Dixie Chicks Take Off With Fly

Sassy trio follow Grammy-winning Wide Open Spaces with country-soaked album and go right to #1.

It's not easy following up a Grammy-winning, multiplatinum record. When

it came time for country trio the Dixie Chicks to record a successor to

their 1998 breakthrough Wide Open Spaces, they ran for the hills.

Specifically, they fled to an inn amid the meadows and valleys of Normandy,

Tenn., 60 miles from Nashville. That's where the sassy group invited

several Music City songwriters to help them hone their songwriting skills.

"We recognized that they are gifted songwriters who had the ability to

write, but who had not ever had the time to really develop those skills,"

producer Paul Worley said. Worley and Blake Chancey produced the new

Dixie Chicks album, Fly, which debuted this week at #1 on the

Billboard 200 albums chart. The same team produced Wide Open

Spaces.

"They'd go off to different parts of our property, and different writers

would work with each of the women," said David Hazelwood, innkeeper at

the 300-acre Parish Patch Farm & Inn, where the Dixie Chicks held their

retreat in the summer of '98.

The resulting album sold 341,138 copies its first week, according to

sales tracker SoundScan, and bumped teen-pop sensation Christina Aguilera's

self-titled debut from the top of the Billboard chart.

"Ready to Run," the album's Celtic-influenced first single, was born from

the retreat, as were "Cowboy Take Me Away" and "Without You."

The Dallas band — Natalie Maines (lead vocals), 24, and sisters

Martie Seidel (vocals, fiddle), 29, and Emily Robison, née Erwin

(vocals, banjo, dobro, guitar), 26 — is still happy to score with

other people's work.

The title track to Wide Open Spaces (RealAudio

excerpt) and "There's Your Trouble" (RealAudio

excerpt) were penned by outsiders. The hit singles helped the

band win the 1998 Country Music Association Group of the Year award and

the 1999 Grammy for Best Country Album. The disc has shipped more than

6 million copies.

(The band released three albums with a different lineup in the first

half of the '90s, before Maines joined.)

The Dixie Chicks, who joined other female artists on the Lilith Fair tour

in 1998, have found an audience far beyond traditional country listeners,

many observers say. The new album sold almost 30 copies in its first

week at a Tower Records outlet in the University district of Seattle.

The store's country buyer, Chris King, said that's a strong number for

a country disc in the grunge-music capital.

"It's not your typical country fan that's buying it," King said. A typical

buyer, he said, was a 20-something pop fan.

Many of those fans undoubtedly are attracted to the Chicks' heavy dose

of attitude and their refusal to take themselves too seriously. The

bandmembers are refreshingly frank on the jumpy "Sin Wagon" (RealAudio

excerpt) from Fly.

"Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition," Maines sings, "need a little

bit more of my 12-ounce nutrition." "Feel like Delilah lookin' for Samson,"

she wails later. "Do a little mattress dancin'/ That's right I said

mattress dancin'."

Tom Roland, who covers country music for the daily Nashville Tennessean

newspaper, said it's particularly interesting that so many noncountry

fans are buying Fly, because it's filled with banjo licks and

fiddle melodies, and is more country than its predecessor. In that sense,

he said, it's a risky album.

"A lot of artists who are looking for crossover hits water down their

creative energy, make bland music, then wonder why their careers are

stalling," Roland said.

Despite Fly's traditional sound, the band's cross-genre success

could spur a backlash from die-hard country fans, according to Dave

Kelly, program director for Nashville country station WSIX-FM. Kelly

said he's seen the same thing happen with Shania Twain and, to some

extent, Garth Brooks.

That's crossed the Dixie Chicks' minds, Worley said, but they don't worry

about it.

"The girls are not at all interested in being anything but country artists,"

he said. "They come from a bluegrass background, and country music is

what they grew up playing. They're not consciously trying to alter their

music to reach any more people. There's something real about the Dixie

Chicks that everybody finds appealing."