My love affair with the Dixie Chicks began around age four with the release of the Texan trio’s debut album, Wide Open Spaces. We listened to the CD in the car and on the stereo in our living room. Every other night I listened to it through fuzzy boombox speakers on a cassette tape that shared its other side with the Backstreet Boys’ 1999 album, Millennium. Wide Open Spaces was and is a perfect album, a combination of funny, light-hearted lines about misplaced love and drinking away the pain of being the fool who couldn’t see, and heart-wrenching appeals to times of love and laughter and happy ever after. Not unlike Millennium, Wide Open Spaces sandwiches the slow jams neatly between upbeat tunes, providing the listener with an endless rollercoaster of emotional projection.
Natalie Maines, Martie Erwin Maguire, and Emily Erwin Robison managed to take true honky tonk country and popularize it in the time of boy bands and Britney Spears. Everyone I know is familiar with that album and most of them like it. Fifteen years later, I would have PBR-fueled discussions on the porches of show houses about the Dixie Chicks’ achievements of female empowerment while punk bands played loudly in the basement. Wide Open Spaces is timeless. I loved it in 1998, and I love it today. Yet, this album and this band was stand-alone for me, rather than the introduction to an obsession with the genre as a whole.
That wouldn’t happen for about six more years, when, in 2005, the world was introduced to a sweet-hearted Oklahoman goddess.
I was perched atop the creaking mattress we subjected our guests to, clutched in the throes of the last season of American Idol that mattered. Season 4. Carrie Underwood’s season. Like Simon and Randy, I’d fallen in love with her from her audition tape when she sang “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt (and clucked like a chicken and discussed the third nipple she’d had removed—the forgotten facets of Carrie). My family and I had watched the entire season, until for some primetime TV scheduling reason they left me to watch the crowning of my country queen alone. I cried easily as a child: when I didn’t get my way, when my friends were mean to me, when I got bad grades, and when Ryan Seacrest announced that, with a record-breaking 500 million votes, the season was over and Carrie had won.
By 2005, the Dixie Chicks were still battling an ugly divorce with country music radio stations nationwide. Two years prior while on stage in the UK, Natalie Maines announced, “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” Their British audience erupted into cheers, having spent the day protesting the war Bush was opening in Iraq. Within days, the quote was reprinted and warped in the US and country music fans turned their backs on the band. Bush, himself, noted that while the women were allowed to express their opinions, they “shouldn’t have their feelings hurt” if people stopped buying their records.
In a clip from the phenomenal 2006 documentary, Shut Up and Sing, Martie notes that fans had imposed a perfect, nice-girl, all-American image onto the trio and so uncovering their so-called lack of patriotism created the perfect storm. It’s no secret that the world of country music is dominated by conservative fans and ideology. It is perhaps a better kept but not well-hidden secret that mainstream country is woven with misogynistic threads which is why, undoubtedly, the Dixie Chicks were already perceived as a threat in their industry.
When the Dixie Chicks as we know them now went in search of a record label, they struggled to land an offer. Everyone, it would seem, was reluctant to take their chances on an all-women country band. There’d been several big-name women country artists already, from Loretta to Dolly to Reba, the last of whom was still topping the charts when the Dixie Chicks came on the scene. But a whole band of women? Only the mother-daughter duo, the Judds, came before them, Naomi Judd having endured sexual harassment and belittlement before reaching out to a producer whose child she once nursed and showing him their demo tape. He found it charming, which in this instance feels less than two degrees away from quaint. We got songs like “Mama He’s Crazy” and “Why Not Me” but not without a cost for these two women who just wanted to take their lives into their own hands.
It was a mistake not to sign the Dixie Chicks. Once they got their deal with Sony, they blew up. In 1998, they sold more albums than every other country group put together. In the next five years, they’d hit record sales both as an all-women band and as a country group. They were known and loved all over the world and they did it without resorting regularly to what feels like a staple of the genre: the it’s-her-fault-for-being-a-slut song.
When Carrie Underwood’s debut album, Some Hearts, came out in 2005, the Christian salvation ballad, “Jesus Take the Wheel” topped charts alongside the less Christian, anger-fueled breakup song, “Before He Cheats.” I knew this album back and forth, knew every line of every song, including, “Right now, he’s probably slow dancing with a bleached-blond tramp and she’s probably getting frisky.” Oh, and, “He’s probably buying her some fruity little drink ‘cause she can’t shoot whisky.” Oh, and let’s not forget, “She’s probably up singing some white trash version of Shania karaoke.”
“Before He Cheats,” in theory, is directed at the man with the souped-up four-wheel drive. Except that it kind of isn’t. She’s not just mad at him for cheating. It seems that she’s mad at the woman he cheated with, like it’s because she’s a “tramp,” because she’s “getting frisky” that this man is breaking the ties of their relationship.
A year later, Taylor Swift’s self-titled debut hit the stands from which came the fifth and final single of the album, “Should’ve Said No.” The misogyny in this song isn’t quite as direct, perhaps in part because Taylor was only a teen when the album came out. That being said, there’s something a little sinister about lines like, “You should’ve known that word of what you did with her would get back to me,” and, “Was she worth this?” It’s not enough to let us know that the boyfriend is a cheater—we need to remember that there was a “her” involved, to let our imaginations fill in the gaps of what it was they did. It’s not just a matter of regretting his actions, it’s a matter of weighing the worth of one girl against another.
