The Not-So-Quiet Americans

Staging a sit-in: The Dixie Chicks lounge around "Home"
James Minchin III

Natalie Maines was wrong to say she's ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas. He's actually from New Haven, Connecticut, where the ivory tower is an Epcot Gothic monument to Old Europe, artfully bleached and acid-washed like a pair of faux-vintage designer jeans while much of the downtown sags and crumbles on its own. Even outside the campus gates, New Haven has only one focus group that matters, and the Yale Corporation surrounds it in what amounts to a sprawling outdoor mall, a cozy cocoon of suburban simulacra. When I was around in the latter half of the '90s, a rowdy nightclub was lobotomized into an Au Bon Pain, Barnes and Noble rolled in their tanks, and a beloved boho coffee house--the last place you could actually see townies and students engaged in spontaneous social interaction--watched helplessly as the monolith jacked their rent to heights the business could only topple from. Favorite little cafés and shops would disappear overnight, and every graduation season, so would all the homeless people dotting the campus. No one ever knew where they went, or who took them there. They were flushed away by the same clear channel that disgorged Neo from the Matrix and irrigated the Dixie Chicks from American radio in March.

To be sure, the Chicks have always enjoyed an ambivalent relationship with the corporate behemoths that powered their ascent as the record-breaking biggest act--crossover or otherwise--in country music. Sony filed suit against them in 2001 for breach of contract when negotiations broke down over royalties (since made nice), and radio personalities were refusing to play "Goodbye Earl" (off 1999's Fly) years before they were getting suspended for playing the band at all. (In the darkly hilarious hit, a battered wife--aided by a loyal pal who's Louise to her Thelma--puns on hubby's fists of fury by serving him a poisoned portion of black-eyed peas.) "Long Time Gone," the chipper opener on their latest album, Home (Sony), begins as a revisitation of Maggie's farm, but then heads into town to hang the DJ. "We listen to the radio to hear what's cookin'/But the music ain't got no soul," complains the narrator, splitting the difference between Bob Seger and Lauryn Hill.

The DJ's a reactionary grump in a reactionary format, one that could slash the Chicks' weekly sales by 75 percent simply by wiping them off the waves. Their conquest of the air was launched from the grassroots up (and not Up!); pop radio adjusted to the Dixie Chicks, not the other way around. Then suddenly, the music was everywhere and nowhere at once: burnt in effigy, crushed under tractors, and yet it never made a sound. Ironically, "Travelin' Soldier," the Vietnam-vet lament and No. 1 country-chart smash that Maines was introducing when she made treasonous statements to a foreign mob, meets all the criteria for the country-pop ballad of the unknown grunt: rueful, character-driven, apolitical, careful not to consider what's actually happening in the place he's travelin' to. No red-blooded patriotism, but leave that to the fellas.

Notwithstanding the newly beefed-up security and a stamp of martyrdom that may prove a badge of honor or an albatross ("Dixie Chick," after all, is now a verb as well as a noun), things have slowly calmed down for singer Maines, fiddler Martie Maguire, and banjo player Emily Robison (Martie's sister). They won't be singing the national anthem at Rangers games anytime soon, but they can play Disneyland's hometown and one--count 'em--protester will show up. As if to foreshadow the travails to come, last year's Home is sadder and wiser than their previous efforts, informed by blunt looks in an unflattering mirror (or a snow-covered hill). Even the designated rave-ups--"White Trash Wedding" and "Tortured, Tangled Hearts"--are reception hoedowns for doomed marriages, worthy of celebration if only as fecund C&W fodder. All the hope summoned by the Patty Griffin-penned "Truth No. 2," a sister song to Neko Case's "Stinging Velvet," pivots on a pair of lovers changing their ways, and we all know where that'll get you.

Co-produced by steel guitarist Lloyd Raines (father of Natalie), the album relies heavily on mid tempos and sweeping avowals (back to back: "More Love" and "I Believe in Love"). The close harmonies of "A Home" (by Maia Sharp and Randy Sharp) catch in the throat and the tear ducts, as the narrator itemizes the walls, roof, door, and windows of "the house that might have been," built and empty inside her head, standing in for the real one she knocked down when she drove her beloved away. She doesn't specify how; she's too much in pain, too ashamed. The Dixie Chicks know something about regret, as Home gorgeously attests. And to their enormous credit, they also know what to regret and what not to.

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