The Chicks: ‘We were used and abused by everybody who wanted to make money off us’

When the Dixie Chicks signed to Sony in 1995, the label worried that their name was politically incorrect. At the time, the bosses were more concerned about “Chicks” than “Dixie”, a shorthand for the former Confederate states, although they warned the Texan trio that listeners in the northern states might be put off. But Natalie Maines and sisters Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire stood their ground and went on to become one of the biggest country acts of all time.

The Dixie Chicks brought traditional instrumentation back to a genre that had been growing overly slick. They used their country bona fides not in the service of misogynistic murder ballads but, rather, cheeky proto-feminist classics. Almost everything they did riled purists and pearl-clutchers, but that did not stop their first album for Sony, 1998’s Wide Open Spaces, selling more copies that year than every other country act combined.

Their slogan – “Chicks rule” – became country’s “girl power” (their unfiltered sisterhood earned them many Spice Girls comparisons), while the Dixie element made rightwing listeners assume incorrectly that the women shared their politics. (In fact, it referenced Little Feat’s 1973 song Dixie Chicken.)

The Chicks’ comeback single, Gaslighter.

The band’s conservative fans were in for a shock. In March 2003, eight days before George W Bush declared war on Iraq, Maines, the lead singer, told a crowd in London that she was “ashamed” that Bush was also from Texas. Denunciation and death threats followed. They were dubbed traitors and “Saddam’s angels”. Local radio stations organised CD-burning protests and US conglomerates banned them from the airwaves, hobbling their career overnight. They would release one more album, in 2006, their last for 14 years.

In March this year, they announced their comeback with the single Gaslighter, a triumphant riposte to men who like to silence women. Then the Covid-19 lockdown hit, George Floyd died in police custody, and global Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests changed the tone of their new album campaign. Confederate statues were falling; the country group Lady Antebellum (another fond term for the Confederate south) changed their name to Lady A. Should the Dixie Chicks not follow suit? “For many black people, it conjures a time and a place of bondage,” wrote the Variety critic Jeremy Helligar.

The trio were unusually quiet as the issue grew louder over two weeks in late June. Then they released a new single, March March, under a new name: the Chicks. The only explanation was a line on their website: “We want to meet this moment.”

The change was a long time coming, says Strayer, the banjo player, a few days after the news is announced. The band had begun to feel uncomfortable about the name on their 2016 tour, she says, with “racist rhetoric” rife in the year of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. “The Chicks” and the abbreviation “DCX” appeared on their merchandise and branding. “Things to water it down,” Strayer says. “Current events were the tipping point, but it wasn’t like we started thinking about it just two weeks ago.”

The outrage cycle that followed the official name change wrote itself. Rightwing commentators accused them of virtue signalling. The Texas Republican senator Ted Cruz said they had told “the entire South to p*** off”. Strayer refuses to dignify Cruz’s tweet with a response, and says she has no idea what virtue signalling is. She laughs when I explain: telegraphing woke values to look good online. “You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t, so we just try and keep our own compass on all that stuff.” They expected the trolls: “The people who have hated us since the Bush comment are probably the same people saying that stuff.”

On the Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 1998.

On the Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 1998. Photograph: Getty Images

As the band Zoom in from their respective quarantines – Maines is in Los Angeles, Strayer, in San Antonio, Texas, and Maguire in Austin – the video-conferencing app struggles at times with their high-volume, gleeful dissection of their history. Maines is the least filtered, and cackles as often as most people breathe. Sisters Strayer and Maguire, a fiddle virtuoso, are ostensibly more demure, but equally willing to question authority. There is none of the tedious, media-trained diplomacy and stonewalling you get from even supposedly radical modern country stars.

Childhood bluegrass prodigies Strayer and Maguire formed the band in Dallas in 1989, when they were on the cusp of their 20s. Another band member left to devote herself to more traditional music, and they fired a vocalist when they met Maines; her father, Lloyd, a renowned pedal steel player, had passed them her demo tape.

