Lead Dixie Chick Natalie Maines has always had a warm voice that nonetheless contains flicks of the whip, and “Not Ready to Make Nice” is perfect for it: minor chord at the start, slow but not a dirge, sets us up for the lash we know is coming. But the words don’t cut as deep as they should. Look, you guys were blackballed and terrorized, and the chill and the fear still remain for anyone who wants to make a living in or near country music. In the first verse, Natalie tells us, “I’m through with doubt/There’s nothing left to figure out,” but in the second we find there’s plenty still to figure out: “How in the world can the words that I said/Send somebody so over the edge/That they’d write me a letter, sayin’ that I’d better/Shut up and sing or my life would be over?” OK, Natalie, try to answer your own question. What is it about the Dixie Chicks that provoked such a hysterical reaction, given the puniness of what you said? The statement that set the mob howling and got the Chicks sandblasted was this: “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” That’s enough to inspire mass outrage, bonfires, death threats? What’s wrong with the people out there? What’s wrong in country music? To point at the outliers who threaten murder is actually to sidestep the questions. What’s gone wrong with the run of the mill, the gleeful boycotters and blackballers, and those others who just went along, who caved in against their better instincts?
Not that I’d have wanted such questions to dominate. The angriest songs on the Chicks’ new Taking the Long Way are the best; “Not Ready to Make Nice,” the crucial first single, reminds us the fight’s not over. But the heart of the album is the subtly ambitious second half. The styles are familiar enough — Eagles and Beatles, Sheryl Crow, Martha & the Vandellas — and the idea of mixing styles and singing them gently is right out of the early ’70s. What’s very ’00s, though, is how much the Chicks pack in, vocals piling one atop the other, instruments crowding around but each moving in a somewhat different direction. And occasionally, in the more personal lyrics, there’s an intellectual restlessness to match the musical one. In “Voice Inside My Head,” Natalie sings, “I want/I need/Somehow to believe in the choice I made and I’m better off this way” — that is, better off with the husband and child she has rather than with the man she threw over 10 years ago. But the song gives us two Natalies, one as she is and one imagining she could have been someone different. What would have happened if the Chicks had a similar double view toward the political events that engulfed them?
Country music itself has a double view: first, that the world is right and that our values are four-square, even if as individuals we struggle and cheat and damage each other and screw up; and second, that our world is going under, taken down by those who buy us out and belittle us. And we secretly buy into our own inferiority. The Dixie Chicks rose above this by representing a blonde girl-power glamour while playing a country music that felt liberated and guilt-free. ‘Cept underneath this was the sense that they were just playing country rather than being country, and this was part of their appeal, representing country’s noncountry urges. Now, in the statement that set the rage fires burning, the Chicks weren’t literally saying they were ashamed of Texas, but that’s what it comes down to: Texas is responsible for nurturing Bush, and Bush is something to be ashamed of. And with Texas comes the whole South, and the country audience in general, who took it personally and went nutso. Of course, that audience was being chickenshit for then ostracizing, rather than engaging, the Chicks. But to engage would mean acknowledging the insecurity and shame.
This album may be the Dixie Chicks’ best. Still, an opportunity feels lost. At this point, there’s no way for them to communicate with their detractors, but I wish they’d felt their way into their detractors’ innards.
The Dixie Chicks play Madison Square Garden Tuesday at 7:30, $40 — $90.