Soon as I saw the video of “Long Time Gone,” debut single from the new Dixie Chicks album, Home, I knew there was gonna be trouble, and not necessarily as cute as the usual D.C. trubble (re: fried green tomatoes, served with Thelma & Louise’s picnic-ready peas, so “Goo’bye, Earrrrrrrll.” Ha! Ha! Mah name’s not Earl).
I (swallowing the reviewer bait) mean, sure, now they’re singing the “I” of a country-boy narrator who always knew he was different, and “went to Nashville, tryin’ to be the big deal.” He gets pumped up, vows he’ll be a star. But then abruptly (star or not?), he’s back at home, sitting with the woman he’d left behind, and everybody and everything’s still here, but not quite. Including the music on the radio: “They sound tired, but they don’t sound Haggard/They got money but they don’t have Cash/They”—OK, OK! But, in this vid, we don’t see Mr. Sourgrapes, or any of the people he talks about. We see the Chicks (that is, destiny’s choice Natalie Maines, with founding/hiring/firing foresisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire). Holding court in a cantina, looking the best they’ve ever looked, as well they might, in ethnista (-sewed?) finery, and the blondest, regalest realness a freshly re-re-renegotiated contract can buy.
Exhilarated by the smell of Sony Suit blood, mega-mega-Diamond (ho-hum for your mega-mega-Platinumb) Conquistadorables descend once again from their 2000/2001 A.D.-long Family Values-Trekking Mamaship, currently hovering over the trembling Nashvile skyline (“Long Time Gone?” Gulp!). Even worse, they’re laughing, tossing away these “righteous” lines aimed at dim Radio, from whose now finally Chicks-replenished loins Las Chickitas once sprung!
And spring again. For behold, Radio quickly sits on its squawk box, the better to gobble up said nutritious enrichious po-mouth razzberries, and, in the name of the songbirds’ boutique label, Open(s) Wide, adding four more “cuts” from Home to its “singles” (virtually mythical morsels) playlist. Thus buffet-table-buffering “Gone” ‘s possible impact (as if anyone’s really going to say, “Hey, Chicks’re ratt,” and click off the radio and go do something more than whistle along to a cheery car-tune, ’bout a good ol’ scapegoat, like we all need).
So far, so fine, but I hope that the Chicks are laughing because they know their dear Sony/Columbia carried the (somewhat self-) downsized Cash, for at least as long as the winterludes of Dylan and Miles. Sure, Johnny stirred later, as did Merle, after they finally got dumped, and went to smaller labels (will Radio take its Chicks-cue, when Johnny’s new album comes marching down home this fall? Stay chuned!).
Also (re: Radio “soul” versus “junk” food), surely Natalie, Emily, and Martie recognize that Cash’s upsize was almost as bubblicious as their supersize, as he bounced through that “Ring of Fire,” with kazoo-like trumpets too. And “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” is a great gimmick, as all James Brown samplers know, and so did that other Man in Black, the one with the soup cans. Pop and Art still need each other, and sugar’s best when it’s got the juice.
Juice pumped by heart not rote, and jumping, via Home‘s questing overview, which “Long Time Gone” quickly sketches on a paper airplane, and which the no-BS, star-as-fan cover of Stevie Nicks’s (steady-as-she-goes) “Landslide” further clears, to bless even a “Travelin’ Soldier” with a speck of luck.
Conversationally direct and engaging as “Gone” and “Landslide” and the recruit himself, “Travelin’ Soldier” takes us back through the album’s first third-person, early-experience lens, to a bareness the girlish-not-girly vocals make plainer than they let on. Can’t even this high school chick tell that the older kid is just looking for a past, and a chance to write, “I close my eyes and I think of you”? We can hear it, fading between the lines of his letters, way before she hears his name called from a list, across a football field. “Never gonna hold the hand of another guy” is all she can cry, so far, but of course it’s already too late.
So: “Plainer than they let on,” yeah. There’s something really up front, yet always shading back, about Home. Room for spacious (mostly night) skies. And a beat or two, with or without drums. But not a return to their pre-Natalie retro “purity,” or anything else too simple. (Nat-debut Wide Open Spaces fell into a happy/sad/happy/sad running order of tracks, but its closing triple rippled into Fly, which scored every which way, incl. lobbing its own lonely-planet title song across Home‘s simmering [contem] plate).
When another (?) lady reads “Truth No. 2” from (definitely) her own list, “This time when he swung the bat, and I found myself laying flat, I wondered, What a way to spend a dime,” then chases it with “Swing me way down South,” is she still talking to the same person? Or is she now asking the guy who swung at her to swing her? Is she alone? I think so, but when she continues, in her odd stop-start mountain (?) chord-cycles (angular, also “circular,” is how they sound to me, carrying the ear like an eye’s got horizons: When a cycle stops stop-starting and makes a circle, that’s progress, or at least a chord’s notion of “progression,” isn’t it?), offering to “bring you pearls of water on my hips,” does she mean what I think she does? If so, it’s not something you (or at least I) would say to a mirror, although there’s one on her list. Her idiosyncracy seems like a defense, not a freeze-out. To whom it may concern.
Despite the Irish hillbilly twang, “White Trash Wedding” is not a bad girl, or even weird. She’s taken (by) the normal course, only really compressed: “JustsayIdoand-kissmequickthebaby’sonitsway.” Mama’s got a squeezebox, and Daddy better not sleep tonight. “Wedding” is fast enough to be mistaken for her older, rowdier kissin’ cousin, “Tortured Tangled Hearts.” See, there’s this subset of increasingly (are-they-gonna-mush-out-now? There! Oops, not quite yet) maturing ballads, culminating in the (star-as-fan, no BS) Everlys/Orbisonic, bolero-istic, D.C. original, “I Believe in Love,” WHAP! Cold wet washcloth, care of those drive-by wisenChicks, cooing, “Bless their tortured, tangled hearts.” What a relief, to look back once again, through that third-person lens. You may come away with a black eye, but this ‘un’ll scrub off. And put a cackle in your twang.
Someone’s getting wished “Godspeed,” by Chicks and Aunt Emmylou, till they all disappear, behind a big warm bass. While an old man’s awake, with wishes piling up, drying like leaves. Strings trickle in, useless as tears. ‘Til the bass leads the way to “The Top of the World,” and because he’s still in it, the old man goes around again, on this aluminum disc. If I play it again, and I will. Right now. In a minute. From the beginning. I want to hear him again, but not too soon.
Recent/latest releases from this album’s writers include: Patty Griffin (“Truth No. 2,” “Top of the World”) (also wrote Fly’s “Fly”): 1,000 Kisses; Radney Foster (“Godspeed”): Another Way to Go; Bruce Robison (“Travelin’ Soldier”): Country Sunshine. Most of the rest are by the Chicks, sometimes with help from heavy friends: “I Believe in Love” and “Tortured Tangled Hearts” were both written by Natalie, Martie, and Marty Stuart—John R. Cash’s old accomplice.