Country Music

Country Music Needs the Dixie Chicks Now More Than Ever

You could say that country music is currently, perhaps unwittingly, sitting at a real turning point. As critics sit and debate over who is and is not “authentic” and who’s going to be its next “savior,” fans are starting to get turned on to music that has traditionally been marginalized within the genre. What started as a Sturgill Simpson-shaped glimmer of hope has fully evolved into Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton at the top of the country charts, and for that we should all be eternally grateful.

It seems almost cosmic that the Dixie Chicks would announce their return to the genre in the wake of all this spiraling change. The Chicks have, ahem, been a “Long Time Gone” from country music, through no fault of their own. The ignorance and fear of post-9/11 America may have once wiped them away from the country charts, but they continued to succeed in the adult-contemporary world until fading into oblivion for a decade, which is entirely too damn long.

One might think that perhaps Natalie Maines overheard the old jackass who proclaimed female artists to be the “tomatoes” that pepper the dude-bro salad that is country radio, and decided that she just couldn’t take any more shit, that she had to get back out on the road and show this current generation of artists how it’s done. Country music has changed quite a bit since the Chicks (and other wildly successful female artists from the 1990s) ruled the charts, and certainly not for the better.

And so, as the Dixie Chicks prepare to head out on the road for dozens of (likely) sold-out tour dates after ten years out of the spotlight, one has to wonder how that will influence the current country crowd. Will copies of Fly and Long Way Home fly off the digital shelves once again? Will they record again, and make everyone in the genre look like fools by producing the best mainstream country that we’ve seen since, well, the last time they were around? Or will they simply play these shows and go back home to their families?

At this point, any of these outcomes is as likely as the other. Who knows what the hell the Dixie Chicks, ever unpredictable, are going to do? But even just their mere reappearance could cause significant ripples in country music, some of which have been a long time coming. Country is in desperate need of diversity, both in terms of sound and in gender; that much is well-established. What is more important, though, is the effect the Chicks will have on other female artists in the genre.

Country music is making moves, however slow, to be more friendly to female artists and women-fronted groups, as seen by the rapid ascents of Maddie & Tae, Little Big Town, Cam and Kelsea Ballerini. These are all incredibly talented women, equally powerful and talented in their own right. But they would simply not exist without the Dixie Chicks. Before they came along, women had long since been relegated to love ballads and the occasional snarky girl-power tracks. Now, women in the genre can tackle politics (Angaleena Presley's "American Middle Class"), touch on taboo topics (Kacey Musgraves' "Follow Your Arrow"), and fight back against their own marginalization in the genre (Maddie & Tae's "Girl In A Country Song"). 

For these artists, the Dixie Chicks are the perfect parable for weathering the storm. Undoubtedly, the Chicks had much bigger hurdles to jump, but there are lessons to be learned. Death threats and your fanbase deserting you in droves over your politics isn’t directly comparable to being shut out by sexist, hyper-masculine tunes, but it can teach today’s artists a great deal about resiliency and standing up for yourself. If the Chicks can survive the George W. Bush fiasco, Miranda Lambert and Maddie & Tae can certainly stand up for themselves as artists in a bigger way and endure.

The Chicks’ absence and the resulting hype doesn’t automatically translate into a current repeat of their previous success. Today’s mainstream country fans really dig Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett, even if they are warming up to guys like Chris Stapleton. Men can certainly make waves in country music — as Stapleton’s practically meteoric rise from obscurity to the top of the Hot Country Chart after that CMA performance with Justin Timberlake proves.

But will the Chicks be successful at bringing their brand of Southern-fried, take-no-shit feminism back to airwaves that are so thoroughly dominated by the bros? Time will tell, but I’ve got my money on the fact that country fans are aching for what has always made the Chicks so universally appealing. Even if you don’t like their politics or the fact that they’re fronted by a loud-mouthed, often brash broad, you can’t deny that they write and record brilliant songs, play the shit out of their instruments, and that Natalie Maines has a near-perfect voice for country music.

We’ve been searching for that savior for country music for so long, and as Kelly Dearmore so artfully wrote at the Dallas Observer a few weeks back, it’s a fruitless pursuit. It’s time to just put that dead horse out of its misery. Who cares whether or not everyone jumps back on the Chicks bandwagon, so long as they’re back and making (or at the very least, playing) the music that made so many of us love country music in the first place? The Dixie Chicks may not be the second coming for country music, but their mere presence will undoubtedly improve it. At this point, that’s a hell of a lot better than what we've got. 

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Amy McCarthy is a food writer and country music critic who splits time between Dallas and Houston. Her music writing is regularly featured in the Houston Press and has also appeared in Texas Monthly, Salon, VICE, Playboy, and Pitchfork.