Formula Racing

Everyone in Nashville understands that the New Country formula-slick production with a seamless touch of roots and updated suburban family values-isn't enough anymore. But where Garth Brooks went from Billy Joel covers to a Babyface cloning now high up the pop charts, and Shania Twain married Def Leppard's producer, the Dixie Chicks broke large by going in the opposite direction: they revived the banjo. Sisters Emily Robison, the banjoist, and Martie Seidel, a fiddler, are good players though hardly as polished as the session men who dominate country recordings. But that only added to the image of the two of them, plus lead singer Natalie Maines on acoustic guitar, jamming away. Outsiders saw a copycat: Nashville's answer to the Spice Girls. Country fans heard a rarity: the first female group in ages, with harmonies that stood out on the radio.

The umpteen-million-selling 1998 Wide Open Spaceswas a small dose of liberalism in a conservative format. "There's Your Trouble" is clear-eyed and blunt: she doesn't love you, now move on. "Wide Open Spaces" offers generational rebellion in the Trisha Yearwood "She's in Love With the Boy" mode (that is, with a parent who remembers her own wild days), only here the girl strikes out on her own. And "You Were Mine," the only track written by the Chicks, drew on the divorce of Emily and Martie's parents. Even the filler is often unsentimental. If you're gonna say good-bye, do it already, says "Let 'Er Rip": "It's just a hyphenated word/Get it out I'm sure I'll be all right." And the final two tracks, covers of Maria McKee and Bonnie Raitt, showed the right sense of roots. (Maines's dad Lloyd played steel guitar on all the great Joe Ely records and produced Richard Buckner's debut.) The album amounted to an unusually clear-eyed blast.

"Ready To Run," the new Dixie Chicks single, seems at first like more of the same. Just, perhaps, a bit more extreme. A tin-whistle-flavored reel begins and ends things, and over a catchy lope Maines sings her bandmate Seidel's words. She's so worried about settling down it's giving her the willies. "You see it feels like I'm starting to care" she all but gobs, like that nice green pasture was actually filled with poison ivy and wood ticks. Time to run.

Chicks fans love the track, which explains why the new album Fly debuted at number one pop with 341,000 sold. What make them nervous are moments on the album that hurl the spit in Maines's voice out even further. Songs like the self-written "Sin Wagon," where the recently divorced singer announces her intent to "Do a little mattress dancin'/That's right I said mattress dancin' " over as up-tempo and hiccuping a track as Nashville ever dares. The trio bursts into a gospel harmony ("I'll fly away"), then slams down into a power chord and corruption ("on a sin wagon"). In "Goodbye Earl," by Dennis Linde, Mary Anne and Wanda murder Wanda's wife-beating hubby, then happily partner up.

To the heartland, Earl's fate seems like over-the-top manhating; to cooler complainants, it's Thelma and Louiseredux. I hear typical Linde, just over-the-top enough, no less boobilicious than when he gave Mark Chesnutt "Bubba Shot the Jukebox," or Elvis his last great single, "Burning Love." But the objections point out the Dixie Chicks' provocation. What's hardly wild to rockers is beyond the pale in country. Unlike

Shania and Garth, these Chicks aren't essentially adult contemporary. VH1 asked could they remove that banjo please, and MTV ain't interested. The strides in ambition and songwriting (five tracks) make the filler here more glaring, though covering Patti Griffin's "Let Him Fly" is further proof of their determination to find folkish roots in a living tradition.

Meanwhile, disappointed Dixiecrats are clueing each other in about this new group, Shedaisy, three sisters from Utah whose harmonies are even stronger and whose lead singer writes all her own songs. Produced by Dann Huff, an electric guitarist whose pages of credits include Sarah Vaughan, Megadeth, Scritti Politti, and Madonna's "Like A Prayer," The Whole Shebangis city slick, with just enough harmonica or accordion per cut and Frank Zappa's old "Catholic Girls" favorite Vinnie Colaiuta pumping the drums. At least five of the 11 tracks sound like hits, from the taunting "Little Goodbyes" to the power ballad "Punishment" and the multiple-personality cutie "Lucky 4 You (Tonight I'm Just Me)." A Richard Marx cowrite extends AC an invitation.

But the difference is as simple as a comparison between homicide songs. Earl deservedit; the husband in Shedaisy's "A Night To Remember" is guilty of nothing more than an affair,and his wife goes with him, plunging their car into the canyon to literalize " 'til death do us part." There's a challenging reinterpretation of sexuality (not to mention Thelma and Louise)for you. Similarly, Shedaisy's music is perky but would never give a Nashville programmer pause, filled with zingers instead of stingers. It comes down to a choice: the growing pains of an attempt to transcend formula, or a lot of inventiveness within a timid framework. If Nashville and you want something newer than New Country, I say get on the sin wagon.

 
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