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HEART OF DIXIE

After lead singer Natalie Maines told a London audience in March 2003 she was ashamed to share a home state with George W. Bush, plenty of people wished the Dixie Chicks would just go away. In a way, they did. Most country radio stations immediately yanked the trio's songs from rotation – their "Travelin' Soldier" was the nation's No. 1 country song at the time – and some even organized Fahrenheit 451-like bonfires of Chicks CDs and merchandise. Turning on them most viciously was their former hometown: The FBI and Texas Rangers were called in after Maines received a very specific death threat for the Dallas stop of that summer's Top of the World tour, which sold out every date of its three-month run, and on a Metroplex freeway, someone aimed a shotgun at a radio-station van with a picture of the Chicks on the side. Even though the trio was (and is) the biggest-selling female group in country music history, country music wanted nothing further to do with the Chicks. The feeling was entirely mutual.

Now they're back at a time when, The New York Times observed last Sunday, "America catches up with them," a reference to Bush's plummeting approval rating. Neither camp appears to have forgiven or forgotten. The first single from the Chicks' new album, Taking the Long Way (Columbia), is the lush, bitter "Not Ready to Make Nice" ("I'm still mad as hell," sings Maines), and radio has responded in kind; the song recently peaked at No. 36 on Billboard's country chart. Amazingly enough, right-wing mouthpiece Bill O'Reilly came to the Chicks' defense, opining on his show recently that radio "has no reason not to play it." Monday afternoon, TCB marshaled a battalion of MySpace friends to request it at KASE 101, the Austin country frequency that regularly dwarfs its competition in the ratings. Those that got through were told the song had not been added to the station's playlist "yet." Since it's been out for six weeks, that probably means "never." Other outlets have been kinder. One friend said she heard it on KASE sister station KVET. According to Radio & Records' Web site, KGSR-FM played the song 11 times last week, and Mix 94.7 played the entire album Tuesday morning. Though the video for "Not Ready to Make Nice" is nowhere near CMT's Top 20, it's currently the most-played clip on Austin's ME Television.

Appropriately, then, Taking the Long Way acts as the Chicks' divorce from country music, right down to the music itself. Ironically, "Not Ready to Make Nice" is the most country-sounding song on the album. Drums and electric guitars, absent from 2002's Home, are back in force. Twelve-string guitar dominates over steel. Emily Robison's banjo only shows up occasionally, most notably on the fiery "Lubbock or Leave It." Martie Maguire's fiddle parts are indentured to producer Rick Rubin's pop and folk-rock arrangements rather than anything honky-tonk. Much of the album resembles another one of Rubin's efforts, Tom Petty's Wildflowers; "So Hard" sounds lifted straight off Full Moon Fever. This in no way damages the true cornerstone of the Chicks' sound: Maines' resonant vocals offset Maguire and Robison's pristine sisterly harmonies.

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Lyrically, those looking for further tirades against Bush and the war will have to make do with Neil Young's new album. References to what the Chicks now call "The Incident" are plentiful, but politics are almost completely absent beyond a certain personal distance. Unsurprisingly, the dominant theme of Taking the Long Way is perseverance, but as much in the face of infertility ("So Hard") and a relative's Alzheimer's ("Favorite Year") as intolerance ("Lubbock or Leave It") and crashing commercial fortunes ("The Long Way Around"). "I Hope," which the Chicks debuted during last fall's telethon for Hurricane Katrina victims, closes the album with a gospel-tinged vow to forge ahead. Though it's two or three songs too long, if Taking the Long Way tanks, it won't be for lack of quality.

But it's not going to. Between the Times, 60 Minutes, and the cover of this week's Time magazine, the Chicks aren't hurting for publicity. They deserve a lot of credit for making a thoughtful, personal album when they could have just as easily – and justifiably so – released a series of anti-Bush potshots like Young. Besides, when the Incident happened, they already had millions of fans squarely in their corner, making radio superfluous at best. Those fans may not have agreed with what Maines said, but they never questioned or impugned her right to say it. This is America, where the most important voting people do is the voting they do with their wallets. So how was Taking the Long Way selling its first day of release?

"It's selling really well," said a clerk at Waterloo Records Tuesday.

Would she say it's flying off the shelves?

"I would say that."

Tickets for the Chicks' Oct. 1 Erwin Center show, on sale June 10, will no doubt go at a similar pace.

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Christopher Gray, June 29, 2007

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Christopher Gray, June 22, 2007

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