STORY WRITTEN BY GARY GRAFF
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After 10 years of not touring or recording, the three members of the Dixie Chicks know some would like to paint the once-dominating country group as fractured and fighting.
“There’s nothing to grab onto — but people try,” the group’s Emily Robison, who co-founded the Chicks during 1989 in Dallas with sister Martie Maguire, said during an interview in Austin, Texas. “It’s much more interesting for people if we’re squabbling and there’s an undercurrent of jealousy and hatred and all that stuff. People want to stir things up like that, but we don’t see it.
“We talk about it — a little. We realize it’s gonna happen. We just let it roll off our backs.”
This year the Chicks have taken wing again, at least as a touring act, for the first time since they hit the road to promote their 2006 album “Taking The Long Way.” The trio — lead singer Natalie Maines, daughter of country musician and producer Lloyd Maines, joined in 1995 — has played a handful of dates during the interim, but this year it launched a bona fide DCX MMXVI World Tour, which opened in April in Europe and recently began its U.S. run.
And those expecting, or hoping for, any signs of rancor will likely be disappointed.
“It answers the biggest question, the elephant in the room, which is ‘Have the Dixie Chicks broken up?’” said Robison, 43. “To us it’s almost the perfect, ‘Shut up! Stop asking! Believe us when we say we’re still together, we’re just not working right now.’ So it just kind of helped us do that.”
Maines, 41, added, “We respect each other as sisters first.”
“I’m always open to touring. I like our stuff. I like playing it live. I love our fans. That part’s easy to do.”
The Chicks flew highest between 1998-2004 as one of country’s dominant acts. Its 1998 album “Wide Open Spaces,” Maines’ first with the group, was the first of four consecutive No. 1 country albums and went 12-times platinum. The Chicks scored 14 Top 10 country singles during that time as well, and won 13 Grammy Awards.
But Maines placed the group in a delicate position on March 10, 2003. While performing in London as tensions were building toward the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, she told the audience, “We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” British fans loved it, but the blowback at home was immediate, from fellow artists and country radio stations, some of which removed the group from playlists and instituted boycotts.
That the Chicks’ next album, 2006’s “Taking The Long Way,” still went No. 1 and double-platinum, was a testament to the group’s popularity. But the aftermath — chronicled in the documentary “Shut Up And Sing” — took its toll, and Maines still feels the burn.
“What sucks is where people’s opinions used to be a truer opinion about our music, now it feels tainted,” explained Maines, who subsequently moved to California. “If someone hates it, it’s probably because they hate me politically. So the judgment of it just isn’t as honest and pure as it used to be.”
Emotional wear and tear certainly influenced the Chicks’ subsequent hiatus. So did personal relationships and family issues. Less acknowledged, however, is musical ambitions that grew apart on both sides — made clear when Robison and Maguire started their rootsy band Court Yard Hounds, while Maines released a rock-leaning solo album, “Mother,” in 2013, recorded with Ben Harper.
“I always liked what the three of us had and the sound that we made, but country music was not what was the most honest to me,” Maines said. “As great as that sound is, there are rules to that sound. You’ve got to pick songs that can have a banjo or a fiddle, and I wanted everything a little more open.”
However, the Chicks never kowtowed to those perceived rules.
“Our creative decisions weren’t dictated by a radio format or this or that; they were dictated by our instrumentation and three-part harmony, so it felt good creatively,” Maines said.
Robison recalled that she and Maguire, 46, spent “a year of trying to convince Natalie to get in the studio; she didn’t want to, and we had to respect that.” Launching Court Yard Hounds, meanwhile, helped push Maines toward making her own album.
“I’m glad they were doing that because I felt like everyone was waiting for me, and I felt a lot of pressure,” Maines said. “I know they have such a need to do music, and I didn’t like feeling responsible for taking that away from them. And then I could do (a solo album) without feeling like I was cheating on Emily and Martie.”
It made Maines “more willing to play Dixie Chicks shows,” according to Maguire. And as the DCX MMXVI World Tour hits the U.S. there’s still a question of whether the Chicks will record again. Robison and Maguire clearly hope so, but Maguire noted, “We realized a long time ago we couldn’t push (Maines) too hard.” And Maines isn’t sure the three would share much common ground right now.
“I’m sure they’d rather I do a Dixie Chicks record … but I think it’s hard for me to imagine making a country record,” Maines says. “I think ‘Taking The Long Way’ is as far outside of country as (Robison and Maguire) would be comfortable going. That’s my favorite of our records, but I don’t know that they would say the same.
“But I try not to project, and never say never. So who knows? I guess anything could happen.”