes (“Wide Open Spaces”).
The most tantalizing subject matter on “Gaslighter,” however, surrounds something bad that happened on a boat.
“Boy, I know exactly what you did on my boat, and boy, that’s exactly why you ain’t coming home,” Maines sings on the title track, which is about an unapologetic liar. The lyrics immediately lit up the Internet when it was released as the first single this spring.
“I like that everyone is latching on to that, I think it’s funny,” Maines laughed. And no, she won’t tell you what happened on the boat. “I think it’s more fun to let people guess.”
Dozens of stories tried to solve the Mystery of the Boat; months earlier, Maines hinted on a podcast that the album was inspired by her divorce from actor Adrian Pasdar. But as comfortable as the Chicks are sharing personal details, they hold off on naming names.
Now, listeners get more clues with songs such as “Tights on My Boat,” which starts off with the searing line, “I hope you die peacefully in your sleep — just kidding, I hope it hurts like you hurt me.” (The Chicks credit co-writer Julia Michaels for that one.) Such brutal honesty in the lyrics delighted Justin Tranter, who frequently collaborates with pop superstars and co-wrote four songs on “Gaslighter,” and was shocked that some juicy anecdotes shared during writing sessions made the final cut.
“I was like . . . ‘Are we actually allowed to put that in the song?” Tranter said, then quickly realized that, with the candid trio, “I knew the answer to my own question.” Tranter, along with Teddy Geiger, co-wrote “Sleep at Night,” on which Maines sings about an apparent incredible breach of etiquette that involves an ex taking a new girlfriend backstage at a Chicks concert.
The Chicks are influenced by many genres — at the moment, Maines can’t stop listening to the latest Fiona Apple album, Strayer is all about the new Haim record and Maguire is “obsessed” with Harry Styles. For this album, they partnered with pop-focused writers and producers, and it’s apparent in the production, though many tracks have country elements: Maguire on fiddle, Strayer on banjo and Maines’s signature powerhouse vocals tinged with some slight Texas twang.
The band’s classic sound shines through on some of the quieter ballads, particularly “Young Man,” which is a message to children. The band has nine kids between them.
“It’s easy to tap into that idea of the pressure you feel that your kids watch everything you go through and they take on a lot of that . . . whether it’s divorce or even career-wise ups and downs,” Maguire said. She didn’t show her daughters the group’s 2006 documentary “Shut Up and Sing,” which chronicled the aftermath of Maines’s comment, for many years. “I felt like they were going to take on this burden that maybe I was still feeling . . . when you [have kids], you realize it’s this really big responsibility to let them know, ‘You’re not me.’ ”
Although those outside of country music might assume the Chicks are a taboo subject, it’s actually the opposite. Today’s Nashville stars are often delighted to talk about the group and immediately reel off their favorite songs.
“You cannot talk about country music without the Dixie Chicks,” Kelsea Ballerini, who has covered “Cowboy Take Me Away” on tour, said in an interview in February. “I love their boldness.”
Others speak admiringly — and wistfully — of their impact on country music, merging a classic and contemporary sound that struck a chord with listeners. “When Natalie spoke out, it was just bad timing, because I think if it happened now, there wouldn’t be any repercussions,” said John Osborne of the duo Brothers Osborne, who used to play “Goodbye Earl” at their shows. “It’s just a shame because I feel like our genre wasn’t quite the same after they weren’t in it anymore. They inspired so many people.”
Despite the fact that some segments of the industry (like the radio executives who banned them, and Toby Keith, whose concerts featured a Photoshopped image of Maines hugging Saddam Hussein) were horrid during the backlash, the Chicks remember those in town who supported them, such as the Music Row Democrats, a liberal industry group. Today, they have plenty of defenders in country music who are horrified by what happened, including Darius Rucker, Vince Gill and Maren Morris.
“It was completely unfair treatment of a group of women just voicing an opinion, like any dude has in the history of time,” Morris told Rolling Stone last year.
Maguire said they still sometimes collaborate with Music City songwriters, such as Ashley Monroe, and have friendships in Nashville. Even though it was awkward behind the scenes at the Country Music Association Awards in 2016, where they returned to perform with Beyoncé, the show’s co-host Brad Paisley made a point to say hello. “It’s unfair to just paint them with a broad brush,” Maguire said. “We don’t have any hard feelings or think that all country is bad. But I think there is a contingency that’s still there and has a very firm grip.”
Strayer agreed that sometimes certain gatekeepers damage the format’s broader reputation — even while many in Nashville want to see changes, such as more inclusivity in the majority-white genre and an increase of the 10 percent of airplay by women on country radio.
“Whoever is holding the power to be able to scrub Beyoncé from the CMA Awards online, or take Lil Nas X off the radio, they’ve got to do a better job at not perpetuating the stereotype,” Strayer said. “They may not all be like that. But unless they are fighting against the stereotype in one way or the other, they’re perpetuating it.”
And while “getting Dixie Chicked” has been a genuine fear in country music for years now — publicists usually advise singers to stay quiet about their beliefs — there has been a groundswell among modern country artists who are speaking up about issues that matter to them, including Black Lives Matter and gun control.
These days, especially in the midst of a global pandemic and a national reckoning over racial injustice, entertainers are struggling to figure out their role. The Chicks acknowledge it feels strange to promote an album right now, though they just try to use their platform to speak up for the greater good.
“You can do both. You can entertain and you can know about the world that’s going on around you and have commentary and an opinion on it,” Maines said. “If a 10-year-old on Instagram can have a voice, it’s definitely our responsibility to have a voice and it’s perfectly fine to use it.”
In the “Shut Up and Sing” documentary, the Chicks wondered out loud if what happened at the London show would consume their legacy. They hoped it wouldn’t. Though it may always be remembered as a cultural flash point, the fans and fellow artists they influenced are determined to make it only one piece of a much larger story.
“What an amazing example to see three women making music for decades together at the highest level of musicianship. That to me is an inspiration, and a legacy in itself,” said Tranter, their co-writer. “There’s so much more to them than that one moment.”