Monday, September 09, 2002


by Wayne Robins

The Dixie Chicks sold nearly 900,000 copies of their new album, "Home" (Open Wide/Monument/Columbia), to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 200 album chart last week. It's hard to imagine anyone who bought that disc going back to the store and demanding their money back. "Home" is a great album, maybe the best-written, best-sung, best-played album of 2002, and certainly the most emotionally honest and downright enjoyable country-rooted album in years.

I'm a late arrival at the Dixie Chicks party, so this is the first of their albums I've had and lived with. And I've lived with it: I've played parts of it as much as four times a day: at home, in the car, in transit on the Discman, while playing dominos on the computer. This is also the first they've done since they settled their legal and financial wrangling with Sony Music: They figured that after "Fly," their second Sony/Monument disc sold more than 9 million copies, their royalties should have amounted to more than $6.95 and new bluejeans for the roadcrew. "Home" is the first Dixie Chicks disc to appear on their newly created Open Wide label, with Sony providing marketing and promotional support.

The Chicks referred to their return to recording and Sony Music as a "reconciliation," a word prudently-chosen. On the back cover of the CD booklet to "Home" is a sign that says: "We Are Changing the Way We Do Business." The tone, somewhere between assertiveness and defiance, is evident in the opening song, the brilliant first single, Darrell Scott's "Long Time Gone." It's about an ambitious young woman who left home, confident in her talent but with heavy dues to pay. Conventional enough at first, the song's exuberant momentum gives way to a smashmouth to country music radio."We listen to the radio to hear what's cookin' but the music ain't got no soul/they sound tired but they don't sound haggard, they got money but they don't have cash," less than oblique references to a history-deprived format that won't play Merle or Johnny.

But hey, no bitterness here: Just laying out the facts. The Dixie Chicks are too good, and too big, for country radio to ignore them: An unsung line that could appear in "Long Time Gone" could be: "We've got leverage, why not use it?"

What they don't appear to have is a drummer, though most of the tracks list a percussionist. If there is a kit drummer banging (unless he's been mixed down below earshot), I'll eat Toby Keith's hat. First, you've got the voices of Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, as powerful and synchronized as if they were triplets singing together since birth. Natalie takes most of the leads, Martie and Emily do the harmonies and add fiddle and banjo or dobro, respectively, while Natalie's daddy, renowned Texas musician Lloyd Maines, co-produces with the Chicks and appears sometimes on slide guitar.

The D.C.'s write or co-write less than half the songs: Their best is the hilarious, rollicking "White Trash Wedding." Martie and Natalie wrote two songs with Marty Stuart, both excellent: The high and lonesome "I Believe in You," and the gorgeous "Tortured, Tangled Hearts." Emmylou Harris offers another level of harmonic convergence on Radney Foster's ballad "Godspeed," while Patty Griffin's bank account will swell to Powerball-winner levels with the royalties to her Dixie double: The preciously poetic "Truth #2" and the metaphysical heart-tugger "Top of the World."

The killer among the covers, though, is the best known song: A version of Stevie Nicks' "Landslide," from Fleetwood Mac's platinum age that the Chicks approach as more than a hand-me-down. They imbue it with their own deep sense of loss and hope that resonates during these days of awe with a depth previously unimagined.

(c) 2002 Wayne Robins. All rights reserved. e-mail: Some rights may be available through Featurewell.

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