When they signed with Sony, they had it written into their contract that they would play on their own records (not a given in a genre heavy with session musicians), and fought to preserve their Texan grit when a producer said they would have to remove the banjo and fiddle for radio edits. “It was very important for us not to ‘go Nashville’,” Maines says.

Instruments intact, three songs from their 1998 album went to No 1. Still, they often felt underestimated, Maguire says. “Like, there’s no way you could be decent-looking and play an instrument and be female.” It motivated her. “I thought, I wanna play so fast and so hard and prove them wrong,” she says, balling her fists. Back then, they did not think of themselves as feminists (“That seemed like a term from the 70s,” Maines says), although they embrace it now. While they experienced iffy behaviour, such as radio promoters asking to meet them in strip clubs, they never faced direct sexual harassment, something Maguire puts down to strength in numbers: “They would have got a punch in the stomach.”

Their next album, 1999’s brazen Fly, followed quickly. It would inspire a nine-year-old Taylor Swift to learn the guitar. Today, Swift tells me: “They showed me that women in country music could play their own instruments, make their own creative choices and dictate their own artistic departures; that they could be stoic, angry, daydreamy, romantic, ferocious, prideful and sorrowful. And that complexity was nothing to apologise for.”

But the Bush incident chastened Swift, who has cited it as the reason she refrained from sharing her views on politics until 2018. Indeed, most country stars followed suit: being “Dixie Chicked” became shorthand for career suicide. The only people who have since apologised for their behaviour towards the band are the US radio DJ Howard Stern (who in 2014 called them “heroes” for what they did) and a woman interviewed in the band’s fantastic 2006 documentary, Shut Up And Sing, which followed the fallout. Protesting outside a concert, she encouraged her toddler to scream: “Screw ’em!” Years later, she wrote the group a letter “about how she’s ashamed of what she did, that she needed to learn and she’s mortified”, Maguire says. “So that was amazing.”

Natalie Maines joins Taylor Swift on stage in Los Angeles in 2015.

Natalie Maines joins Taylor Swift on stage in Los Angeles in 2015. Photograph: Getty Images

Shut Up And Sing – a suggestion that followed the group at the time – ends with them back in London in 2006, touring their fourth album, Taking The Long Way, and telling the crowd they are still ashamed that the president is from Texas. The film’s producer, Harvey Weinstein, had tried to bully the film’s female directors into a happy ending, which felt false. “He was standing, screaming at them,” Maguire says. “We were all dumbfounded.”

Maines describes that encounter as “one of the scariest meetings we’ve ever had” – and the source of her one regret in life. “I really wish I could be back in that room and go: ‘Listen, motherfucker, don’t you talk to our directors like that.’ I know first-hand how scary that man can be. He was definitely getting off on belittling them, because it was completely unnecessary and abusive.” She continues the revenge fantasy, referencing testimony from Weinstein’s trial. “Can you imagine if we had known back then that he didn’t have testicles? To have had that information!”


By 2007, Bush’s lies about weapons of mass destruction were well established, his approval rating in tatters. The Chicks no longer considered themselves part of the country music industry. That year, they won all five of their Grammy nominations – a moment of vindication. Maines wept backstage, the pressure finally dissipating. “I become a fighter when I’m going through something like that,” she says. She had sought therapy after the Bush controversy. “The goal is to be more present, so your feelings don’t build up in some way you’re not recognising.”

It was the end for a while. They raised their children. Maguire and Strayer both got divorced and made two albums together, as Court Yard Hounds; Maines released a solo album. They wouldn’t tour the US again until 2016. When Beyoncé heard that they were covering her country-rooted song Daddy Lessons live, she invited them to perform with her at that year’s Country Music Awards, which they had sworn never to play again after the genre shunned them. She wanted them to be part of a medley tracing country’s history. “We said, this would be a pretty big thing in our world. So we don’t wanna be part of an ensemble but we would do it with you,” Maines says. Beyoncé agreed. The sight of an African-American woman affirming the genre’s black roots and sharing her stage with these outlaws prompted several country bigwigs to storm out. “It’s like going back to your high-school reunion,” Strayer says. “It definitely felt a little standoffish backstage.”

