Bands face all kinds of obstacles when they're gearing up to record a new album, from writer's block to losing members to the intense pressure that comes with following up a huge hit.
But when country trio the Dixie Chicks were gearing up to record their Album of the Year-nominated Taking the Long Way, they faced one of the most daunting stumbling blocks of all: the possibility that a large number of their fans and industry supporters had jumped ship and might never come back.
"In a lot of ways we felt we had nothing to lose, but everything to lose," banjo/guitar player Emily Robison said. "We were starting over genre-free and it felt like we could do anything, which was scary but very freeing. We didn't have to worry about whether something will be played on radio or in what genre ... in our case not at all. I think we were honest with ourselves in a lot of ways."
In the wake of singer Natalie Maines' infamous 2003 comment at a London concert that she was "ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas," the group — which also features violin/mandolin player Martie Maguire — faced declining record sales, death threats and concert cancellations. They also suffered a harsh backlash at country radio that found their once-beloved anthems of empowerment and independent spirit yanked from the air.
But instead of shrinking from the challenge and trying to win back fans with a conciliatory tone, the best-selling female band in history tackled the elephant in the room head-on.
They started by co-writing all 14 tracks on Taking the Long Way, including the pugnacious, soaring first single, "Not Ready to Make Nice." The in-your-face song of defiance features the chorus: "I'm not ready to make nice/ I'm not ready to back down/ I'm still mad as hell/ And I don't have time to go round and round and round."
As expected, the emotional pop-rock tune got another cold shoulder at much of country radio but won acclaim for lyrics in which Maines lambastes someone for sending "a letter/ Sayin' that I better shut up and sing/ Or my life will be over."
"We knew we wanted to have a hand in writing the whole thing because in the past we joked we didn't have a lot of baggage," Robison said. "After the controversy, we had tons of baggage, and it opened up our minds to a lot of other subjects we were able to talk about on a personal level."
In addition to the politically tinged songs and pointed references to the backlash of "the incident" sprinkled throughout the album, the Chicks tackled intensely personal issues including infertility ("So Hard"), small-town hypocrisy ("Lubbock or Leave It") and Maines' grandmother's struggle with Alzheimer's disease ("Silent House"). Working with a group of songwriting partners that included Linda Perry, Sheryl Crow, Keb' Mo', Semisonic's Dan Wilson and the Jayhawks' Gary Louris, the album's peaceful Southern California sound was inspired by bands like the Eagles and shepherded along by famed producer Rick Rubin (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash).
"With all the controversy and political stuff going on with them, it was a very exciting and dangerous time for them and that's what made [working with them] appealing to me," said Rubin, who worked on three of the five Album of the Year contenders (see "Mary J. Blige, Chili Peppers Top Grammy Nominations List"). "Here's these girls who have always been thought of as a poppy, fluffy group, and all the sudden everyone is listening to what they have to say, which has never been what it's been about for them before. So they have this platform to really speak about something that really matters to them and people are interested and divided and angry, and some people are rallying around them. It just seemed like an exciting time for great art to occur."
When sessions began in Los Angeles in May 2005, Rubin began by telling the trio the effort should sound like a country album made by a great rock band, not a rock record made by a great country band. That simple instruction set the tone for the sessions, which included musical assistance from John Mayer; Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith; Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers; and Bonnie Raitt.
In addition to being up for five Grammys, the album has sold more than 2 million copies to date despite the virtual freeze-out at traditional country radio and video outlets. It was defined early on by "Not Ready to Make Nice," which Rubin said "sent chills down my spine" the first time he heard it.
Though they came from vastly different worlds and had never met before, co-songwriter Wilson said he could relate to the Chicks' experience thanks to some backlash from hometown Minneapolis crowds when he made some statements onstage about the Iraq war buildup early on in the conflict. "I was really amazed at how angry my fans were ... so I could relate to how shocked the Dixie Chicks were at the backlash to their remarks," said Wilson, who co-wrote six songs on the album. "I was really hoping that we would be addressing those things in the music."
The first day Wilson met with the trio, he asked them a lot of questions about the backlash because he was curious about what it was like to go from having people love you so fanatically to hating you so fanatically. "Not many artists have gone through that," he said. "And I had this notion that we could write something about unity or sticking together, because it was impressive that the three of them were not divided by the experience. And Natalie said, 'Does that mean I have to forgive the people who blacklisted us?' And then she said, 'Nope.' And as soon as she said that, I knew what we should try to do."
Once that song was done, Wilson said he sensed that a weight had been lifted and that the group felt it could get on with the rest of the album. "They knew they couldn't just get back up and start pickin' and grinnin' again," he said. "They had to address all that controversy ... you could tell they wanted to make a statement and wanted it to be fun to listen to."
The album easily debuted at #1 the week it was released on sales of more than 525,000 and has picked up copious critical praise (see " 'Idol,' Angels & Airwaves Can't Touch Dixie Chicks On Chart"). And even though it's sold slower than previous DC albums, Robison said she's not concerned. "I think we expected it to be a slow burn," she said. "I knew it wasn't going to be single after single going to the top of the charts and big sales off the bat. I knew it would be like in the old days, people sharing the music and our core fanbase of people who will buy our albums no matter what."
Rubin praised the trio for standing their ground and not backing down from their instincts, which may help explain why the songs have such a crystalline, emotional kick that comes through whether you're a country fan or not. "All they tried to do was write the best songs they were capable of and really tell their truth and make a real personal album," Rubin said. "Dig deep and really spill their guts. And the fact that they were able to do that tells me there must have been some level of confidence there, because it's very difficult to do that."
Get the story behind the other Album of the Year nominees:
- Justin Wanted To Channel Coldplay On FutureSex/LoveSounds
- Gnarls Barkley Didn't Expect Anyone Else To Like St. Elsewhere
- John Mayer Shifts From Pop Idol To Bluesman On Continuum
- Chili Peppers Experiment With Sounds, Wu-Tang Beats On Stadium Arcadium
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