With new name and album, The Chicks’ voices ring loud again

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Dixie Chicks are no more. Breaking their ties to the South, The Chicks are stepping into a new chapter in their storied career with their first new music in 14 years.

The Texas trio of Emily Strayer, Martie Maguire and Natalie Maines have been teasing new music for a year, and “Gaslighter” finally drops on July 17 when the nation is embroiled in divisive politics, cancel culture and reckoning with inequality. The timing is right for their voices to be heard again.

“It just seemed like a good reflection on our times,” said Maines. “In 20 years, we’ll look back at that album cover and title and remember exactly what was going on in the country right then.”

“Gaslighter” is a slang term, inspired by a 1944 Ingrid Bergman film, to describe a psychological abuser who manipulates the truth to make a person feel crazy. In recent years, it’s been used to describe powerful men like Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump.

“I think most everybody has a gaslighter in their lives somewhere,” said Strayer. “But, yeah, it was so weird how it echoes our current administration.”

As the best-selling female group in RIAA history, The Chicks appealed to generation of country fans that saw themselves in the band’s stories, whether it was “Wide Open Spaces” or “Cowboy Take Me Away.” After three independent albums, their first major label record in 1998 sold 13 million copies in the U.S. alone.

With Maguire on fiddle and Strayer on banjo, they were all steeped in bluegrass and classic country, but relished in fun country-pop on crossover songs like “Goodbye Earl.” They were country music’s next big thing until suddenly the door was slammed on them.

In 2003, as then-President George Bush was preparing to invade Iraq, the trio were playing a show in London when Maines announced they were ashamed that the president was from Texas.

The fallout became country music lore, a warning to stay away from political talk, especially of the liberal kind. They were booed on awards shows, radio stations pulled their music off the air and fans destroyed their CDs. Maguire only recently showed her daughters the 2006 documentary called “Shut Up and Sing” that showed how the backlash affected them behind the scenes.

“I was putting off showing them because I have one that’s 11 and I just thought she was a little young,” Maguire said. “I thought she might be upset by just the death threat stuff.”

Instead, her daughters, living in a social media generation when everyone is afforded an opinion, were confused by the reaction to Maines’ tame comments compared to the vitriolic criticism lobbed by politicians and pundits every day.

“And it was just funny hearing 16- and 11-year-olds going, ‘Why? What? Wait. She said that? And people got so mad?’” said Maguire.

The trio are all now parents of teenagers when youth activists are taking the lead on gun control, climate change and racial inequality. Their song “March March,” which was released the same day they announced they were dropping the word Dixie from their name, was inspired by student-led demonstrations over gun control in 2018.

On “Juliana Calm Down,” their daughters and nieces are name-checked in a song that encourages young women to keep their heads held high when struggling through life’s obstacles. Maines is speaking to her two teenage boys on “Young Man,” a song for divorced parents who feel like they’ve let down their kids.

Still fans have been quick try to associate very specific lyrics from “Gaslighter” to Maines’ contentious divorce to actor Adrian Pasdar. Between the three women, they’ve had five divorces, so they said people shouldn’t read too literally into the words.

“I think people had it in their minds that this album is about one thing and one thing only, and it’s not,” said Maines. “People are jumping to conclusions.”

But it’s unlikely the fans who turned their back on The Chicks 17 years ago are going to feel any different about the band’s return.

“We have to say things when the time is right to say them, and we’ve been quiet for 10 years, so get ready,” Strayer said with a laugh.

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