With Beyoncé at the 2016 Country Music Awards.

With Beyoncé at the 2016 Country Music Awards. Photograph: Getty Images

Even if the Bush cancellation had not happened, they estimate they would still have had only one more album in them after 2003. “I feel like we were used and abused by everybody who wanted to see us do well, but also make money off us,” Maguire says. “We were really run ragged.” In 2002, they sued Sony for “systematic thievery” over alleged underpayment. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed, but they emerged with a higher royalty rate and a business that went through the label’s New York office, not Nashville – ie as pop, not country stars.

Is the business fairer today? Maguire can hardly believe the question. “No! No!” She highlights the inequality of streaming, whereby labels made their contracts with the big streaming companies, not on an artist-by-artist basis. “They’re basically saying, ‘So audit me, find a discrepancy, then sue me.’” Most artists don’t have the money or clout to try, “so it’s a crazy system”. Maguire praises the “great people” at Sony. “But we will be auditing them. It keeps the relationship good. They can prove they’re paying you and you feel good about it.”

They hoot when I ask whether they feel their future was stolen from them in 2003. “It’s just not in our nature to think like that,” Maines snorts. She repeats the question in the manner of a wracked Hollywood heroine. “There are no complaints. It is unfortunate when you get banned from the radio, but you don’t really care about the actual ban. It’s more that it’s wrong! It was unfortunate to learn that there was that sort of hatred. But we had our ego cups very filled. We weren’t grasping and desperate.”


Much of the Chicks’ superb new album Gaslighter addresses Maines’ split from actor Adrian Pasdar, after a 17-year marriage. Legally, she can’t discuss it. Reports suggest that Pasdar tried to void their prenup to gain increased financial support, and that his lawyers demanded to hear the Chicks’ work-in-progress. Maguire says it was a “silly” attempt to intimidate. “I think the laws support this – you have to be able to make your art,” she says.

While the terms of Maines’ divorce aren’t public, Pasdar appears to have lost his battle spectacularly. She can’t talk about the end of her marriage, but she can evidently sing about it. The album’s title, as everyone knows after four years of Trump, refers to psychologically manipulating someone by questioning their sanity. (It isn’t about the president, but they don’t mind listeners thinking it could be.) Tart lyrics about a girl who “left her tights on my boat” and a man without “decency” – a word Maines sings as if searching for the last trace of it on earth – are unequivocal. Later, she sings: “You lie-lie-lie-lie-lied”, relishing every note. Maines’ parents always emphasised the importance of honesty, she says. “They weren’t real political, but they were truth-tellers. Lying was not acceptable. I recognised it in the world and how it causes problems.”

Winning five Grammys in 2007.

Winning five Grammys in 2007. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty

Even in the world of country, there are signs that the Chicks’ pariah days may be coming to an end. Forty-eight hours after they released the title track as a single, it had been played 750 times on US country radio – though none of the band care, nor listen to the format. “I only turned it on ’cos I didn’t believe that we’d actually get played,” Maguire says. But four months later, it’s off the airplay charts, whereas many songs have stuck around for more than a year. Today, women and mixed-gender groups make up 13-15% of daily airplay; some attribute this pitiful representation to the Chicks’ 2003 ostracisation. In 2015, one independent radio consultant said women’s voices actively lowered their ratings. Strayer hadn’t heard this before. “That’s like saying women are too emotional to be CEOs.” “Sounds like male suppression bullshit!” Maines yells from her Zoom window. “I’d like to see the science behind this – ha! – study.”

