In the 13 years since the Dixie Chicks released 2006's Taking the Long Way, we've had three new presidents, four new Supreme Court Justices and six Olympics. What we haven’t had, however, is a new Dixie Chicks album. There's been no shortage of puns to explain the group’s absence ("they've been a 'Long Time Gone' from making music!"), but nothing more substantial than teases from the studio.
That is, until now. Last week, frontwoman Natalie Maines used Instagram to break the news — alongside bandmates Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, as well as assumed producer Jack Antonoff — that, finally, a new Dixie Chicks album is coming. But when? All Antonoff could say is "someday." This is great news, of course: it's always been the right time for a new Dixie Chicks album, and the hole they left not only in the landscape of country music but pop culture at large has yet to be filled or sealed. But in 2019, it's quite possible that we actually need the Dixie Chicks more than ever.
Country music has gone through enormous changes since the Chicks departed the recording scene in 2006 — Taylor Swift blew up the genre then blew on out, followed by the unrelenting party-and-trucks mode of Florida Georgia Line-era bro country, which still manages to dominate the charts today, albeit in a slightly more grown-up form. In some ways, country in 2019 is more sonically diverse than ever: everything from Kacey Musgraves’ psychedelic pop-country to Thomas Rhett’s Bruno Mars-infused sounds to Luke Combs’ neo traditionalism is making waves on a mainstream scale, and Americana is a happy home for the remaining outliers. But it's also a genre at a crossroads, with some praising its evolution and others worried that it's headed into a wasteland of snap tracks, canned drums and pop collaborations, diluting itself to an unrecognizable, male-dominated form. And after the success of "Old Town Road," conversations about what is "country" and what is not are reaching a fever pitch.
The Chicks, however, have always been country. What they have represented, since their first album, is a place for the traditionalists and modernists to meet in the middle — they played classic country instruments expertly well but in melodic, radio-friendly arrangements, they sang about murder and rage and "Wide Open Spaces," but their pop construction was second to none. Their harmonies were rich and Maines' vocals were full of vinegar, and their message was that women can be multi-dimensional and unapologetic and never be second fiddle (but also play the hell out of one, too).
The Nashville of the late ‘90s, when the Chicks released their breakthrough album Wide Open Spaces, was undergoing a transformation not too dissimilar from the Nashville of now: Shania Twain, growing into superstar status, suggested we "Rock This Country" with the help of producer Mutt Lange, and Alabama made sure that southern rock was equally on the table. These turned-up amps felt as uncomfortable to some as today's EDM collaborations, but when the Chicks got raucous — like on the barn-burning "Sin Wagon," which charted despite being an album cut and mentioning (gasp!) “mattress dancing” — the fiddles and twang just got louder. They were disruptors, but from the inside out (with several No. 1 songs on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart to prove it). They cared as much about the legacy of country music as the nervous traditionalists, for whom a simple image of Twain in leopard print could inspire shivers. But they also had no desire to simply exist in the past.
"Now they sound tired but they don't sound Haggard," the Chicks sang on "Long Time Gone,” back in 2002. "They've got money but they don't have Cash. They got Junior but they don't have Hank."
They were bemoaning the lack of "country" on the country charts, and that song sounds just as fresh today as it did then. The only major difference between then and now is that, back in 2002, it actually received ample airplay. After Maines made her now-infamous comments about President George W. Bush onstage in England in 2003, however, radio ceased to play their songs — after 2002’s Home spawned three top two Country Airplay hits, Taking the Long Way failed to even land a song higher than No. 36 on the chart.
Since then, radio's also ceased to play many women in general, with recent reports finding around 13-15 percent representation on the charts. Nashville's long held the Chicks' expulsion as both a point of warning to artists who want to get political ("you don't want to get Dixie Chicked!" is a common refrain) and a point of embarrassment – no one is particularly proud of how radio handled their blacklisting, as a sold-out arena tour in 2016 easily proved. And most everyone is ashamed that the country radio of today finds simply being a woman enough of a reason to keep an artist off a playlist, no shocking political comments required.
A new Dixie Chicks album would give country radio a moment of reckoning – do they settle the score, and play whatever new single the Chicks are offering? Surely, working with Antonoff (who has produced albums for Lorde and Swift), it will be radio friendly. Or does radio continue down a myopic path against which the Chicks, alongside the much-anticipated Maren Morris/Brandi Carlile/Amanda Shires/Natalie Hemby supergroup The Highwomen, can lead a resistance?
The Chicks, of course, have never minced words when it comes to their beliefs and passions, and their presence could also be a lodestar for a genre currently struggling with how to relate to an increasingly tense political climate. Traditionally (but often incorrectly) pigeonholed as a conservative genre, the past few years have seen a bit of an awakening, particularly when it comes to issues of equality. Look no further than Pride Month for an example of the evolving progress of mainstream country music: Morris, Miranda Lambert, Kelsea Ballerini, Jake Owen and Lindsay Ell are just some of the major country artists who spoke out as allies – artists who have all had songs at country radio at one point or another. Morris alone is constantly paving new ground by challenging the genre's conventions, and Musgraves has always been vocal about her support of the LGBTQ community (and has only gotten louder as her profile has risen).
But country has also been home to some major middle-ground waffling: Carrie Underwood's "Love Wins" stops short of actually proclaiming itself in support of any particular group or another, while Luke Bryan's "Most People Are Good" grasped at general ideas of "equality" while insisting on staying neutral. And last year, the CMA Foundation appointed Mike Huckabee – who has a record of supporting discriminatory and dangerous policies – to its board. He was pushed to resign in less than 24 hours.
"I’m pro-gay marriage. Pro-gay everything,” Maines once told USA Today. She's also been vocal, along with her bandmates, about her desire for gun reform. Country music doesn't have to be one thing – it can be conservative, liberal, everything in between or none of the above. But country music in 2019 should be a place where all genders, sexual preferences and social positions can find a home to speak freely: the genre's about truth and the human condition, after all.
"I hope we can all live more fearlessly," Maines sang on "I Hope," the last song on Taking the Long Way. Country music – country radio, in particular – could use to live a little bit more fearlessly. Here's hoping the Dixie Chicks can come back to lead the way again.