"It's easier to write songs that are about other people," says Natalie Maines. "It's much harder to put yourself out there, but the songs are so much better and mean so much more when you can let yourself be vulnerable, and be honest with your emotions and your beliefs."
With TAKING THE LONG WAY, one of the most anticipated albums in recent years, the Dixie Chicks are putting themselves out there like never before. For the first time, every one of the disc's fourteen songs are co-written by the Chicks themselves, exploring themes both deeply private and resoundingly political. Collaborating with legendary producer Rick Rubin (who has worked with everyone from Johnny Cash to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, from Run DMC to Neil Diamond), the biggest-selling female band in history has truly pushed themselves to new heights both as writers and as performers.
"Everything felt more personal this time," says Maines. "I go back to songs we've done in the past and there's just more maturity, depth, intelligence on these. They just feel more grown-up." Inspired by such classic rock artists as the Eagles, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and the Mamas and the Papas, TAKING THE LONG WAY adds a sweeping, Southern California vibe to the Chicks' down-home intimacy. That ambition is matched with lyrics addressing everything from small-town narrow-mindedness ("Lubbock or Leave It") to the psychology of celebrity ("Everybody Knows"). "This album was about finding a balance in the different aspects of our lives," says Emily Robison, "but there's something thematic there, too - it's really about being bold."
Of course, that's a subject that the Dixie Chicks know a few things about. Not just "big for a country band" or "big for a big female band," the Dixie Chicks are a multi-platinum selling act in North America, Europe and Australia. They are one of a mere handful of acts with multiple albums achieving "diamond" status (meaning sales over 10 million copies) - both WIDE OPEN SPACES (1998) and FLY (1999) hit that stratospheric landmark - and have won seven Grammy awards. Their on-stage reputation has helped them sell over $100 million worth of concert tickets, and outspoken songs like "Goodbye, Earl" made it clear that this power trio played by nobody's rules.
And that was all before Natalie Maines's comments about a fellow Texan, President George W. Bush, during a London appearance in March, 2003 really put the Dixie Chicks in the headlines. The resultant uproar - complete with boycotts and death threats - is the focus of TAKING THE LONG WAY's defiant first single, "Not Ready to Make Nice." "The stakes were definitely higher on that song," says Robison. "We knew it was special because it was so autobiographical, and we had to get it right. And once we had that song done, it freed us up to do the rest of the album without that burden."
Martie Maguire says that all three Chicks believe they've grown as a result of the incident. "I learned I was ready to put my career on the line for something I believed in," she says. "Emily and I could have pressured Natalie to apologize, and I was so proud that I had that inner strength - that nothing is as important as standing up for what you believe in."
Following the controversy, the group spent the rest of 2003 on their "Top of the World" tour (documented on a double-CD and a DVD of the same name), and amassed the biggest one-year gross for a country music act in history - a whopping $62 million. The following year, they joined the historic "Vote for Change" tour in anticipation of the 2004 Presidential election.
When it came time to return to the recording studio, the Chicks knew that they wanted a new direction. Their last studio album, 2002's HOME, was itself a departure - a glorious celebration of their acoustic roots - so there was no obvious next move. They discovered that they shared a fondness for Rick Rubin's work, only to find out that he was a Dixie Chicks fan ever since seeing the trio "completely blow everyone off the stage" at a Sony Music function early in their career.
When sessions began in Los Angeles in May, 2005, Maguire remembers Rubin saying, "I think this should sound like a great rock act making a country album, not a country act making a rock album." Beyond that, things were left open to see where the creative process would lead. "It was a very different style of working," says Maines. "You have to learn to relax and be OK with experimenting. We just knew we wanted to do something different, and that's scary."
"The journey is to see where the songs take us," says Rubin. "I felt like they had a lot to talk about, and it would be a good time for them to talk. It was really like the start of their career. Up until now, people loved them in a very surface way. This was the first time that people took them seriously - and in one stroke they went from loved artists to serious artists."
Rubin assembled a band including Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, session hero Larry Knechtel, and Heartbreakers Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell, and matched the Chicks with co-writers including Dan Wilson (who wound up collaborating on six of TAKING THE LONG WAY's songs), Pete Yorn, and Gary Louris of the Jayhawks. Rubin says that he watched the band's songwriting skills skyrocket in front of his eyes. "Over a period of time, by honing their craft and working with good mentors, they got to be really, really good songwriters," he says.
The results cover an impressive range of territory. "Silent House" examines the emotions that come from watching an older relative struggle with Alzheimer's. "It's So Hard When It Doesn't Come Easy" addresses infertility, an issue that both Robison and Maguire have faced. ("I think we feel a responsibility to break down some barriers," says Maguire. "It's much more of a common problem than people realize.") The Chicks debuted the gospel-inflected "I Hope," co-written with Keb' Mo', during last year's telethon benefiting the victims of Hurricane Katrina; the album version features a blistering guitar solo by John Mayer.
Of course, political brouhahas weren't the only things happening in the Dixie Chicks world during the last few years. The number of children in their posse has grown from two to seven since the release of HOME, and their domestic life informs such songs as "Baby Hold On" and the delicate "Lullaby," which they call "a gift to our kids." Robison laughs that "our entourage just consists of nannies," while noting that their tour plans this time will be "stretched out more - we'll tour longer, with more time off."
As for the tour - set to kick off in the summer and run for more than a year - Maines says that it will be "more of an old-style rock show, not so much about theatrics and props but just about the music." She also notes that "to rock out, we used to have to pull out a cover tune, so it's nice to have your own songs to fill that part of the set."
Superstars, renegades, innovators, heroes, villains, and moms - over almost a decade, the Dixie Chicks have grown from a band into a phenomenon. Now more than ever, the eyes of the world are on them, and with TAKING THE LONG WAY, they come out swinging, surpassing the pressures and expectations history has placed upon them.
"This album was total therapy," says Natalie Maines. "I'm way more at peace now. Writing these songs and saying everything we had to say makes it possible to move on."