Country music – a genre steeped in stories of poverty, perseverance and righteous female ire – has long had a progressive wing. But few artists have pushed the genre as far along as the Chicks, three musicians who recently removed the “Dixie” from their name to formally distance themselves from the values of the Confederacy in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Back in 2003, on stage in London, singer Natalie Maines introduced a song about a US serviceman lost in Vietnam and expressed dismay about the imminent US invasion of Iraq and shame that then president George W Bush was from Texas. All hell broke loose: the Texas band were blacklisted and received death threats.
Instead of ending their career, the incident was one from which the Chicks emerged scarred but galvanised. Their fanbase expanded outside traditional country circles, and their unrepentant autobiographical LP of 2006, Taking the Long Way, won the Grammy for best album (plus another four).
The theme is deeply country: a bad man doing a good woman wrong
The Chicks’ first long player in 14 years – delayed further by coronavirus, it’s released on 17 July – doubles down on the band’s outspokenness and their lived experience. Like their 2006 work, which was produced by rap/rock maverick Rick Rubin, Gaslighter looks to a mainstream name: pop producer Jack Antonoff, inherited from their friend Taylor Swift.
Swift’s songwriting retains the discipline of her country-pop roots, and there are a few moments on Gaslighter where you can hear the Chicks sharing similar cadences. “My husband’s girlfriend’s husband just called me up/How messed up is that?” wonders Maines on Sleep at Night.
With the exception of March March – which throws its arms around a range of historical and contemporary struggles – Gaslighter’s theme is deeply “country”: a bad man doing a good woman wrong. Maines is hopping mad, and generous with the dirt on her breakup – so much so that the former Mr Maines tried to claim that the Chicks’ latest batch of songs breached the couple’s prenuptial confidentiality agreement. Tights on My Boat, for one, reflects on how he smuggled his mistress on to the couple’s sailboat – thought to be named the Nautalee – for a tryst, leaving behind a pair of tell-tale stockings.
More resonant even than the anger, though, is the sadness and compassion in these songs, for Maines’s sons (“Your hero fell just as you came of age”), the travails of the children of her fellow Chicks (specifically on Julianna Calm Down) – and, by extension, the rest of us, whatever our pain. Dig deep, stick to your guns, “be a lot less guarded”, runs the message of this nourishing dose of laser-sharp country-pop boosterism.
Margo Price may have the guitar chops and great hair of the classic country diva – and a harrowing autobiography to match – but it was Nashville’s closed-shop mentality that fuelled the singer’s two outsider albums to date. That underdog energy also fuels her third, a record whose release was delayed because of Price’s guitarist husband’s debilitating bout of Covid-19.
Like Gaslighter, That’s How Rumors Get Started is a record schooled in country, but keen to see the curve of the earth beyond the Tennessee hills. Price’s ear is cocked to the west: specifically to Los Angeles, where Rumours by Fleetwood Mac still echoes; the gimlet-eyed Americana of Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers figure too. But storytelling and suffering remain at the heart of this rich, gauzy and lush record, which, like Gaslighter, expands the borders of country while strengthening its core tenets.
“I won’t forget what it’s like to be poor,” vows Price on Stone Me. The gleaming Letting Me Down tilts hard towards Stevie Nicks but it tells the tale of someone who left town fast, leaving pain in their wake. “You got away,” muses Price coolly. “You got a way of letting me down.”
In sharp contrast is the loud, gnarly and fuzz-toned Twinkle Twinkle, where Price raises an eyebrow at her rise to success. Its disruptive energy chimes with the recent rock experiments of the album’s producer, fellow Nashville refusenik Sturgill Simpson. A curio, Heartless Mind, takes things a bit too neon perhaps, pairing Price’s cooing tones with a synth-rock treatment airlifted from 1983.
But almost everything else on this record is pillowy and bejewelled, with a lineup of guest players to swoon at: celebrated bassist Pino Palladino, eminent keys player and former Heartbreaker Benmont Tench, plus Zelig-like guitarist Matt Sweeney (Johnny Cash, Bonnie Prince Billy), who also played on the 2006 Dixie Chicks album.
Like the Chicks, Price has sound words for her children that don’t induce nausea. Gone to Stay weighs up the bittersweet time spent on the road (“can’t turn money back to time, take it from me, darling of mine”). Like Hank Williams and countless others before her, Price is, though, a rambling (wo)man. Prisoner of the Highway piles a gospel choir and Tench’s eloquent organ on a country-rock hymn to the open road. For all that country music is rooted in a mythical American sense of place, a kind of vagabond restlessness is another of its evergreen themes.