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Revisiting the ‘Wide Open Spaces' the Dixie Chicks first explored 20 years ago this week

The Dixie Chicks at the CMAs in1999.

The Dixie Chicks at the CMAs in1999. Associated Press

The cover of the Dixie Chicks' Wide Open Spaces speaks volumes.

Fiddler/mandolinist Martie Erwin (then known as Martie Seidel), stands tall in the back, beaming with happiness. Her sister, guitarist/banjo player Emily Strayer (then Emily Erwin), is sandwiched in the middle, power-walking with a confident stride. And the band's newest member, lead singer Natalie Maines, peers from the front with a look mixing defiance and amusement. Wearing head-to-toe black, in contrast with her bandmates' casual '90s wear, she resembles a goth-leaning little sister dreaming up mischief.

The jumble of complementary personalities evident in this photo goes a long way toward explaining both the appeal and success of the Dixie Chicks, and in particular Wide Open Spaces. Released on January 27, 1998, their breakthrough LP spawned five top 10 country hits (including three No. 1s) and won the band two Grammys, including Best Country Album. Wide Open Spaces was triple platinum by the end of 1998, and certified a staggering 12 times platinum in 2003.

Speaking to Entertainment Weekly in late 1998, Emily Erwin characterized the band's sound as "old-time country played with a new sensibility by three blonds." That "new sensibility" was reverential toward the greats, but decidedly non-fussy. The Dixie Chicks modernized bluegrass, folk, and country much in the way that color revolutionized television—by applying a modern sheen to traditional instrumentation.

That's due in large part to Maines’ brassy vocal contrast to the sisters' harmonies. But Wide Open Spaces' songwriting credits also contributed to the record's singularity: Eight of the album's 12 songs were written or co-written by women. Tia Sillers, who co-wrote Lee Ann Womack's 2000 crossover hit "I Hope You Dance," had a hand in the Chicks’ cheerful No. 1 country hit "There's Your Trouble." Sandy Ramos, known for writing Gene Watson and Lee Greenwood hits, co-wrote the rockabilly-tinged "Let 'Er Rip." Wide Open Spaces even closes with covers of two female iconoclasts: Maria McKee’s easygoing twang-rocker "Am I the Only One (Who's Ever Felt This Way)" and Bonnie Raitt’s blues-scorched honky-tonk "Give It Up Or Let Me Go."

Seidel and Erwin themselves contributed the touching album highlight "You Were Mine," a yearning breakup song told from the perspective of a woman whose ex is settling in with a new love. With its wrenching lyrical twist—"I can give you two good reasons/ To show you love's not blind/ He's two and she's four and you know/ They adore you"—a seemingly straightforward song about a woman grieving for a lost relationship suddenly becomes something much more.

Throughout Wide Open Spaces, the Dixie Chicks acknowledged the nuanced and conflicted emotions often involved with choosing a life path. The title track, written by Susan Gibson, captures the exhilaration of embracing the future: "She needs wide open spaces/ Room to make her big mistakes/ She needs new faces/ She knows the high stakes." But unlike many similar songs, there's no hint of romance here—it's solely about a woman standing on her own two feet and taking destiny into her own hands.

Other characters express similar agency. On "Let 'Er Rip" a woman demands that her man stop hemming and hawing and just break up with her. You can just picture the eye-rolling impatience accompanying lyrics such as, "Come on baby, say it, do you think I'm gonna cry?/ I ain't about to bawl, and I ain't gonna die." The pedal-steel-seared ballad "Once You've Loved Somebody" admits that moving on after a heart-ripping breakup isn't necessarily easy, and "Give It Up Or Let Me Go" ends the record on a carpe diem note: "I'm gonna find me another man/ One who wants to give me everything."

Wide Open Spaces also leaves space for more lighthearted moments. The No. 1 country hit "There's Your Trouble" addresses a guy who doesn't realize that the narrator is his true love—not the woman he's actually with. "’There's Your Trouble’ was just a demo that came our way that we thought was a lot of fun and made us want to get up and dance and tap our toes," Martie Seidel said in 1999. "It's not real deep but not everything we do has to have some deep meaning. It just is a song that makes the audience feel good, makes us feel good."

