Natalie Maines breaks out of the country
To get a handle on where Natalie Maines finds herself today, it doesn’t hurt to revisit the past, before she was packing hockey arenas with the Dixie Chicks but sometime after she was a teenager singing along to Michael Jackson and Madonna songs in her bedroom.
Let’s settle on the night of November 28, back in 1998. Maines was making her first visit to Vancouver with a band that was already earmarked for something big. If you were one of the 1,000 or so folks at the now-defunct Rage nightclub at the Plaza of Nations on False Creek, you might have noticed something: the then–24-year-old singer didn’t exactly look like someone who’d just fallen off the back of a tractor. Hitting the stage in a black hoodie and black tights, and whipping her peroxided hair like ’80s metal never died, Maines hardly seemed like a disciple of the music that made Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, and Loretta Lynn famous. It turns out there was some truth to this, borne out by her decidedly un-twangy first solo album, Mother, released this May.
As much as patron-saint rebels like Hank Williams would appreciate what Maines has already accomplished during a career that has seen her become a country mega-star, the singer argues she’s more of a rocker at heart. Rocker of course is a relative term, as the 38-year-old branches out in all manner of directions on Mother, including crunchy ’90s alt-rock (the Eddie Vedder–penned “Without You”), Muscle Shoals soul (Jeff Buckley’s “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”), and gritty slide-blues (Patty Griffin’s “Silver Bell”). She sounds as comfortable heading to the roadhouse for a bourbon-splashed blue-collar boilermaker like “Trained” as she does rolling out the cello-burnished string section for “Take It on Faith”.
“I just sang songs that I wanted to sing,” a relaxed and easygoing Maines explains, on the line from her home in Santa Monica, California. “It was definitely nice not having to think about any other factors in making those decisions. Like, ‘Will this song fit a fiddle or a banjo or three-part harmony?’ I probably got a lot out of my system in terms of doing the cover tunes that I did. Nothing was calculated—we’d finish a song, and then I would hope that I would know what the next song would be by the time it was time to start a new one.”
Maines’s main partner in crime for Mother was Ben Harper, whose career has seen him morph from mellow stoner folkie to distortion-blitzed modern bluesman. Harper and Maines—whose kids sometimes play together—started out as acquaintances in Santa Monica, and then formed a gradual bond.
“We have mutual adult friends, and we would see each other at their houses,” Maines says. “Ben came over to my Halloween party a few years ago, and he came to one of the Dixie Chicks shows. We’d see each other here and there. The first time we got together, we didn’t actually write anything. We just talked and laughed and watched YouTube videos, doing no work whatsoever, which was a good start. I need that before I can open up in a song with someone.”
Their friendship wasn’t built around music, but instead around foul-mouthed, white-trash, and entirely out-there YouTube sensations Ashli and Cindy Gay.
“It’s a mom and daughter in Mount Vernon, and they just sit there talking to the computer, dealing with Facebook questions, I guess, from haters,” Maines reports with a laugh. “It’s the funniest thing that I’ve ever seen on YouTube. It’s my favourite. Look for it—Ashli Gay and her mom, Cindy. It’s wild.”
Eventually, while messing around in Harper’s home studio, Maines realized she might have something more to offer the world than the Dixie Chicks. Covers would end up forming the bulk of the record, with the title track being the singer’s stripped-down-to-acoustic-guitar-and-church-organ take on Pink Floyd’s classic from The Wall.
“Ben is really open to anything—all of my ideas,” Maines says. “Because of that, I didn’t try to predetermine or decide if I could do a song or not. I really wanted to go through the exercise of trying things just for him.”
Those whose musical tastes run beyond Big Shiny Tunes compilations will be quick to pick up on the fact that Maines hasn’t rerecorded a bunch of number-one singles with Mother. Rather than cover chart-topping smashes—“Brown Eyed Girl”, “Welcome to the Jungle”, and “Gangnam Style”—she’s gone a considerably less obvious route.
“I decided to do songs that I know,” Maines says. “So I looked through my iPod and looked for stuff that I wanted to sing.”
If the songs she picked have something in common, it’s that they don’t belong to Acuff-Rose and they weren’t churned out on Nashville’s Music Row. There’s a very good reason for her steering well clear of country.
The genre has of course made Maines a very wealthy woman. Before you could say “Toby Keith is a flaming asshole,” the Dixie Chicks had graduated from nightclubs like the Rage to hockey arenas. The trio of Maines and sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire didn’t just make hit records, they made multiplatinum monsters. Buoyed by radio-friendly smashes like “Wide Open Spaces”, “Long Time Gone”, and “Without You”, the group became one of the biggest acts—country or otherwise—on the planet, building a fan base to rival that of icons like U2, Pearl Jam, Kiss, and Neil Young.
