Outside the Spotlight takes a look at what famous musicians work on while outside the bright lights of their most famous gigs.
In 2002, The Chicks released a cover of Darrell Scott’s “Long Time Gone” as the lead single from their hit bluegrass album, Home. The song, which won them one of their four Grammys that year, criticizes the contemporary trajectory of country music and celebrates a narrator willing to break from the path: “Been a long time gone/ No, I ain’t hoed a row since I don’t know when/ Long time gone/ And it ain’t coming back again.”
The trio, which dropped the “Dixie” from their name at the end of June, is releasing a new album this week (after its release being postponed from May 1st). The name change came about in response to the continuing nationwide reckoning with racism, police brutality, and white complacency, and after Jeremy Helligar published a guest column in Variety prompting the band to consider the associations “Dixie” carries with nostalgia for the Civil War-era South. Their social media and online music and videos have all been rebranded with the new name.
As far as putting out albums is concerned, The Chicks have indeed been a long time gone. Gaslighter will be their first studio record since Taking the Long Way in 2006 — 14 years ago. It’s hard to get more into the spotlight than The Chicks were in 2006, and, of course, in the years leading up to it. The Chicks were at the height of their global popularity in 2003 when lead singer Natalie Maines publicly criticized George W. Bush and his invasion of Iraq, telling a London audience, “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”
The next few years saw them facing ongoing vitriol and CD-burning from ex-fans, as well as drastically diminished airplay and complete blacklisting from many country radio stations. In spite of this, Taking the Long Way debuted at No. 1 on two Billboard charts and became the ninth-best-selling album of the year in the US in 2006. This was also the year the group went on their first tour following “the incident,” the Accidents & Accusations World Tour, and the year they released the documentary covering their lives after the controversy, Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing.
This comeback moment might have been an unconventional time to slip off the radar, but The Chicks have always made a point of forging their own route forward — from the themes of radical independence in their music itself to their well-known readiness to speak out on political issues while working in a genre that often prides itself on unyielding and uncritical patriotism. Accustomed to doing more outside the lines, this is a group that once brought Rock the Vote to shows to encourage people to register to vote; that helped mobilize voters in swing states in 2004 with MoveOn.org’s Vote for Change tour; that currently dedicates an entire section of their website to championing causes like Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign, and #BEforLove, Strayer’s own collaboration with the Lee Jones Collection benefiting Komera & Girls, Inc. of San Antonio.
After Shut Up and Sing, their hiatus began. But Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire, and Emily Strayer (previously Robison) aren’t the types to stay inactive, even when they are out of the spotlight.
At the time, all three band members had young children and wanted to spend time with their families. Strayer was the first to get restless, writing new songs following her divorce. In 2009, with lead singer Maines still reluctant to start making new music, sisters Strayer and Maguire formed the Court Yard Hounds to continue working as a duo. They released their self-titled album in 2010, with Strayer singing the lead vocals and credited as a songwriter on almost every track.
Court Yard Hounds made no effort to stray from the outspoken nature of the Chicks; the new album saw the same sisters who’d penned “So Hard” a few years previously, tackling the stigma attached to IVF, now criticizing homophobia in the scathing “Ain’t No Son”. The duo performed publicly on tour with The Eagles and Keith Urban in 2010, and later in an appearance at the Calgary Stampede rodeo in 2013, the same year they released their second album, Amelita.
Natalie Maines joined the sisters in 2011 in providing backup vocals on Steve Martin’s bluegrass song “You”. Then, in 2013, she ventured back into the music scene herself with her own solo album, Mother. The album included covers of artists like Pink Floyd, Eddie Vedder, Patty Griffin and Jeff Buckley and touched on themes of motherhood through a tender lens closer to rock than country.
But a trio like The Chicks, while surely formidable as individuals, are strongest when they’re together — and in the past few years, they’ve been uniting forces more and more. In 2016, they set out on the DCX MMXVI World Tour, which included their first headlining tour in North America in a decade and later resulted in their 2018 live album, DCX MMXVI Live. That same year, they collaborated with Beyoncé on a remix of “Daddy Lessons” — a pure joy to listen to, where at one point they slip in a refrain of “Long Time Gone”, and it’s all too easy to hear how much fun everyone is having. And who could blame any of them?
Their latest high-profile collaboration came last year with Taylor Swift, singing background vocals on “Soon You’ll Get Better”, a song about Swift’s mother’s battle with cancer off of her latest album, Lover. Even that recently, some radio stations were still receiving angry calls for their decisions to air a track involving The Chicks — but the public response to the song overall has been positive.
In the intervening years since their last album, the band’s name has remained widely circulated in country music circles — often in the context of warning, fear, and hesitation to politicize. It’s hard to forget a backlash so severe it has its own History Channel page, and their 2003 blacklisting in many ways set the stage for an undercurrent in the world of country music that persists today. Some stars (like Maines’ sometime rival Toby Keith) have overcorrected to the extreme, glorifying a hazily defined-but-aggressive commitment to the Stars and Stripes. But country artists who fall further to the left on the political spectrum have been daunted against speaking their minds; even the unfailingly popular Taylor Swift held her progressive beliefs back for a long time in large part due to the notoriety of what The Chicks have had to face.
The willingness to be outspoken is always urgent and necessary, and this summer feels like a particularly fitting time for the return of The Chicks’ raw, coordinated, galvanizing power. Their new album is anticipated to be personal and powerful, an expectation bolstered by its latest single, “March March”, which gravely indicts the US’s rampant gun violence and indifference toward climate change, as well as the Trump administration’s lack of transparency and troubling handling of conversations about abortion and reproductive health. The accompanying music video highlights footage of protests playing out across history, including the current ones against police brutality, and includes a long list of Black victims of police brutality that plays out for over a minute. The video concludes with a list of several social justice organizations to support.
Not much else is known about the new album, but we do know it will see The Chicks collaborating with Jack Antonoff, the Bleachers star who’s lent his producing talents to some of the past few years’ most dazzling pop albums, including works by Taylor Swift, Lana del Rey, St. Vincent, Lorde, and Kevin Abstract.
The band’s initial success, both in commercial popularity and on award stages, was astronomical, and it all happened within barely a 10-year timespan — which may be what makes the past 14 years feel like such a long time. But The Chicks haven’t stopped doing what they love, both within music and outside of it — and they haven’t stopped doing it their own way, either.
The title track from their last album, “The Long Way Around”, came only a few years after “Long Time Gone”, and it touches on similar themes: “I never seem to do it like anybody else/ Maybe someday, someday I’m gonna settle down/ If you ever want to find me, I still can be found/ Taking the long way/ Taking the long way around.” It’s an honorable message and one to which they’ve held true — that they’re constantly on their own roads, following their own journeys, whether we’re closely monitoring those journeys or not.
Gaslighter feels poised to reestablish this presence. A brief statement on The Chicks’ new website reads, “We want to meet this moment,” and one line from “March March” — “Half of you love me, half already hate me” — suggests that they remain indifferent to any concerns for reputation. They’re here for real action, and they’re here to stay.
The Chicks belong wherever they decide they want to belong, whether off the beaten track or in the center of the spotlight — and from gold albums to death threats, they’re a band that knows a thing or two about the spotlight. If there’s one other thing that feels clear about their re-entrance with Gaslighter, it’s that the spotlight is more than ready to welcome them back.