When the Dixie Chicks ditched Dixie for just The Chicks, they not only took the name of another act, it seems they have somewhat adopted the musical persona of the original Chicks.
Sisters Judy and Sue Donaldson were a teenage singing duo who, as The Chicks, became a pop sensation in New Zealand and Australia during the 1960’s. They dominated the pop charts Down Under with a bunch of singles – many of them popular covers - and at least three albums.
The operative word here is pop. There was hardly a country or bluegrass note in sight when Judy and Sue were big. So there’s obviously no chance that the old Chicks – both were born in the early ‘50’s – can be confused with the new Chicks?
Well don’t jump to hasty conclusions. If the new release by the American trio is any indication, the new Chicks seem to have inadvertently, or otherwise, inherited some of the popish hallmarks of the original act by the same name!
Gaslighter is their eighth studio album, and first for 14 years, by the high-profile trio – Martie Maguire, Natalie Maines and Emily Strayer. But it is light years from their bluegrass-tinged material of the 1990’s or indeed the Grammy-stacked albums – Home (2002) and Taking The Long Way (2006) – of this century.
Yes Maguire still has her fiddle and Strayer her banjo, but under the stewardship of big-name producer Jack Antonoff both instruments are somewhat restrained, to put it mildly. Musical know-alls might find some irony in Antonoff’s role in this project as he can be credited with much of the fame found by Lorde, New Zealand’s latest female music sensation.
There is no doubting that the multi-instrumentalist, Grammy-winning Antonoff has the midas touch. When the album’s title track was the first of three singles to be released, it was acclaimed by the critics and soon impacted on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. However some might argue this had much to do with the content of “Gaslighter” which, like much of the album, deals with Maines’ acrimonious divorce from actor Adrian Pasdar.
In fact the main reason for the 14-year gap between the latest albums was that the three artists decided it was time to raise a family. But it seems that those who weren’t busy giving birth were busy divorcing. The trio have had five divorces between the three of them and Maines now has all her dirty linen blowing in the wind.
She wastes no time with on her rage on the opening track: Gaslighter, you broke me
You're sorry, but where's my apology?/Gaslighter, you liar. There’s more to come - albeit with a smirk - on “Sleep at Night”: My husband’s girlfriend’s husband just called me up/How messed up is that?
But wait, it gets bitchier. The best line is found on “Tights On My Boat”: And you can tell the girl who left her tights on my boat/That she can have you now. To be fair, the line might be good and bitchy, but it isn’t quite true. Yes Maines has a boat, but, according to a radio interview she did with Howard Stern, there were no tights left onboard. The line was pure poetic license.
As in any divorce, children often end up being collateral damage. Maines, the mother of two boys, also deals with this. Just as she is about to be at her bitter best in “Sleep at Night”, she retreats somewhat: It’s so insane that I have to laugh/But then I think about our two boys trying to become men/There’s nothing funny about that. And “Young Man” is somewhat of a heartfelt lullaby to a son: After this storm there’s nothing you can’t navigate/Point to the truth, you’ll see it’s the only way/You’re of me, not mine/Perfect in my eyes/You’re gonna be alright.
In fact, Maines’ divorce is largely the reason for the album’s being. The Chicks had one more release remaining in their contract with Sony. It was originally intended that they meet their requirement by cobbling together an album of covers or a “best of” compilation. But with her personal life in tatters, Maines said she felt inspired to write about the turmoil.
In a podcast, she told host Sterling Jones: “When I started getting a divorce, I had a lot to say, so that kind of sparked me being ready (for new music). Songwriting is really hard for me, and I think, for many years, I didn't want to analyze my life or my relationship. I was just in it and dedicated and devoted...I just was not ready to open up like that."
But there was more drama to come. In August last year, ex-husband Pasdar instigated legal proceedings to give him access to all of Maines' unreleased music. He wanted to know if any of the unreleased material might contain lyrics that pertain to their break-up. The Maines legal team responded by saying if Pasdar succeeded in overturning the validity of any pre-nuptial agreement, any confidentiality clause in that agreement would therefore be invalid. The case was settled last December and the divorce became final, with Maines settling for an undisclosed amount.
So it was all systems go for a new album by the Dixie Chicks– dirt and all! Not quite!
Just as a release date was scheduled, a black man named George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody. A civil-disobedience movement, Black Lives Matter, swept across America and soon the world. Any names - Dixie/Redskins - or symbols - flags/monuments - connected to allegations of racism soon became no-no’s.
Maines told The Howard Stern Show the word “Dixie” made the group uncomfortable. “We didn’t think it was representative of us. We weren’t from Dixie, the area that was called Dixie. It was just sort of a word. I didn’t think about all the history behind it or how the word came to be, or how it might make black people feel. Our name wasn’t any sort of statement, but changing it was a statement.”
It may have been a statement, but the name had been taken. So the trio took appropriate action and reached out to the New Zealand sisters, now known as Suzanne Lynch and Judy Hindman.
Lynch went on to have a successful solo career – working with the likes of Cat Stevens. She told the N.Z. Herald the pair were a little taken back by the original request from the group’s lawyers. “We considered it for a while to be honest because it was a strange request, but it was agreed to share the name The Chicks with them.”
The sisters were delighted that the band acknowledged them in the name-change announcement. Lynch said: “They sent us a really nice message saying: ‘Our sincere and heartfelt thanks goes out to The Chicks of New Zealand for their gracious gesture and allowing us to share their name. We’re honoured to co-exist in the world with these exceptionally talented sisters. Chicks rock!’ “
Maybe that should be: “Chicks pop!”
Editor – Crossroads Americana Music Appreciation