In Brief: The supporting cast of the Dixie Chicks come into the spotlight with mixed and somewhat subdued, but ultimately satisfying results.
It’s funny how I started off hating the Dixie Chicks, and yet I’ve followed their career ever since that initial bad impression of them. All it took was a particularly controversial song, “Goodbye Earl” (which you’ve got to know if you listened to any country music at all at around the turn of the century), and the resulting argument with a girlfriend who’s now been an ex for a good decade, and I was certain that I’d never grow to like the group. I tried to give Fly a fair shake, but it didn’t stick, and I subsequently ignored their follow-up Home until well after the dust settled in that huge kerfluffle over Natalie Maines‘ comments concerning a certain state that you don’t mess with and a certain man that the media loved to mess with. Part of me wanted to know whether the music was still controversial enough to warrant the frenzied “Burn the Dixie Chicks albums in effigy” parties sweeping the more rural sections of our country, and when I listened, I was surprised to find one of the sweetest slices of acoustic/folk/bluegrass music I had ever heard – an album that remains a favorite to this day even though I’m lukewarm about most everything else the Chicks have done. 2006’s Taking the Long Way, while it had its moments, was an overlong mix of attempts to snap back at a public who betrayed them and more mild-mannered, mostly forgettable country-pop songs. Then the group sort of fell off the map for several years, apparently because Natalie was at an all-time low in terms of her interest in writing new songs. (Maybe she lost a few brain cells by watching her husband Adrian Pasdar in one too many bad episodes of Heroes. I know I sure as hell did.) Eventually, the band got to the point where two out of the three of them wanted to make a record even though Natalie wasn’t up for it, and so that’s exactly what two of the three of them did.
While the Dixie Chicks haven’t officially broken up or anything, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire are now billing themselves as Court Yard Hounds. And as inadvisable as it may be for a pair of women to refer to themselves as dogs, I won’t be one of the caustic critics making the obvious joke, because they came up with a pretty good record. It’s a record that I wasn’t expecting much from, and aside from one particularly feisty song that baits their more conservative audience with enough spirit that you’d swear Natalie had been involved, I sort of glossed over most of the rest of what these two sisters had to offer for several months, until finally rediscovering the record nearly a half year after the fact. Word on the street seems to have been that these Chicks just didn’t have the same spunk without Natalie at the helm, and maybe I subconsciously believed that for a while. But giving Court Yard Hounds a fair shake, I found a lot of subtle ballads that show more convincing sensitivity than a lot of the love songs and breakup songs on many of the Chicks’ albums, and some surprisingly upbeat tracks that are a little heavier on the twang than the mostly country-pop stuff the chicks were putting out (Home being a massive anomaly). Maybe a few more middle-of-the-road tracks aimed at radio took too much precedence at first and left a bad taste in my mouth, but there’s actually a lot to love about this record if you just give it some time to sink in.
What’s important to remember here is that the Dixie Chicks existed before Natalie was part of the group, and that Emily and Martie were there from the beginning, back when they emphasized the banjo and fiddle a bit more and the pop crossover stuff a lot less. The big difference now is that Emily has become the de facto lead singer, with her sister Martie taking the lead on one track, but otherwise providing backup in the same faithful way that both sisters have during the group’s entire existence. It’s kind of cool to hear what they came up with now that they’re the ones in the spotlight for perhaps the first time. Instruments that were prominent on the Chicks’ rootsier songs like the banjo, dobro, mandolin, and of course the fiddle, come back into play here, and while the drums and electric guitar aren’t completely banished, they play more of a supporting role, as they should considering that those aren’t the instruments that the girls happen to play. I actually didn’t realize how versatile these ladies were on the aforementioned stringed instruments, as well as the acoustic guitar, since I haven’t personally watched a lot of live footage of the group or anything, so this came to me as a pleasant surprise even though a long-time Chicks fan would probably say “No duh”. Most importantly amidst this instrumentation that gallivants around from straight-up country to lilting folk to bluegrass to pop and back again, the songs almost all stand out with their own character and strike me as something that the duo wrote from the heart, not just to buy time and placate an audience hungry for another Dixie Chicks record. With maybe one or two forgivable exceptions. Those are better odds than what I got from Fly and Taking the Long Way, so hey, I can’t complain.
As if to warn you that this won’t be the usual Dixie Chicks fare, the Hounds make the odd choice of starting their record with what might be its sleepiest, sparsest song. It took me a hell of a long time to appreciate it, since it’s got very little to it other than soft acoustic guitar, light drums tapped so politely that you barely notice them, and a slight bit of fiddle near the end. it sounded rather Sheryl Crow-ish, and I’m not really a fan of Sheryl Crow. However, looking deeper at what might seem like a nondescript mellow song with lots of wide open spaces in it (ugh, sorry), one starts to notice Emily’s quietly lovely finger-picking and the unusual, almost jazzy chord progression that the song follows at times. It’s a treat to hear the sisters wrap their voices around such an unusual melody, and so while the message might be a fairly ho-hum one about getting up above it all and letting the bright city lights at nightfall assure you that everything’s gonna be OK, the performance rises above the material. Putting this at the very beginning might have the unfortunate consequence of making people think they’re in for a thoroughly sleepy ride, but let’s be fair – if they’d opened with the equivalent of “Ready to Run”, “Long Time Gone”, or “The Long Way Around”, then the group wouldn’t really establish much in the way of its own identity at the outset.