On some level, Maines and her bandmates weren’t above taking chances. Consider, for example, “Goodbye Earl”, a hit single from 2000 in which two high-school friends plot to kill an abusive spouse. Mostly, though, the Dixie Chicks were content to play nice, turning up at all the awards shows and smiling on the red carpet. For that, they were rewarded handsomely: in 1998, they sold more records than all other country acts combined.
Eventually, however, things went very, very wrong. Maines and her bandmates should have seen it coming.
Country music is in many ways the most fascinating genre in modern pop. Hank Williams is its patron saint, but the fact that he was a career alcoholic, a drug addict, a foul-tempered miscreant, and an all-around shit-disturber seems to have gotten lost somewhere among the suits who’ve long controlled Nashville. Famously, country’s power brokers have had little use for the rebels who have followed Williams, including Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson, all of whom made a career out of refusing to abide by the rules. Hell, Hank Williams III can’t even get played on the radio, despite making the kind of unvarnished, no-compromise records that would have made his grandfather proud.
Modern country is all about not being a fly in the ointment. You can sing about being a career badass all you want, but you’d better not step out of line when you’re doing a radio interview on KSCS 96.3 in Dallas. You either play by the genre’s notoriously conservative rules, or you accept the fact that you’ll never be welcome at a Sons of the Revolution barn-raising in Branson, Missouri.
Maines not only decided she was sick of playing by the rules, she decided to step out of line at a point in history when American patriotism was at one of its all-time highs. On March 10, 2003, just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq and with the entire country rallying around the troops, the Lubbock, Texas–raised singer grabbed the microphone at a concert at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London and made an announcement. Voicing what many Americans—from hardcore punkers to Howard Stern to the more progressive half of Hollywood—were thinking, she stated: “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.”
As anyone who’s seen the excellent 2006 documentary Shut Up and Sing knows, the Dixie Chicks instantly went from being one of the most beloved acts in pop-country to full-on pariahs. Their records were burned by “fans” across the country, the band was blacklisted by commercial radio, death threats were received, and asswipes like Toby Keith blasted the band as unpatriotic.
As the shit-storm raged around her, Maines found herself sitting back and taking stock. And, eventually, she found herself asking exactly what kind of people the Dixie Chicks—who’ve only played sporadically since winning Grammys in 2007 for their post-Bushgate album Taking the Long Way—often appealed to. The answer (think folks of the intolerant and ignorant variety) was kind of obvious, and it explains why Maines really couldn’t give a shit about country music today.
That the genre now means little to her doesn’t surprise the singer. Looking back, she realizes that she was never really much of a country fan, even if she was willing to ditch the black hoodies and play dress-up—right down to the big hair—for the Dixie Chicks’ superstardom years.
“I was mind-blown that people thought that I was something that I wasn’t,” Maines says, reflecting on her past with the group. “I was also disappointed in myself. I always felt like I was very honest, and very much who I am. On one hand, I think one of the reasons that we were popular beyond the country-music genre was that people did relate to us, and did relate to our honesty. But there was a limit to that.”
And, to her credit, Maines continues to make it clear that she’s in no mood to shut up and sing. Earlier this month, she waded headfirst into one of the most famously divisive issues in America: a woman’s right to choose. Sporting her new coif, which is more Warped Tour punkette than Music City bouffant, Maines showed up at a high-profile Austin, Texas, pro-choice rally, posing with fans, wearing a “Stand With Texas Women” T-shirt, and performing the Chicks’ post-Bush-bashing hit “Not Ready to Make Nice”.
The rally was an important one. This past June, Texas Republicans moved to pass legislation that would make the state home to the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. In response to that, Democrat Wendy Davis filibustered for over 10 hours on the day of the vote to prevent it from being taken.
The last thing country music fans—and the country establishment—want from their stars is controversy. But Maines couldn’t care less, following up her State Capitol appearance by sparring with anti-abortion activists on Twitter. (Despite her best efforts, the law has since passed.)
All this speaks volumes about where she is today. Maines freely admits that she has no idea what’s going on as far as the country charts go, mostly because she has little time for the genre that made her famous.
If the message wasn’t clear before, it certainly is now: Natalie Maines might be proud of everything she accomplished with the Dixie Chicks, but she’s not going to let the band define her. Someone get her that black hoodie from the long-ago Rage show in Vancouver, because she’s ready to spread her rock ’n’ roll wings.
“I just hope that there are some fans,” Maines says with a laugh, “and that I can build some fans for this solo stuff and career. I just want people to give Mother a chance and listen to it. It has never been brought to my attention until the album-release week that nobody’s tried to switch genres like this before. I really didn’t think about that. I’m glad I didn’t know that before, because I would have been intimidated—even though this album is who I’ve always been.”