Three Pissed-Off Chicks

Taking the Long Way
Dixie Chicks

By Michael Witthaus

It’s impossible not to view a new Dixie Chicks record though the prism of “the Incident” – singer Natalie Maines’ on-stage denunciation of George W. Bush on the eve of the Iraq War.  The band squarely faces the two-year firestorm born from that event on “Taking the Long Way.”  But this record isn’t a continuation of those public sentiments, in the manner of Neil Young’s recent release, or a poetic meditation on nonviolence like Bruce Springsteen’s “Devils and Dust.”  The closest the Chicks come to that here is “I Hope,” which, though it will please some pacifists, is a genial, essentially innocuous song.

This is a record primarily about fame and its consequences, and it’s not a contrite, measured effort.  No, it seethes with indignation at a world that would put them in their place.  “I could never follow … or kiss all the asses they told me to,” from the title track that opens the record, is a blunt rebuke to the band’s critics.  “Easy Silence” follows, initially teasing at being a simple love song before exposing the bruises beneath its long silk blouse sleeve: “Monkeys on the barricades/are warning us to back away/they form commissions trying to find/the next one they can crucify/and anger plays on every station.”The break with their country music past isn’t nearly as shocking as overheated press reports would have it.  The Dixie Chicks represent a melting pot inclusive enough to welcome Kid Rock, Nelly and Sheryl Crow.  For all the white shirt/black hat posturing, the genre’s direction has long been moving away from Nashville, and the Chicks started leaving a long time ago.
Working with producer Rick Rubin, who is to his artists as Dr. Melfi is to Tony Soprano, the band delivers their first entirely self-authored effort.  For Rubin, who coaxed late career masterpieces from Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond, brilliance lies outside the studio.  He has a unique ability for stripping away pretense before a word is written, or a note is played.

Thus, the record also describes their refuge from the cauldron of public scrutiny as well as their response to the experience.  All three had babies during the hiatus, and there are several references to family life.  “Lullabye” sweetly evokes the simple beauty of parental love (“Life began when I saw your face”), while “So Hard” explores infertility’s impact on a couple (“Something a woman is born to do …And I'd feel so guilty/If that was a gift I couldn't give”).

“Silent House” deals with the subject of Alzheimer’s disease, while “Voices in My Head” is a Sheryl Crow-sounding song about self-doubt.  Crow participated in the project, co-writing “Favorite Year” with Maines and Maguire, and the slide guitar on “Voices In My Head” sounds suspiciously like her.  Frustratingly, though, no song-by-song performance credits are given with the record.  That’s too bad, as stalwarts like the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell, Bonnie Raitt, Pete Yorn and the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris also participated, and one can only guess at where their contributions are on “Taking the Long Way.”

But it’s raw, exposed nerves, on songs like “Everybody Knows” and the rocking “Lubbock or Leave It” that power “Taking the Long Way.”  “Bitter End” best embodies these sentiments, a song that angrily dismisses their former friends:

“You had a good time
Drinking all of our wine
After the show
We all rode the wave
Of that crazy parade
Oh where'd you go?
What happened to
The ones we knew
As long as I'm the shiniest star
Oh there you are”

The Dixie Chicks never asked for notoriety beyond their music, and this record is an eloquent and necessary response to the scorn they received for simply speaking their minds.  It’s also proof that nothing about that experience made them any less willing to continue doing so, though it did show who their true allies are.

Local Rhythms – May 25, 2006

Local Rhythms
By Michael Witthaus

Music is a Family Value

Watching my daughter’s spring concert the other night at Bluff School, I’m reminded of how important it is to start kids early on music. This thought also occurred to me as I listened to some jazz on the hi-fi one cool, pleasant evening recently.

My father was a complicated man, and we didn’t always understand each other, but with music, we were in harmony. My earliest recollections of him are these – watching him practice on a bulky Hawaiian steel guitar, us singing along to folk groups like the Kingston Trio, or the whole family relaxing with something like Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” He encouraged my own youthful forays, too, be they fleeting (the Monkees) or indelible (the Beatles), and bought me many Burl Ives and Limelighters records besides.

In high school, our relations stretched and strained, I gave him a gift that surprised even me – the Grateful Dead, a band he embraced with a fierceness I never quite understood. Mine was a pale offering, I think, next to the free-ranging, inquisitive mind he’d equipped me with. Inspired by him, I’d sought out everything from the honey-throated folk of Judy Collins to jazz guitar masters like Wes Montgomery.

Early on, I’ve tried to instill in my own kids a love for music and an urge to seek out strange new fruit. My oldest daughter’s tastes range from Phish-y jam band sounds to things too experimental even for my ears. The youngster, in addition to playing clarinet and singing, is quite the pianist. It tickled me when she recently asked, “Dad, can I download some Beethoven from iTunes?”

My son’s working on a degree in media arts, which leads to lots of “apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” comments.

Studies suggest that a child’s love for music benefits them as students and citizens. It’s my belief that diverse tastes in music lead to greater tolerance for a wider range of ideas. Intellectual curiosity in one realm tends to spur similar urges in others.

So, when you can’t understand your kids, try giving the gift of music. There’s a fringe benefit – when you’re all listening, no one’s talking, so there’s nothing to argue about. You might also join them the next time “High School Musical” is on Disney Channel. The sequel’s due any day.

Here are my picks for the long weekend:

Thursday: Dicky Betts & Great Southern, Colonial Theatre – “Hand Picked,” a song from his solo “Highway Call,” was the first bluegrass song I ever grew to love, sandwiched into a collection of the easy-tempo, guitar-centered rock Betts is best known for. The energy behind “Ramblin’ Man” and “Jessica,” to name but two greats from his long Allman Brothers career.

Friday: Lock Down and Weapon III, Music Matters – The last of the independent records stores continues its free Friday night live music series with hip hop from a duo that recently released a record. I don’t know a whole lot about them, but think of it as an excuse to expand your horizons while browsing through the cool t-shirts, lunchboxes, body paint and other trinkets MM carries in addition to CDs and DVDs.

Saturday: Brooke Brown Saracino, Sophie & Zeke’s – I caught this young lady’s scintillating set at Canoe Club last week. A tasty combination of early Joni Mitchell tempered with Beth Orton’s world-weariness – quite a feat for a 22-year old. This set kicks off a regular weekend series of original folk music, with Ingrid’s Ruse and foreverinmotion due in June.

Sunday: Memorial Day Picnic, Heritage – Sad to say, the chances to see Ingrid’s Ruse are fading, with Ingrid Ayer-Richardson’s recently announced Maine relocation plans. She and her husband are moving to Portland in a matter of weeks, and the region will be poorer for their leaving. This all-day affair (2-10 PM), which in addition to the Ruse also features Highball Heroes and Space Monkeez, looks even more promising with the current forecast for sun and temperatures in the 80s. There’s buffet BBQ, too.

Monday: Strange Creek Campout (Day 3), Greenfield – If you plan on going to this musical gathering of the tribes, be aware that 90 percent of this event takes place Saturday and Sunday. Monday’s really the load-out day. That said, great bands like Strangefolk, Max Creek, the Zen Tricksters and the amazing Ryan Montbleau play literally round the clock beginning Saturday at 10, even roaming around the campsites like minstrels after the onstage fun ends.

Tuesday: Irish Session, Salt hill – To quote Oscar Wilde: “Work is the curse of the drinking class.” Let’s welcome the start of a 4-day week with a few pints and enjoy the region’s best Celtic music tradition. Host Dave Loney’s band, Steampacket, is also slated for Sh’s 3rd anniversary celebration June 17.