Music

The Chicks’ New Album Abandons Dixie but Finds Strength in Country

On Gaslighter, the band updates its sound but still finds the political in the personal.

The Chicks perform onstage.
The Chicks perform at Qudos Bank Arena on March 29, 2017, in Sydney Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Don Arnold/WireImage/Getty Images.

“Dump your racist boyfriend.” The video for “March March,” the solitary conventionally political song on the first new album in 14 years by the artists formerly known as the Dixie Chicks, pauses pointedly on a picture of a woman of color in a mask holding that sign, amid its montage of protest actions. Simultaneously, titles flash a long list of names of Black victims of police shootings. The song itself, from this week’s Gaslighter, originally meant to be released in May, is more grounded in the Women’s Marches against Donald Trump, the March for Our Lives teen movement around school shootings, and Greta Thunberg’s anti–climate change youth protests. The video smartly updates it to take in the recent anti–police wave. But by lingering on that photo, it adds a spin that’s classic Chicks—both relevant and irreverent.

The 2003 backlash against singer Natalie Maines’ acerbic comments about President George W. Bush drove the Chicks off mainstream country radio at a time of post-9/11 patriotic fervor. But before that, their record-setting sales and popularity were built partly on stinging fantasies of revenge on duplicitous dudes, most famously “Goodbye Earl.” It was a trendy subgenre at the turn of the century, before female country artists were shunted to the margins in the wake of both the Chicks’ travails and the rise of “bro country.” Every bit of that history comes to mind in seeing that “Dump Your Boyfriend” message—and while hearing Gaslighter in its bracing whole.

After her Grammy-sweeping, middle finger–raising 2006 retort “Not Ready to Make Nice,” Maines retreated mostly to domestic life, aside from one rock-leaning solo record. Her bandmates, sisters Emily Strayer (banjo) and Martie Maguire (violin), put out two folk-duo albums as the Court Yard Hounds.* The remaining release the trio owed Columbia was planned to consist of covers, until Maines got caught up in a heart-mangling divorce, which gave her songwriting a new impetus. Those new songs bring a post-#MeToo energy to the maneuvers she’s been making all along, forged here with Strayer and Maguire as well as Jack Antonoff—the decade’s most prominent boy-genius helpmeet to outspoken young female songwriters (Lorde, Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey)—plus a handful of Los Angeles studio-pop designated players.

Meanwhile, in short order, the nation’s piqued awareness of systemic racism has toppled not only historically offensive statues and brands such as Aunt Jemima and the Washington NFL team, but the slavery-fetishizing name of the Chicks’ Nashville peers Lady A, formerly Lady Antebellum. The Chicks always had a more knowingly ironic, perhaps too blithe relationship to their handle, which originated as a saucy twist on the Little Feat song “Dixie Chicken” long before Maines joined them. But the three followed suit last month, finally ridding themselves of their Southern sobriquet and its associations with Blackface and the Lost Cause. (Also, unlike the newfound Lady A, which quickly took the head-slappingly self-contradictory turn of suing the Black blues singer who previously recorded under that name, they went above and beyond their due diligence by reaching out to a 1960s New Zealand band also called the Chicks.)

Very few platinum-level artists have legacies so oversaturated with signification as the rechristened Chicks’. This is the wire Gaslighter walks with surprising poise. Despite its many non-country moves, it still sounds like the same trio—the setting of Maines’ individualistic lead vocals into the sibling harmonies of her partners is unmistakable, and the banjo and fiddle integrate well with Antonoff’s synths, organs, and beats. Maines’ newer Los Angeles base (you can hear a little Haim in songs like the thirsty “Texas Man”) clasps hands with her partners’ Southwestern druthers. Above all, it overcomes the dilemma of how to live down the Chicks’ own legend—by interlocking with the succeeding generation. The last time the Chicks put out a record, pop songs were not bound up in celebrity metanarratives nearly so much as they are today. On Gaslighter, Maines explores how her habitual frankness might fit in with that new style of self-disclosure.