In an interesting coincidence, on the same day Wide Open Spaces hit stores, Shania Twain issued "You're Still The One," the third single from her 1997 LP Come On Over, which, though already triple platinum, was still just getting warmed up. In fact, a small news item in that week’s issue of Billboard presaged bigger things: Twain was going to release an "international" version of the album for Europe and the U.K., with some slight tweaks. "We've taken out some of the sounds that Europe would find a little less palatable and made it more universal," Twain said at the time. These new mixes toned down the overt country flourishes, and had traces of chilled Europop and razor-edged rock.

Still, this new campaign launched with "You're Still The One," an old-fashioned pastel throwback to '80s rom-com ballads. Naturally, the song became a massive crossover U.S. adult contemporary, pop, and dance hit; it peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. (Coincidentally, another gargantuan country crossover hit around this time, LeAnn Rimes' "How Do I Live," also stalled at No. 2.) Suddenly, pop- and dance-geared mixes of Twain songs also seemed like a great way to woo U.S. listeners, which led to massive success for "That Don't Impress Me Much."

Although plenty of country artists had previously enjoyed crossover success (notably Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton) Twain illustrated one path for country stars to navigate the super-sized modern mainstream pop game. (Her peers seemed to be taking notes: Just a few months later, Faith Hill issued a pop version of "This Kiss" for international audiences, which helped establish her outside of country circles.) Twain exuded both bulletproof female empowerment and deferential tenderness, and had the vocal flexibility to hopscotch back and forth between genres. Sleek and glamorous, she could more than hold her own in the image-obsessed pop realm.

It’s tempting to consider the Dixie Chicks' approach in direct opposition to the one Twain forged. But in hindsight, the band was clearly carving out a parallel path. The Dixie Chicks weren't averse to dance remixes or pop overtures, but they asserted that country didn't have to make sonic concessions to find a massive audience. In that same 1999 interview, Martie Seidel recalled an incident where her fiddle apparently wasn't welcome on a VH1 broadcast. "I thought of all things they would have taken maybe the banjo or the steel guitar out to make it less country but they wanted to take me out," she said. "Of course my cohorts were the first to say 'No way. We're not taking out the fiddle.'"

But though Twain’s acquiescence to trends ended up a smart business move, it wasn't a ruthless calculation. As she told Billboard in 2017, with her songwriting on Come On Over she was "feeling a little bit more confident to express more of my background" in pop and rock. This took guts, she added.

"If we’re talking specifically about country—especially female country artists—it does take a lot of courage to show your diversity and to be artistically expressive and unique," Twain said. "Because you might just cut yourself out of the loop that way, which definitely was a risk that I took."

The bold moves both Twain and the Dixie Chicks made back in 1998 continue to reverberate. Taylor Swift, has cited Twain as a formative influence, and covered the Dixie Chicks. Ever savvy, Swift recognized early on how each provided different blueprints for how to launch a successful music career on their own terms. And the idea of a country star dabbling in pop trends is no longer necessarily considered courageous. The entire bro-country movement was predicated on cribbing from mainstream hip-hop, and the contemporary country landscape is littered with pop-flirting tunes, including Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban's electro-kissed "The Fighter," and Thomas Rhett and Maren Morris' sleek "Craving You." (Once again, women kicked the door open and men are reaping the rewards.)

Modern country women especially carry on the Dixie Chicks' legacy of stubborn originality and commitment to rebellious tradition. Cam's galloping latest single, "Diane," echoes Dolly Parton's mainstream nods; Miranda Lambert's The Weight Of These Wings effortlessly shapeshifts between country, folk, pop and rock; and Angaleena Presley's Wrangled resists genre pigeonholing.

That many of these songs and albums haven't sold as much (or charted as high) as Wide Open Spaces is a testament to the Dixie Chicks' singularity, and how lucky we were that such a bold record made mainstream inroads. That triumph was short-lived: A half-decade later, the Dixie Chicks' political outspokenness would make them country music pariahs. Come to think of it, perhaps strong women are still unfairly paying for their candor.