Chicks In the Line of Fire

Three years ago they apologized for dissing the President. Now, they're back with a new album - and a retraction of the apology

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Country music has never been particularly classy, which is one of its principal charms. Less charming is its defensiveness about its station. Unlike rock fans, most of whom are attracted to the music's integration of styles, some country fans--particularly those who call up radio stations in a lather--take it upon themselves to patrol a wall of genre purity. Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash got passes because they were sui generis. Not so Buck Owens, who in 1965, after a few experimental dalliances, took out an advertisement with a career-saving loyalty oath, "Pledge to Country Music," in the Music City News, promising, "I Shall Sing No Song That Is Not a Country Song." Even now, acts that other listeners reflexively think of as country, from McGraw to Willie Nelson to Shania Twain, are often disparaged for keeping an eye on the Hot 100, playing noncountry songs or showing a little navel. The message from hard-core listeners is, Stay behind the wall.

Early in their careers, the Dixie Chicks did, and they were beloved for it. Maguire and Robison started the group in their teens (Maguire was then at Southern Methodist University; Robison never finished an application to the Air Force Academy) with two singers in their 30s before eventually replacing them in 1995 with Maines, a Berklee College of Music dropout who, at the time, was attending her third college in three years. After a lot of dues paying, the band took over the country charts. Maines has an immensely powerful voice, but she's also capable of barometric emotional adjustments; she almost never oversings and thus sounds great coming out of stereo speakers. Meanwhile, in a medium that values tradition, Maguire and Robison played the most traditional country instruments, fiddle and banjo, and played them well. It didn't hurt either that all three were lookers.

The Chicks have affection for their early work, and songs like There's Your Trouble and Goodbye Earl will endure, but Maines describes most of it as "amateurish." They didn't write their hits, and the songs they did write were mostly filler. "I never wrote anything from my point of view," Maines says. "Even if it was something that happened to me, I would write it like it was a character and I was telling someone else's story ... That's not very brave."

This is what talented musicians are supposed to do: aspire to get better, braver. But at each step of their evolution, from their feud with Sony (ungrateful!) to the bluegrass album, Home (not country enough!), and then, of course, the Incident, the genre's wrath hovered like a jealous boyfriend. "Their old audience feels a little betrayed, a little left behind maybe," says CMT's Philips. That may explain why, as the Chicks and country began their breakup, country fans ran into the arms of brilliant redneck instigator Toby Keith, who displayed a doctored photo of Maines and Saddam Hussein at his concerts.

It also explains why the Dixie Chicks have made such a point of saying good riddance. "I'd rather have a smaller following of really cool people who get it," says Maguire, "who will grow with us as we grow and are fans for life, than people that have us in their five-disc changer with Reba McEntire and Toby Keith. We don't want those kinds of fans. They limit what you can do."

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