Recording Gaslighter with Jack Antonoff – a pop star with Bleachers and producer for artists including Swift, Lorde and St Vincent – their only aim was experimentation: it’s heavy on vocal harmonies and leftfield pop minimalism. Maines’ divorce – the band’s fifth in total – gave them a lyrical theme. They marked what would have been her wedding anniversary with “a big-ass cake” and wine. “We celebrated the death of her marriage,” Maguire says. “It was a little bit macabre, but funny. I was glad that we were all together.” Over the course of recording, Maines gradually lost the “phantom ring” feeling of her old wedding band.

Dixie Chicks at Shepherd’s Bush Empire.

At Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2001. Photograph: Getty Images

I am surprised when Maines says she doesn’t talk to the sisters when they’re not working. “We don’t call each other to go, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ But every time we are together, it’s like family.” I ask Strayer how their relationships have changed. “It’s gotten stronger, because we’ve all seen each other through kids, divorces. We give each other more slack than we used to. We don’t do it because we have to be here, we do it because we want to be here.”

As an adult, Swift says it’s the survivor element that speaks to her. “The Chicks represent a sisterhood that has withstood absolutely everything. Their loyalty to each other survived scandal, seemingly endless ignorant vitriol, marriages and divorces, unabashed misogyny, unfair criticism, heartbreak and the ever-changing rules of the rollercoaster music industry. And, through it all, they have continued to make music that is surprising and compelling to me as a fan.”


The hysterical conversation sparked by the Chicks in 2003 is now everyday political discourse in an increasingly divided America. Maines says she once thought Trump could win a second term: “But I think coronavirus and the marches have put the nail in his coffin.” Strayer, meanwhile, has concerns about voter suppression.

Can the hatred Trump legitimised go back in the bottle? “I feel like we’re really gonna make change this time,” Maines says. “Enough people are fighting back.” The only time she was tempted to break her watertight quarantine was when her two teenage sons desperately wanted to go to LA’s BLM protests – though, with coronavirus numbers rising, she made everybody stay at home.

They talk enthusiastically about Confederate statues belonging in museums. “It’s not about erasing history,” Maines says, “but not having them up for worship.”

“It’s like saying that, to remember world war two, Germans have to have Hitler statues everywhere,” Strayer says. “It’s the adulation of people who lost the war. In what culture has there ever been statues for the losers?”

The new single March March distils the last four years, addressing reproductive rights, the climate crisis, the Parkland school shooting in Florida and “what the hell happened in Helsinki” between Trump and Vladimir Putin in 2018. The video shows BLM protests overlaid with the names of black Americans who have died at the hands of the police. They consulted with “people at the frontlines of that movement” about the video, Strayer says. “We wanted to make sure we weren’t stepping on any toes and making any blind decisions, as far as what three white women can say or do, and be sensitive to the situation.”

They are also making changes beyond the name. It has always been important to the band to hire a diverse crew, Strayer says, though Maines recently realised that their piecemeal efforts weren’t enough. Had their 2020 tour gone ahead, they would have offered a platform to organisations for voting and reproductive rights.

The Chicks’ new single, March March.

But, of course, the tour got cancelled, and they are not confident enough to reschedule yet. Whenever it happens, they know people will come. “Even if by being true to ourselves, we piss off half the population, there are still a lot of people who stand by what we’re saying,” says Strayer.

The Chicks have always moved on when something stopped working for them, be that marriages, toxic elements of the music industry, their own band name – though Strayer says she doesn’t discard people over political disagreements. “I would have to write off pretty much my whole family if that was the case.” What’s important is being able to change your mind, she says. “It’s not like we have to be omniscient. If you don’t feel right in your gut about something, you should be able to speak up about it and say who you are. And people can either take it or leave it.”

In that sense, the Chicks have hardly changed at all. Twenty-five years ago, it wasn’t the trio’s name that drew anyone in, but more likely a song called Wide Open Spaces – about embracing mistakes and staying open to what life might have to teach you.

The album Gaslighter is out now


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