2. The Coast
This sounds more like the obligatory radio single, as it immediately jumps in with more of a cheery, pop-oriented tone to it, and it’s about little more than escaping winter weather and heading down to the beach. It’s good enough for what it is – an intended soundtrack to a leisurely drive on a winding road by the sea (I like to imagine California’s Highway 1, personally), but despite its attempts to be descriptive with its “Blue skies, green water, white birds in the air”, it mostly ends up hitting every cliche that there is to hit in the “Get in the car and drive away from your troubles” genre. It’s pleasant, you’ll probably tap your toes to it, and there’s an interesting electric guitar solo midway through that’s reminiscent of 70’s soft rock, so it’s not without its redeeming qualities (and yes, I’m feeling generous enough to consider those redeeming qualities). Still, not one of the Hounds’ better efforts, as it doesn’t do that much to stand out.
3. Delight (Something New Under the Sun)
This seems like it’s gonna be another sleepy one at first – it’s rhythmic, but slow to mid-tempo, establishing a light groove with percussion and finger-picked guitar. Quite surprisingly, it opens up into a decidedly electric chorus, which lifts the song above its simple pleas of “Baby, take a chance on me” by posing the prospect of a new relationship as the discovery of something exciting and adventurous. The song really kicks into high gear, when unexpectedly, it undergoes a genre shift into more honky-tonk territory, complete with piano (well, duh) and more cowbell! before returning briefly to its acoustic origins. Not a particularly deep song, but loads of fun once it really gets going.
4. See You in the Spring
OK, now we’re back to laid-back, sleepy mode for real. And that ain’t a terrible thing, since this languid little ballad turns out to show a bit of wit where you’re not expecting it. As romantic duets go, this is one of the more unexpected pairings that I can think of, at least recently, as Emily plays the role of a Southerner who can’t stand the cold and hassle of a northern winter, while Jakob Dylan shows up to play the northern counterpart who just can’t seem to find the Southern Comfort in the humid summers below the old Mason-Dixon line. Because of this discrepancy over climate preferences, the couple is doomed – DOOMED! – to only be together in the spring. (Autumn would also work, I suppose, but that’s harder to rhyme.) There are lots of cheesy things for couples to sing about in happy duets and lots of nasty things for sad breakup songs to reveal about a couple, but for some reason, hearing this song about a couple doing the on-again, off-again thing over something so petty as the weather just strikes me as unintentionally hilarious. I don’t think it’s meant to be funny, but hey, it’s a unique idea for a song. A generous sprinkling of banjo and dobro, plus the way that Emily, Martie, and Jakob’s voices intertwine, make this a far more engaging listen than the feet-dragging tempo would initially lead you to believe.
5. Ain’t No Son
Awwwww, YEAH. As soon as that fiddle and banjo start getting warmed up, you know the cow manure’s about to get real. (Clearly, my attempt at being folksy and urban at the same time isn’t working.) A slow, pleading intro finds the Hounds giving voice to a young man pleading for acceptance from his parents, but when the main body of the song kicks in (and it’s a rocker, folks – in a totally convincing way that ensures it still works as a twangy country song), the boy gets this harsh response from his mother: “You ain’t no son to me.” The song continues to follow the perspective of this parent who feels she’s been forced to disown her son, who by the way is gay, due to social pressure in order to keep a good standing in her conservative small town. In a way, you can almost understand the difficulties that occur on the parents’ side of such an issue – while I still believe it’s the worst thing ever to tell your own child they’re no longer your child under just about any circumstances, I can understand how someone might lose perspective and want to bow to the pressure just to keep nosy neighbors appeased. All of this is to say, the Hounds are still coming out rather clearly against homophobia here, but they’re also trying to do more than just set up the mother as a straw man. In any event, this sounds like the kind of song that the Dixie Chicks would have loved to stir up some controversy with, but due to the less visible profile of this offshoot group, the fact that it was recorded in 2010 and not 2000, and the fact that most of the conservative audience has already written these ladies off anyway, I doubt there will be much of a furor over this one. Killer song, in any event – this was the one that wowed me to the point where I had trouble noticing most of the others for a while.
Another laid-back ballad (this time in 6/8 time, just to mix it up a little) that surprisingly, eschews the expected folk/bluegrass instrumentation in favor of sparse electric guitar and piano. Like “Skyline”, it follows its own unconventional chord progression, which helps to keep my attention even though I don’t think the material’s quite as strong here. It’s not a total miss, as the lyrics make their best attempt to toe the line between a naive girl being young, dumb, in love, and not caring what others think about it, and that same girl trying to be more wise and self-aware, weighing the pragmatic realities of money and raising a family against the swooning, happily ever after sort of feeling her heart still craves regardless of those practical concerns. These same lyrics could have played as a purely innocent, naive song if sung in more of a major key by someone like, oh I don’t know, Taylor Swift, but because of the more wary melody, you get the sense that there’s a bit of wrestling with whether the fairytale’s all it was cracked up to be.
