AMERICA — The Dixie Chicks could have turned tail. They could have been ready, ready, ready, ready to run back to their mega-platinum, chart-topping ways, their pickin'-and-a-grinnin', their sassy songs of sweetness and light.
America -- especially the Rushies and the Robertson-religious red-staters who have been calling for their pretty little heads for years -- loves a good apology.
Well, the Dixie Chicks offer no apologies on their new album, Taking the Long Way. Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison have chosen to stand their ground. And if that means a fight, well so be it.
Taking the Long Way isn't about partisan bickering or President Bush-bashing. That would have been too easy. Instead, the Chicks outline, in sometimes sweeping, sometimes intimate terms, what they believe is worth the fight: morals, family, fun, love and hope.
They manage that difficult task as they always have, using Maines' achingly beautiful voice and the gorgeous harmonies of Maguire and Robison, who also provide spare, poignant guitar and fiddle playing. But they also bring in reinforcements -- the steadying hand of producer Rick Rubin and songwriting help from Sheryl Crow, the Jayhawks' Gary Louris, Neil Finn, Pete Yorn, Linda Perry, Keb' Mo', Semisonic's Dan Wilson (who co-wrote six of the album's songs) and the Heartbreakers' Mike Campbell, who is also part of the backing band with fellow Heartbreaker Benmont Tench and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith.
Of course, before anything else, the Dixie Chicks have to address "The Incident" -- that night in March 2003, before the start of the war in Iraq when Maines said, at a London concert, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas."
Given everything that has come since, it seems like an innocuous comment. That it touched off a firestorm of controversy -- which included protests, a ban from dozens of country radio stations and even death threats -- only reinforces how fragile the case for the war was. In retrospect, if Americans' support of U.S. foreign policy can seemingly be derailed by a spunky country trio, perhaps that policy needs to go back to the drawing board.
After The Incident, America's Sweethearts had somehow been painted as two Thelmas and a Louise, but, to their credit, they didn't back down. They kept driving -- continuing to release great singles that country radio refused to play and plowing through an emotional, sold-out tour.
The Chicks deal with the issue head on in the first single, "Not Ready to Make Nice," when Maines asks, "How in the world can the words that I said send somebody so over the edge that they'd write me a letter sayin' that I better shut up and sing or my life will be over?'" as the strings swell. After that, when she declares, "I'm not ready to make nice, I'm not ready to back down," it becomes understandable.
The Incident hangs heavy over the first half of the album, which is arranged to approximate a journey from anger to acceptance. In the opener, "The Long Way Around," the new song that sounds closest to the country-pop that filled their first two albums, Wide Open Spaces and Fly, Maines sings, "It's been two long years now since the top of the world came crashing down."
"Easy Silence," the new song that sounds closest to the Patty Griffin-influenced alt-country that dominated their album Home, is a pretty, understated love-during-wartime ballad.
After those nods to their past, the Chicks begin to stretch musically, with nods to Lucinda Williams on "Everybody Knows" and Tom Petty on the Southern-fried rock of "Lubbock or Leave It."
They draw on the Pogues for "Bitter End," a sharp poke in the eye disguised as a chummy Irish drinking song. It's a kiss-off to all those who abandoned them, as Maines repeatedly asks, "Oh, where'd you go?" before issuing a "farewell to old friends," ending with "We'll still be here when you come 'round again."
The Chicks can't let that sour taste linger, pairing "Bitter End" with "Lullaby" -- one of their sweetest songs ever, a spare, acoustic ode to their kids, in which Maines asks, "How long do you wanna be loved? Is forever enough?"
"Lullaby" is the album's turning point, as if once their love for their kids -- there's seven of them now, all 5 and younger -- is declared, they are reminded why they have to move on.
The second half of Taking the Long Way is more relaxed, featuring songs that are less confrontational, yet still potent because they are still clearly singing about themselves.
"Voice Inside My Head" is strong, capturing the SoCal, peaceful-easy feeling the Eagles were mining in the '70s. But "I Like It" is the standout, an upbeat bluesy rocker that sounds like a lost Bonnie Raitt number, with girl-group harmonies delivered by dueling Linda Ronstadts in her "Hurt So Bad" days. It's a song so undeniably catchy that if country radio ignores this one, Congress may have to call some more hearings to investigate collusion again.
Taking the Long Way ends with the gospel-tinged "I Hope," an uplifting, though still slightly skeptical, dream "for love, for joy and laughter, you'll have more than you'll ever need."
"No, I don't have all the answers," Maines sings. "But I hope."
Taking the Long Way shows how great art comes from adversity, how what doesn't kill you makes you stronger and how hope still springs eternal. In other words, the Chicks still rule.
Glenn Gamboa writes for Newsday.