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Look Away, Dixie-Land

One-line description.


The Chicks Gaslighter Columbia Records, $11.98 (CD)

I’m pretty sure the Dixie Chicks were my first concert. It was at the Houston Rodeo, and I distinctly remember loving it, but also being extremely scandalized when Natalie Maines tripped on one of her lyrics in the second verse of “Goodbye Earl” — a mistake my eleven-year-old self assured my father that I never would have made. My second Dixie Chicks concert was in Nashville sometime during high school (my car had an “Earl’s in the Trunk” license-plate frame, so as you can tell, by then I was one of the cool kids). I went with my sister and two of my cousins, refused to sit down once during the show, and sang along to every word. There was an old guy behind us — drunk off his ass from before the opening band had started their set — who was totally entertained by the four of us, and all night he kept telling my sister, in reference to me, that she had to “Sign him up! Woo! Sign him up!”

You might think the half-decade I spent in religious life in my twenties would have cured me of my Dixie Chicks fandom, or at least distracted me from it. But a picture of me from 2016, fourth-row, in habit, at their concert in Denver, would disabuse you of that foolish notion.

I remember the day the Dixie Chicks were canceled as well as I remember September 11 (at that age being a year and a half older makes a difference). “Just so you know,” Natalie had told a concert audience in France, “we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence. And we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” And the rest is history. On March 10, 2003, the Dixie Chicks became the original victims of cancel culture (though early-aughts country radio employed slightly different inquisitorial standards than those to which we are accustomed today). At the time I was sympathetic to the Chicks’ opposition to the war — which is to say, my parents were — and got myself teased as a “pacifist” for it in seventh grade, which was about the nastiest slur my classmates in Texas could muster. The Dixie Chicks came out with one more record after that — Taking the Long Way, in 2006 — which won the Grammy for Album of the Year, but tanked on the radio since they still couldn’t get a country station to play it. As it turned out, Taking the Long Way would be the very last Dixie Chicks album.

Yes, the girls have just released a comeback album after fourteen years away. But it isn’t a Dixie Chicks album, because Natalie Maines, Emily Strayer, and Martie Erwin McGuire aren’t the Dixie Chicks anymore. One might be forgiven for thinking that “Dixie” was not the half of their name most likely to be seen as backwards and offensive in 2020. But one might also be forgiven for thinking that their fellow country artists Lady Antebellum would not have decided that stealing the stage name of a black blues singer was a particularly sensitive or flattering response to racial injustice either. In both cases, here we are: “Lady A.” and the “Chicks.” And the Chicks formerly known as Dixie have a new record: Gaslighter.

Natalie, Emily, and Martie have always done the angry thing, and historically, they’ve done it well. Think “Sin Wagon,” “Lubbock or Leave It,” or the big one following their George W. cancelation, “Not Ready to Make Nice.” And like any good country artists, they’ve sung about cheating and heartbreak a lot too: “You Were Mine,” “Tonight the Heartache’s on Me,” “Am I the Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way),” “Cold Day in July,” “Hello Mr. Heartache,” “Without You,” “Tortured, Tangled Hearts” — and that’s not even a complete list.

But Gaslighter is a different kind of angry, and the cheating on this record is not just the everyman country theme (all three women divorced the fathers of their children during their fourteen-year hiatus, so it’s understandable that it would hit closer to home now). The Chicks set the tone with their opening number, which happens also to be the title track, a reference to the mid-century film Gas Light about a murderous and thieving husband who avoids answering for his crimes by convincing his wife that she’s going crazy. So far, so universalizable — that sort of psychological manipulation is unfortunately pretty damn common. But then this line happens:

’Cause, boy, you know exactly what you did on my boat,

And, boy, that’s exactly why you ain’t comin’ home.

Wait, what now? What did he do on her boat? Skip ahead to track eight, not so subtly entitled “Tights on My Boat,” and you’ll get your answer: “You can tell the girl who left her tights on my boat / That she can have you now.” Alright then.