Though traditionalists might not hear it, the way it does so is stone-cold country. Yes, this divorce-centric album is both post-Lemonade and post-Swift: The Chicks’ latest high-profile controversy came from performing “Daddy Lessons” with Beyoncé on the 2016 Country Music Association awards, and the trio last appeared on record backing up Lover’s anguished “Soon You’ll Get Better,” about Swift’s mom’s cancer. In interviews, younger megastar Swift has spoken about the Chicks as both an inspiration and a Nashville cautionary tale used to spook her away from political expression for much of her career.

The links with Beyoncé and Swift are clear on Gaslighter’s most scandal-mongering track, “Tights on My Boat,” which echoes in cadence “Hold Up” and in its “I shoulda known you were trouble” lyrics a certain 2012 Swift hit. It seems to spill a flood of tea about Maines’ ex-husband’s infidelities—her girl-with-the-left-behind-tights is the new “Becky with the good hair.” But on another level, Maines is in line with the Carter Family’s Sara Carter singing the proto-feminist “Single Girl, Married Girl” in 1927, Kitty Wells denouncing a barroom rival via “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels” in 1952, and love-triangle-fracturing tunes like Loretta Lynn’s 1968 “Fist City,” Dolly Parton’s 1973 “Jolene,” and Shania Twain’s 1995 “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?”*

There’s a not-so-pop, resigned ambiguity to Maines’ approach—not only does she blame the man in the equation while hesitating to demonize her rival, but she wants to hold out some space for her ex to grow up and do the right thing. You seldom hear that in conventional radio girl-power anthems. In the album’s closing track, “Set Me Free,” Maines urges her wrongdoer to set her loose by signing the legal papers—reminiscent of Miranda Lambert’s “Got My Name Changed Back” on the Pistol Annies’ 2018 Interstate Gospel,except that this song seems to be written from the middle of the mess rather than on the other side. Instead of just dancing on the grave of the relationship, she also stops to argue: “You risked my body, broke my spirit … [but] I’ve seen it with my own eyes/ There’s a good guy in there.” It’s a little hard to believe by that point in the album, but it’s generous, and in the process, it’s perhaps healing for the singer herself.

Within these still-Nashville-conditioned idioms, unlike Swift or Beyoncé, Maines succumbs to Manichean opposites of good vs. evil only when she needs to purge. My least favorite track here is “Everybody Loves You,” a cover of a potent song by then-teenage artist Charlotte Lawrence whose relative lack of subtlety suffers by its company. Still, it’s among the signs of Maines’ cross-generational attention. And there’s an uncool-except-in-country embrace of motherhood that lends multiple dimensions. On second track “Sleep at Night,” Maines declares not only that what her sons might go through makes everything in the split heavier, but, “You’re only as sick as your secrets/ So I’m telling everything,” which becomes the album’s semimanifesto. In “Julianna Calm Down” (which name-checks her bandmates’ daughters), the solidarity petition “For Her,” and—by counterbalance, for her sons’ sake—“Young Man,” she directly appeals to kids who have to make order from the chaos of their parents’ lives as well as their own.

I don’t think Gaslighter is ever quite as captivating musically as peak-era Chicks, but that would be a lot to ask from a band whose core has been together for a quarter-century. Antonoff’s craft—along with guests such as St. Vincent’s Annie Clark and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer (and frequent L.A. sessionman), Chad Smith—means that the momentum seldom flags. Still, it never quite grazes the group’s past highs. But for a band that did so much in its time to liberate itself and its fans, then lost so much by doing so, this album serves as a rare account of the weight of being a spokesperson while still being a person. It’s about how to live up to it, and how to swear it off.

When the title Gaslighter was announced, listeners might have imagined that the very-online feminist shibboleth meant the Chicks barreling into an album-length editorial about our current context. Instead, most of the music is about intimate rather than national revelations—though you can apply the metaphors as you please. It addresses the political moment without being subsumed by it, or without falling into the trap of being middle-aged musicians trying to mimic the latest empowerment struts. Perhaps they’ll turn these songs into larger statements when the stadiums reopen, but meanwhile, there are racist boyfriends to be dumped.

Correction, July 18, 2020: This piece originally misstated the number of albums released by the Court Yard Hounds. There are two albums, not one.

Correction, July 17, 2020: This piece originally misidentified the Carter Family member who sang “Single Girl, Married Girl.” It was Sara Carter, not Mother Maybelle Carter.