This woman-on-woman finger pointing isn’t exactly new to the genre. One of the greatest country songs of all time, Dolly Parton’s 1973 “Jolene,” specifically calls on the other woman not to “take” one woman’s boyfriend “just because [she] can.”
All of this is not to say that the Dixie Chicks didn’t write breakup songs, songs about cheating, songs about loving a man who loves someone else. They absolutely did. The difference was that the majority of the time, if there was a “she” involved, it was just the “she” that he loves. She’s not a seductress, she’s not a tramp, she’s not getting frisky. In other words, it’s not a case of it’s-her-fault-for-being-a-slut.
In the song, “There’s Your Trouble,” the primary issue is this: “You can’t see I love you, you can’t see she doesn’t.” Quite frankly, the blame is his to bear for being blind to the truth. There’s no real push to prove that the “she” in the song is digging her claws in just because she can. She’s, in fact, not even there. The conundrum is actually quite similar to the one Taylor poses in “You Belong With Me” except that in the Dixie Chicks’ rendition of the story, we don’t need to know that “she doesn’t get your humor” or that “she wears short skirts” or that she’s “a girl like that.” Catch my drift?
If you know Wide Open Spaces as well as I do, you’re probably waiting for me to address the opening song, “I Can Love You Better.” Yes, the woman in this song is apparently hiding a “devil in that angel’s face.” Or maybe we should look at the line in “You Were Mine,” when the question is posed, “What right does she have to take you away?” I’m not going to perform mental gymnastics to try to prove that this somehow isn’t like what I’ve just highlighted in Carrie’s work or Taylor’s or Dolly’s. I will say that with the exception of “I Can Love You Better,” they never went that far out of their way to focus on the “she.”
As uncomfortable as it might make you and I to confront the whispers of woman-blaming in these two songs, this isn’t what made the country radio establishment and listeners uncomfortable. Instead, it was two songs off the 1999 album, Fly, that caused this conservative audience to clutch their pearls and led more than one country station to remove the Dixie Chicks from their rotation entirely.
The first was “Sin Wagon,” a song about a woman who is ready to live her life after getting pushed around by a bad man, a woman who is ready to do “a little mattress dancin’.” For once, the woman who is unafraid of her own desire is not the villain. She’s a tongue-in-cheek sinner—that’s right, she said mattress dancin’—and she’s damn proud of it.
The second was one of my all-time favorite songs, “Goodbye Earl,” which tells the story of Mary Anne and Wanda, two best friends who poison Wanda’s abusive husband. It’s a call to arms not just to stop your abuser by any means necessary, but to embrace the power found in the relationships women share with one another. It reminds women that there is always the option of a life devoid of men—just partner up with your best friend and buy some land and a roadside stand; you won’t lose any sleep at night.
If songs about reclaimed female sexuality and good old-fashioned, women-led vigilante justice aren’t feminist, I don’t know what is.
And there you have it, there’s your trouble. In popular memory, it was jingoism, alone, that led to the smashing of Dixie Chicks CDs and picketing of sold-out arena tours. The truth is that it didn’t start with Natalie’s anti-war statement. It wasn’t just that she exercised her freedom of speech in the “wrong place,” acted like a “traitor” by expressing her dislike of the president in another country, as many former fans proudly proclaimed. Even when they were one of the most popular bands in the nation (and, arguably, in the world), there was the underlying sense that they, a band of women, a band of feminists, were a threat to those mythical conservative values half of the country supposedly holds dear.
When the band’s manager broke the news that Natalie’s comment was all over conservative American news publications, they joked about reminding the press that it was Natalie’s comment, alone. In reality, this was never the tactic they would follow. “We’re a sisterhood,” Emily said. They would rise together. They would fight together. If they had to fall together, so be it.
Towards the end of Shut Up and Sing, Martie cries. Not because of the band’s fall from glory, not because of a frustration towards Natalie for making the comment that would rouse a nation. She cries because she worries that Natalie can’t forgive herself for what has happened.
In an alternate universe, the Erwin sisters could have turned on Natalie, distanced themselves from her and her comments and her reaction to the backlash. Instead, they appeared by her side on the Entertainment Weekly cover that scandalized their former audience. Instead, they came together and wrote a record on which they told the world, “I’m not ready to make nice. I’m not ready to back down. I’m still mad as hell and I don’t have time to go round and round and round.” They chose to take the risk of falling together, three women, three devoted members of a sisterhood, which is why, in the end, they never fell.
I couldn’t tell you what Carrie Underwood is up to these days. What I can tell you about Taylor Swift is merely a reflection of her unwavering place in the spotlight that seems to infiltrate every nook and cranny on the internet. When I loved the genre, a long but limited phase, I loved the music these women were releasing. I mean this with no offense to them or their fans, but the love I had for them was not a love that was built to last. It lives, now, only in a place of occasional nostalgia.
I am happy to report that, based on the recently released single, “Gaslighter,” the Dixie Chicks are still feminist and still outspoken in their beliefs and convictions.
I worried that in my attempt to write an essay on the feminism of the Dixie Chicks, you would find a thinly veiled love letter. I realize now that it is both at the same time and it is also a thank you. Thank you Natalie, Martie, and Emily for teaching little girls (and grown women) that losing love is not an excuse to hate the other woman, that, in fact, other women are your most important allies in life, and that nothing and no one can stop you, can even make you quake in your boots, as long as you stand up for what you believe in.