Gaslighter is full of these way-too-specific references to Natalie’s ex-husband, the actor Adrian Pasdar (i.e. Nathan Petrelli, if anyone still remembers Heroes — save the cheerleader save the world &c.). From the adultery-on-the-yacht song again, there’s this dagger: “Remember when you wouldn’t come away with me. / Sent your mom instead, yeah, that was a real thing.” And keeping with the ex–in-laws theme, she asks, “Hey, will your dad pay your taxes now that I’m done?” Or from the song “Sleep at Night” (as in, how do you): “My husband’s girlfriend’s husband just called me up. / How messed up is that? / It’s so insane that I have to laugh.” Again, general enough, but then: “Remember you brought her to our show at the Hollywood Bowl. / She said, ‘I love you, I’m such a fan.’ / I joked that ‘You can love me as long as long as you don’t love my man.’ / There’s nothin’ funny about that.” I think this is what they call art imitating life.

Eleven of the twelve tracks on this album are about Natalie and Adrian and his mistress from the Bowl and the boat. The exception is “March, March,” a protest anthem with the wokest music video you’ve ever seen, including a guy who has “Black Trans Lives Matter” written on his COVID mask at an eff-the-police rally, just to cover all the bases (Emily and Martie do have really nice banjo and fiddle solos on this one though, something that doesn’t happen nearly enough on the rest of the album). But other than that track, it’s all about the adulterer. Write what you know, as they say, but at a certain point this repetitiveness gets very tedious and just starts feeling like a broken record or a George Weigel book. The bright side (if you were looking for a bright side) is that Gaslighter definitely doesn’t hide the ugliness of divorce. But I’m afraid it leaves marriage looking even uglier.

Out of Gaslighter’s eleven divorce songs, seven are sung second-person, right at the ex. Of the remaining four, “Texas Man” is a not-so-classy personal ad for her next guy (it reminded me of the time my spiritual director gave a clergy retreat about the woman at the well: “Fathers, you may want to have a seminarian explain to you what is cougar, because this woman is cougar, fathers”). “For Her” is a warning to Natalie’s younger self, and “Julianna Calm Down” is the same for her bandmates’ daughters. Finally, “Young Man” is sung to her nineteen-year-old son, and it is by far the high point of the album. It’s also the high note: I don’t think I’ve ever heard Natalie hit a high D before, and with an octave jump into it no less (like “Bring Him Home” or “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”). Yes, she still gets in a couple digs at the ex-husband: “Your hero fell just as you came of age”; “Take the best parts of him / As your own life begins. / Leave the bad news behind you.” But it’s a beautiful and encouraging song, and the only moment of grace in an otherwise very bitter album: “After this storm, there’s nothing you can’t navigate. / Point to the truth, you’ll see it’s the only way. / You’re of me, not mine, / Perfect in my eyes. / You’re gonna be alright.”

What made Gaslighter mostly unsuccessful for me was not the anger, and it wasn’t even just the creepy specificity. It was the lack of any other topics to balance them out. As I said, the four albums which precede Gaslighter — Wide Open Spaces (1998), Fly (1999), Home (2002), and Taking the Long Way (2006) — have their fair share of cheating songs. But they appear alongside love songs like “Cowboy Take Me Away” or loved-and-lost songs like “Travelin’ Soldier.” “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)” was a lullaby for the babies they weren’t home to tuck in; “More Love” was like a lovely renewal of wedding vows (maybe the ones from “White Trash Wedding”). In “Bitter End” the girls raised a toast to a bandmate who had died. “Wide Open Spaces” was about a daughter leaving for college; “Landslide” was a woman persevering through adulthood; “Top of the World” was a man looking back from his regretful afterlife. The narrator of “Silent House” had a wife who was suffering from Alzheimer’s, whereas “So Hard” gave voice to a young couple struggling with infertility. The Dixie Chicks were once remarkable for their ability to tell a good story; many good stories, in fact, over the course of an album. But so far “the Chicks” only have one, the spurned divorcée story, set on repeat.

Gaslighter isn’t all bad. “Young Man” and “My Best Friend’s Weddings” (plural) are especially worthwhile, and honestly I’m enough of a fan of these girls to be grateful for any music they choose to bless us with. Their talent is stunning. But I have to say, whatever I may think of the band’s new name, ultimately I’m glad they changed it: Gaslighter has its moments, but it doesn’t deserve a spot in the incomparable Dixie Chicks canon.

Urban Hannon’s writing has appeared in First Things, Aleteia, and other publications.

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Urban Hannon’s writing has appeared in First Things, Ethika Politika, and other publications. He currently studies theology in Rome.