It was a moment of genuine shock and awe. The (Dixie) Chicks – Emily Strayer, Martie Maguire and Natalie Maines – stood in front of a London crowd just a week before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and told a rapturous audience: “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.”
The sound of cheers in the audience was quickly followed by opprobrium back home in the US. Within days, they were subjected to a country radio boycott, their albums were burnt at rallies, and death threats came so often that the band had to install metal detectors at their shows. The best selling female group in America became a cautionary tale: “Don’t be like the Dixie Chicks,” fellow country musician Taylor Swift was told. “Don’t talk about politics.”
But somehow they weathered the storm. After a three-year hiatus, their 2006 album Taking the Long Way addressed the controversy head-on and won five Grammys and millions of new listeners. Yes, they may have been exiled from country music, but the pop world was happy to fully embrace them.
Since then, there has been a scattering of side projects, including a solo album by Maines mostly composed of covers, but Gaslighter is their first Chicks record in 14 years. Last month, when the trio announced they were jettisoning the Dixie from their name because of its slavery-era connotations, it seemed inevitable that Gaslighter wouldn’t pull its punches – politically, or personally. It doesn’t disappoint.
“March March” puts contemporary issues of gun control, climate change and underfunded education through the band’s distinct filter of country twang and bluegrass in a way that doesn’t feel anachronistic. And its rumbustious fiddle solo will appease any concerns that they’ve strayed too far from their country roots.
On Gaslighter, everything swells and expands; over a decade’s worth of pent-up energy comes fizzing out. Buoyant rhythms flow over rousing lyrics in “Texas Man”, and swirling melodies are paired with spellbinding vocal riffs in “Young Man”. The album sets itself up for the same heartfelt singalong sessions elicited by the likes of country-pop star Kacey Musgraves.
Many of the tracks return to country music’s bread and butter: achy breaky hearts. Maines’s brutal divorce provides ample source material – and she never minces her words either. Over the sliding notes of a pedal steel guitar in “Set Me Free”, Maines pleads over divorce papers: “Decency / Would be for you to sign and release me”.
They may have changed their name and their new music might possess a level of poppiness (courtesy of producer Jack Antonoff) insufferable to country music diehards, but Gaslighter is not a reinvention for the trio by any means. Still political, still resilient – if you were a fan of The Dixie Chicks back in 2006, then The Chicks are precisely who you hoped they would grow to be in 2020.