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Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Dixie Chicks: America Catches Up With Them

THE DIXIE CHICKS call it "the Incident": the anti-Bush remark that Natalie Maines, their lead singer, made onstage in London in 2003. "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas," said Ms. Maines, a Texan herself.
It led to a partisan firestorm, a radio boycott, death threats and, now, to an album that's anything but repentant: "Taking the Long Way" (Open Wide/Monument/ Columbia). The Dixie Chicks — Ms. Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire — were the top-selling country group of the late 1990's and early 2000's. After country's gatekeepers disowned them over politics, they decided to keep their politics and let country music fend for itself.
The Incident is very much at the center of "Taking the Long Way." The album could have been "way safe and scared," Ms. Maines said. "We could have pandered." They didn't. The new songs are filled with reactions, direct and oblique, to the Incident. There are no apologies.
"We had to make this album," Ms. Maines said. "We could not have gotten past any of this without making this album. Even if nobody ever heard it."
The Dixie Chicks were in New York this month to make media appearances and to perform at the party for this year's Time 100, the magazine's list of influential people, which includes them. Sitting around a dinner table in a Chelsea loft that Ms. Maines owns but hasn't used much — a former gallery with artist friends' paintings parked on the brick walls — the three Dixie Chicks dug into takeout Italian food and sipped red wine. "I've thought about all this way too much," Ms. Maines said.
"Taking the Long Way," due out on Tuesday, is the first Dixie Chicks album on which group members collaborated in writing all the songs. The first single, "Not Ready to Make Nice," declares, "I'm not ready to back down/I'm still mad as hell," and starts with a tolling guitar more suitable for a Metallica dirge than a honky-tonk serenade. The Dixie Chicks and their manager insisted to their record company that "we need to approach everything like not one radio station is going to play one single song," Ms. Maines said. Asked about country radio, she said, "Do you really think we're going to make an album for you and trust the future of our career to people who turned on us in a day?"
Instead the album wraps gleaming California rock around its raw emotions. Although there's plenty of country in the music, "Taking the Long Way" reaches not for the lucrative yet insular country airwaves but for an adult pop mainstream. Meanwhile the core country audience may not be so hostile anymore. The album arrives at a time when approval for President Bush has dropped to as low as 29 percent, in a recent Harris Interactive poll.


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