Getting off the beaten path, Chicks find way to `Home'

Texas setting, family touch inspire making of new CD

August 27, 2002|By Steve Morse | Steve Morse,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The Dixie Chicks have barnstormed the country-pop world, selling a collective 20 million copies of their past two albums while becoming known as the "female Beatles," albeit with dobros and fiddles rather than electric guitars. They've been Nashville darlings who appeal to everyone from cowboys to socialites to young suburban teens looking for empowering role models.

The latest Chicks album, however, was made not in Nashville, Tenn., but in their native Texas, where the group has officially relocated since touring two years ago. They've returned Home, which is the title of their new CD that hits stores today. And they turned their back on Nashville's pricey studios to record in a small stone house in the middle of an Austin field. It's called Cedar Creek Studio and has a recording console that once belonged to Elvis Presley.

"Just the atmosphere of the studio was great," says banjo and dobro player Emily Robison. "Some of the players were from Austin, and some were from Nashville. When they walked in, they expected catering lines and a fancy studio, yet here was this little hole-in-the-wall place. I think that kind of stuff rubs off on you. It was more relaxed and makes you get back to where you were when you were hungry."

The new music on Home wasn't even supposed to end up on a CD.

"As far as going in and doing the next big-budget record, that wasn't really in our plans," Robison says. "We just wanted to go into the studio and play around and experiment."

Before the album took shape, the Chicks were trying to enjoy some time off, after the Fly tour in 2000 that grossed more than $46 million, making it one of the best-selling tours of that year. Singer Natalie Maines gave birth to a son last year in March. Then things started to come together with Maines' father, Lloyd, acting as producer after the songs were first prepped in Natalie's living room.

"It very much seemed like a family endeavor," Robison says. "And there was a comfort factor that made this record feel like home."

Robison's banjo and dobro, along with her sister Martie Maguire's fiddle and Maines' irrepressible vocals, lend the new CD a flavor that's more timelessly country. The Chicks co-wrote a few songs, including the bluegrassy "White Trash Wedding" and two with Marty Stuart (the ballad "I Believe in Love" and "Tortured Tangled Heart"). To these they added several covers - of Stevie Nicks' "Landslide" (a song Nicks wrote at age 27, which is Maines' age), Darrell Scott's "Long Time Gone" (the album's first hit single), and two Patty Griffin tunes, "Top of the World" and the love song "Truth No. 2."

Griffin, a former Bostonian, opened the Chicks' last tour. "We first heard Patty when she opened for Shawn Colvin at the Ryman [in Nashville]," Robison says. "The sound was bad that night, and we couldn't understand a word she was singing, but we all fell in love with her voice. So we rushed out and all got her acoustic album. And once we heard the words, we were even bigger fans."

The new Chicks disc, with its increased focus on country roots and an acoustic sound, should fit right in with the commercial trend established by the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. "We were in the studio watching when that won the Grammy for best album of the year. We started jumping up and down," Robison says. That "definitely helps us as far as more fans realizing what kind of music we do. I'm sure it will open doors for our album."

Things are going well for the Chicks, a nice change.

Last summer, after the trio approached Sony about renegotiating their record deal, Sony filed a lawsuit against them for breach of contract. The Dixie Chicks responded with a suit of their own, charging that Sony had withheld $4.1 million in royalties. An 11-month legal battle ensued, along with speculation about whether the trio would leave Sony; then, surprisingly, the parties settled out of court. The terms of the agreement weren't made public, but the Los Angeles Times reported in June that the deal included a $20-million bonus for the group and an increase in its royalty rate to about 20 percent.

"It's an ongoing struggle for artists to get fair contracts, but we feel we got what we needed to get to go back with Sony," Robison says.

"It's hard for a lot of people to understand because we didn't play it out in the press. ... And many fans don't care. We are three people who have a great career going, and we have plenty of money, so whining about money issues is not going to help you connect with your fans."

There won't be another Dixie Chicks tour until next year. Robison is pregnant with a son due in November, so the Chicks will be homebodies for a while.

"We have just one show planned - at the Cotton Bowl for the Texas State Fair on Oct. 19," she says, noting that her pregnancy won't let her travel much farther. "Dallas is my hometown, so I know the doctors and the hospitals there. I'll be big as a house by then. I think they'll need the Cotton Bowl to hold me."

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