It was the album Wide Open Spaces that introduced us to this wonderful band after multiple years of obscurity on independent labels. "I Can Love You Better" brought them to Top Ten, and it offered the highly underrated Kostas another . Although there's a bit of uncertainty to the vocals and production, the song still holds up thirteen years later. That same album would later go on to launch three straight Number Ones: "There's Your Trouble", "Wide Open Spaces" and "You Were Mine", which sounded far more confident and tuneful. "Trouble" didn't shy from the banjo, fiddle and steel, but it had a catchy melody and just enough pop sheen to cross over. Similarly, "Wide Open Spaces" was delightfully acoustic, but easily accessible to just about anyone with lyrics such as "Who doesn't know what I'm talking about / Who's never left home, who's never struck out / To find a dream and a life of their own…" This cut was followed by a more pop-leaning heartbreak ballad, "You Were Mine." This song aches with emotional yet direct lyrics such as "What right does she have to take your heart away / When for so long you were mine." And to close off this album, the Chicks gave heartbreak a hardcore honky-tonk spin on "Tonight the Heartache's on Me."
Album number two, Fly, saw an impressive eight singles make the charts. Strangely, two of those tracks (the melancholy "Cold Day in July" and the fun "If I Fall You're Going Down with Me") are omitted from this selection, but that's only a small complaint when one recalls those other six singles. "Ready to Run" blasted up the charts in late 1999 with its delightful tale of a runaway bride and its ear-tickling Irish lilt. Next came the ubiquitous "Cowboy Take Me Away," with its vivid list of "I want"s and yet more yearning. I've been using that word a lot, but it surely fits in well. Maines had just turned 26 when the song came out, so she was no doubt right in the middle of that long lists of wants that many young adults no doubt have. Keeping the theme quite firmly, "Without You" is a plea for a lost love to come back — perhaps the same man she was pining over in "Cowboy." Faced with the heartbreak, she chronicles the goodbye in unusual metaphor ("square people in a world that's round") on "Heartbreak Town" and dances her troubles away on "Some Days You Gotta Dance." Of course, any mention of Fly would not be complete without the notorious "Goodbye Earl." In so many ways the black sheep of early-2000s country radio, it contrasted its twisted, dark storyline of domestic abuse being avenged by murder with a sprightly melody and bold, sassy delivery. (What's more, it's yet another reason why Dennis Linde is perhaps my favorite songwriter in the genre.)
Home pushed the Chicks' bluegrass influences up to eleven, and boy, were they ever present on the Darrell Scott composition "Long Time Gone." Here, the loss of country music lifestyle, down to the sound that defines the genre, is lamented tunefully. Next came a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide," the plodding melody of which is only made more obvious with the bare-bones bluegrass instrumentation the Chicks gave it. But that slight sonic misstep (if not commercial — it was a #1 AC hit) is more than made up for on the top-notch "Travelin' Soldier," easily my favorite Dixie Chicks song. Here, the central character befriends a soldier who has to go off to war, and his death in combat goes unnoticed by everyone except her. By painting in so many details, one easily gets a crystal-clear picture of the sadness experienced by the female lead. The album wisely skips the sappy "Godspeed" and jumps ahead to their rendition of Patty Griffin's "Top of the World," which rivals "Travelin' Soldier" in its stark sadness — this time, over a man who has realized too late that he has not been there for a woman who needed him.
For obvious reasons, the Chicks were absent from radio after "Godspeed," and "Top of the World" did not make the charts. It was the angry, vitriolic "Not Ready to Make Nice" which (briefly) returned them to the country and pop top 40, while concurrently addressing the entire hatedom head-on. "I'm mad as hell and I don't have time to go 'round and 'round and 'round" may seem like a simple statement on the surface, but Maines' anger in those words cuts like a knife. "Everybody Knows" is a little less angry when it talks about the effects of fame and success on a celebrity, but it was no doubt fueled quite strongly by the backlash. Even less angry is "The Long Way Around," which feels like a more mature look from the life journey that started with "Wide Open Spaces" despite a couple subtle digs of its own.
As I mentioned, this collection didn't shy from the album cuts. Some of these offer sounds that the Chicks' singles rarely showed, such as the more rock influences of "Give It Up or Let Me Go" and "Lubbock or Leave It" or the breakneck bluegrass of "Sin Wagon", "White Trash Wedding" (both of which saw some minor chart action despite not being singles) and the instrumental "Lil' Jack Slade." Taking the Long Way is the most heavily represented here, offering five cuts beyond the singles shown here. The presence of these songs gives the album a slight unbalance towards that album, but that's only a minor complaint when those songs are every bit as excellent as the rest. (Well, if I have to nitpick, "Silent House" and "Lullaby" both overstay their welcome.)
In short, there is very little that the Dixie Chicks couldn't do musically. Whether they were playing straight-up country, bluegrass or a little bit of rock and folk, it all sounded equally professional, tuneful and entertaining. Existing fans of the band no doubt have all 30 of the songs already, but for anyone seeking out a comprehensive disc that offers all of the Chicks' best work in one package, The Essential Dixie Chicks highly lives up to its name.
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