Natalie Maines shakes off the Dixie dust

Natalie Maines, front woman for country girl group the Dixie Chicks, just released a solo album—and it’s killer.

Photo © Sony Music Entertainment
Photo © Sony Music Entertainment

Natalie Maines, front woman for country girl group the Dixie Chicks, just released a solo album—and it’s killer.

Gone are the fiddles and banjos and perfect reedy harmonies, replaced with a harder, raspier sound. But one thing remains: that unmistakable voice. As usual, she lets her voice loose, only holding back when songs beg for a nuanced melancholy (which is basically every song on the record). It’s a heavy album, weighted perhaps by her last few years of silence.

In a matter of days, Maines went from America’s country music darling to one of its most hated citizens, so she might have a thing or two to say about disillusionment.

You may remember when, in 2003, Maines criticized the impending Iraq War while performing at a London concert, saying she was ashamed that then-President George W. Bush was from her home state of Texas.

She and her bandmates received roars of support from the British audience, but upon returning to America they found they’d been shunned by virtually the entire country music industry, from radio disc jockeys to once-loyal fans.

Yes, there were even CD burnings.

It was brutal. Maines received death threats, which she referenced in the song “Not Ready to Make Nice”: “How in the world can the words that I said send somebody so over the edge that they’d write me a letter saying that I better shut up and sing or my life will be over?”

Well, one thing was definitely over—Dixie Chicks concerts. They were forced to cancel engagements across the country because of lack of interest.

Maines didn’t just criticize “Dubya,” however. She had to go and take on a country god, Toby Keith, after he released the song “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.”

Though he arguably put to music what millions of his fans really felt after 9/11, Maines took issue with his dangerously narrow characterization of terrorism.

He wrote: “Man, it’s gonna be hell/when you hear Mother Freedom start ringin’ her bell/it feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you/brought to you courtesy of the red, white and blue…You’ll be sorry that you messed with the US of A/’cause we’ll put a boot in your ass/It’s the American way.”

She called him out in an interview with the Los Angeles Daily News for ignorantly targeting “an entire culture—and not just the bad people who did bad things.” She was right, but that didn’t matter. People didn’t like it and, as she found out, politics and music don’t play well together.

It’s ironic that she vocalized what pretty much everyone 10 years on accepts as common sense. She was a prophet who had the misfortune of being too ahead of her time. Not surprisingly, she took a breather to get away from it all.

But now she’s back. Thank goodness.

At a time when music a la Bieber, Perry and Beyonce has become more about the spectacle than the art, Maines is a breath of badly needed fresh air.

Her covers of Eddie Vedder’s “Without You” and Pink Floyd’s “Mother” are strong interpretations of epic songs, remade with the angst of her masterful vocals. But it’s also just awesome to hear her sing, “Mother, do you think they’ll try to break my balls?”

I love the anger in her voice. It’s not overdone, just achingly honest and with a flint-hard edge that says, “I really am so over all that.” She should be. She was bullied into silence for a while, and it’s always inspiring to see victims of ignorance rise above it all and prove that they’re better than anyone’s worst insult.

Well, she may not have completely risen above it. The song “Silver Bell” sounds awfully personal, a fact that did not escape a recent Rolling Stone reviewer, who observed, “It sounds a whole heck of a lot like a kiss-off from Maines to her old Bush-era foes: ‘How you been? I’m doing well. I hear you’re digging a hole to hell.’”

She’s definitely not digging. She’s on her way up, and I have a feeling no one’s going to stop her.