I’d really love to talk about the new Dixie Chicks record, Taking the Long Way, without discussing the political overtones woven throughout the album’s fourteen songs. I’d love to talk about the record without bringing up the controversy which the Chicks brought on themselves three years ago. I’d love to talk only about the music, amazing as it is. But I can’t. Chicks singer Natalie Maines won’t let me.
The first single, “Not Ready To Make Nice,” has been a lightning rod for those reactionaries who castigated the band for Maines’ gall to speak her mind in the first place; clearly, the only appropriate reaction (so intimated by country radio program directors) would have been an ass-kissing apology from the Chicks — and that’s exactly what “Make Nice” is not. Yet I have a difficult time imagining how anyone who takes the time actually to listen to the song’s lyrics could find Maines’ non-apology offensive — she’s the one who had to deal with death threats for criticizing the President. It seems to me she’s the one owed an apology, but it’s obvious the Dixie Chicks and country radio have signed their divorce papers and parted ways for good. If “Make Nice” wasn’t the final closing of that door, the scathing “Lubbock or Leave It” (ironically, the most country-flavored song on the album) surely is, a diatribe slamming the hypocrisy and closed-mindedness so prevalent in the Chicks’ former fanbase.
By no means, however, is Taking The Long Way all angry defiance; many of the album’s songs deal with the love and comfort the women find in their children and families. And if country radio won’t dare play the Chicks’ music anymore, there’s plenty of songs here, such as “The Long Way Around,” which should find significant airplay on the sorts of stations which keep Sheryl Crow in heavy rotation. (In fact, Crow was one of several noted songwriters who contributed to Taking the Long Way.)
Produer Rick Rubin (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond and Sir Mix-a-Lot, among many, many others) said he was going for something of an Eagles vibe with this record, a 70′s mellow California feel. That’s not exactly what I came away with — to me, the album felt more like a collection of mellower tunes from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. (Of course, that’s likely due in no small part to the fact that Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench played on the album.) The laid-back atmosphere, while in such direct contrast to so many of the lyrics, fits these more cosmopolitan Chicks perfectly and allows Maines’ voice to shine (admittedly, that last part’s not difficult). Even the traditionally-country instruments plaed by Chicks Emily Robison (banjo) and Martie Seidel (fiddle) here are used in a less honky-tonk manner and more as accents for the string section which flavors most of the tracks.
The theme of Maines’ doing what’s in her heart rather than what she’s “supposed to do” repeats throughout the album’s lyrics — honestly, my major fault with the album it’s that she hits that point a bit too hard and a bit too stridently. Given the circumstances, though, I’ll forgive her. It’s a shame country music fans won’t do the same. A shame for those former fans, I mean; the Dixie Chicks have channeled the torturous events of the last three years into the strongest album of their career.