Taking the Long Way
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.