Formed in 1989 as a Western-themed bluegrass band, the Dixie Chicks eventually became one of the most popular acts in contemporary country music, as well as the highest-selling female group in America. Beginning with 1998's Wide Open Spaces, they struck a balance between the commercial, radio-ready aesthetic of country-pop and the rootsy sound of neo-traditionalist country, a combination that helped distinguish the trio from such concurrent stars as Shania Twain. The Dixie Chicks further distanced themselves from country's conservative boundaries as their career progressed, although their outspoken beliefs -- specifically Natalie Maines' open criticism of the war in Iraq, which ignited a backlash in 2003 -- were sometimes voiced to the detriment of the band's sales. Nevertheless, the Dixie Chicks remained a compelling band in concert and on record, boasting three-part harmonies and an instrumental prowess that was virtually unparalleled among similar groups.
Sisters Martie and Emily Erwin were raised in Addison, Texas, a suburban town on the northern edge of Dallas. Both girls showed a talent for stringed instruments at an early age, with Martie mastering the fiddle and Emily learning the five-string banjo. Following their high-school graduation, the Erwins joined bassist Laura Lynch and guitarist Robin Lynn Macy to form the Dixie Chicks, whose name was modeled after the Little Feat song "Dixie Chicken." The group originally promoted a classic cowgirl image, wearing rhinestone-studded regalia and honing a mix of traditional country, folk, and bluegrass; the bandmembers even paid homage to Roy Rogers' cowgirl co-star/wife on their independent debut, 1990's Thank Heavens for Dale Evans. As the decade progressed, however, the group's image and sound became more contemporary, often bridging the gap between country and pop music.
The move toward a more contemporary sound began with 1992's Little Ol' Cowgirl, a transitional record whose new direction (aided in part by the contributions of several sidemen, including steel guitar legend Lloyd Maines) resulted in Macy's departure. With Lynch now handling lead vocals, the remaining trio resurfaced in 1993 with Shouldn't a Told You That. They signed with Sony's newly revived Monument imprint in 1995, but Lynch left the group shortly thereafter -- according to a December 10, 1998, feature in The Dallas Observer, both she and Macy were victims of the Erwins' desire to foster a more youthful image. Soon named as Lynch's replacement was 21-year-old lead vocalist Natalie Maines, Lloyd Maines' able-voiced daughter.
The lineup switch brought with it a new contemporary wardrobe and an equally modernized country sound; still, few predicted the massive success of the Dixie Chicks' 1998 major-label debut, Wide Open Spaces. After the leadoff single "I Can Love You Better" became the group's first Top Ten country hit, both "There's Your Trouble" and the winsome title track rose to the top of the Hot Country Songs chart. Wide Open Spaces went quadruple platinum within its first year and eventually became the best-selling group album in country music history, earning a slew of Grammy and CMA awards along the way. Fly followed in 1999, immediately returning the Dixie Chicks to the upper reaches of the country charts with the lead single "Ready to Run." Another smash hit was "Goodbye Earl," which spun the tale of an abusive husband who died at the hands of his vengeful wife. Although the lyrics owed a good deal to black comedy, "Goodbye Earl" (as well as another song, "Sin Wagon," whose lyrics touched upon Maines' desire to "do a little mattress dancing") proved that the Dixie Chicks didn't always adhere to the conservative ideals of their country fan base. This outspoken attitude initially contributed to their success, but Maines' future comments about President George W. Bush would plunge the band into controversy in later years.
The Dixie Chicks were now genuine superstars, and they joined the likes of Shakira, Mary J. Blige, Cher, and Celine Dion for the filming of VH1's Divas Show in 2002. Three months later, they were back in the game with the release of their sixth album, which eschewed the polished sound of the girls' recent work for a nostalgic, bluegrass-based style. Home marked the girls' first release on their own Sony imprint, Open Wide Records; it also gave them their first two Top Ten hits on the pop charts with "Long Time Gone" and "Landslide" (a stirring cover of the Fleetwood Mac original). Top of the World Tour: Live and its accompanying DVD arrived in 2003, capturing the band's strength as a live act.
However, the Top of the World Tour also marked a turning point for the band. On opening night in London, Natalie Maines spoke out against the Iraq War, stating that the girls were ashamed to share their home state with President Bush. Many American fans lashed out in response, and the Dixie Chicks watched as country radio boycotted their latest album. Released in 2006, Taking the Long Way dealt with that backlash (which included death threats, group protests, and a chilly reception at the 2003 ACM Awards) with songs like "Not Ready to Make Nice," which won three Grammy Awards and helped reestablish the group as a commercial force. The album itself netted an additional two Grammys, and "Not Ready to Make Nice" earned the Dixie Chicks their highest peak to date on the pop charts. Taking the Long Way only sold two million copies in America, though -- a commercial letdown compared to the band's three previous albums -- and the Dixie Chicks temporarily disappeared after the 2007 Grammy Awards.
For several years, things were quiet in the Dixie Chicks' camp. Sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire eventually formed a new band, the Court Yard Hounds, and began making plans for an album release and accompanying tour. In March 2010, however, the Dixie Chicks announced a string of summer concerts alongside the Eagles and Keith Urban, prompting the Court Yard Hounds to cancel their own tour. In September 2006, at the end of the frenzied media tour for the release of the Taking the Long Way album, the Dixie Chicks had recorded an intimate live set at the Los Angeles Theater as part of VH1’s Storytellers series, and the performance was finally released on DVD and Blu-ray in 2011, further illustrating the trio’s strength as a live act. ~ Andrew Leahey & Steve Leggett