7. I Miss You
This would be the one bit of pop fluff that I could honestly do without “The Coast” was tolerable, and this song tries its darndest to be sweet as it takes on the voice of a wife stuck at home while her man travels the world, appreciative of the way he lifts her up and gives her freedom and independence, but feeling like she’s not the same without him around. (Which is likely an inversion of how family life works for these sisters in reality, since they’re likely the ones doing most of the traveling.) Lots of slide guitar, so I should love this, but it’s otherwise mild-mannered, mid-tempo radio fare, and I can’t zing a song for being mildly catchy, but that chorus hook – “I miss you, I can’t wait to kiss you” is just so utterly trite and uninspired that it just kills the song for me. It doesn’t help that when instruments like the banjo are brought in, they sound half-hearted and faded into the background. Why even bother? This is the kind of thing a songwriter writes and sells to a crossover pop star because the material isn’t distinctive enough for their own lesser-known, but generally higher quality solo work. File this one with some of the more forgettable Dixie Chicks fluff like “I Like It” or “Some Days You Gotta Dance”.
On the opposite end of the memory spectrum is this unforgettable, but devastatingly sad breakup ballad, which was penned by Martie, who sings her first lead vocal on a record (at least that I’m aware of). It’s an unflinchingly honest look at a woman’s feelings when her marriage is teetering on the brink of divorce, and as much as she searches her soul and tries to remember how happy she and her hubby once were, he’s degenerated into a sluggish drunkard – not specifically abusive, from what the song is telling me, but he’s just sort of checked out mentally. Yet when she tries to end it, he begs her to hang on, making the process that much more drawn out and painful for her. I’m not sure what the saddest moment is – it’s either when the “cry in your beer” strings come in at the second verse, or when the girls sweetly harmonize at the end of the devastating bridge – “Oh, leave with a vision of me, from when we were in love, yeah we… were on FIIIIIIIIIIRE!” This’ll probably hit all of the worst country music cliches (except for the stuff about trucks and dogs dying) for people already inclined to hate on country music, but for me, it’s powerful stuff, and I figure it hits pretty close to home seeing as Martie and Emily have both been through one divorce each (Martie well over a decade ago, and Emily recently enough that the choice to have Martie sing this might indicate that it’s a tough one for Emily to sing lead on while keeping it together emotionally). It’s not pretty, but it’s truthful, and it’s that sort of honesty that I appreciate in a good set of lyrics.
9. April’s Love
Another light, mellow folk song shows up here that you’d be forgiven for overlooking – its character is similar to skyline, and coming off of such a heart-wrenching breakup song as “Gracefully”, it’s harder to take notice of this more detached, observational song about a fling that just couldn’t finagle its way into something more lasting. Emily’s honest as she sings softly of the flame that burned briefly and then got snuffed out when they both got caught red-handed with feelings for someone else. He didn’t make any sort of move to declare his sincerity. Both of their interests waned. Sad, but not quite as striking as the marriage falling apart in the previous song.
10. Then Again
We needed to get back into more of an upbeat groove, so along comes this bouncy song in the nick of time, probably the second sassiest thing on the record (and keep in mind that this is a distant second after “Ain’t No Son”). As the acoustic guitar sets up a jerky, syncopated rhythm and the dobro has a ball sliding all over the place, Emily describes a few less-than-inspiring characters who she’d like to give a piece of her mind, only she’s too timid to speak up and kind of gets caught up in worries about whether she’s in a position to judge anyone else when she doesn’t even fully understand her own flaws. So it’s kind of a song about wanting to be the ballsy go-getter type who just says whatever’s on her mind (gee, wonder who could have been the inspiration there?), but all the same, it just isn’t her style. Some of that’s a fear that she seems to want to overcome, some of it’s the simple fact that she’s harder on herself than she is on others, and some of it’s just due to her being more of a kind, forgiving soul. It’s a solid moment of introspection wrapped in a decidedly up-tempo tune. And I really like it.
11. It Didn’t Make a Sound
Two upbeat numbers in a row so close to the end is surprising for a record that’s been so economic about spacing out its uptempo material elsewhere. It’s good timing – and interesting that they’d bury a single so far back. With a little more of that honky tonk piano feel and a rather plucky (groan) banjo leading the way, the girls set out to create the antithesis of “Gracefully” – a song about the end of a relationship that has the woman jumping up and down and hollering “FREEDOM!”, rather than crying herself to sleep like the egocentric scumbag she’s dumping likes to think she will. “My heart breaking, it didn’t make a sound”, Emily snarks in the chorus, and while I’m sure this territory has been mined by plenty of other country starlets trying to get that “You go, girl!” vibe stirred up among the crowd (including the Dixie Chicks themselves), I’ve gotta admit, it’s one of the more fun examples to be found in this category. Again, it’s due to the instrumentation. I just love to hear how well these ladies hold their own on those twangy instruments. I know some people hate the very sound of instruments like the banjo and that’s why they steer clear of country unless it’s sufficiently poppy, but for me, a guy whose tastes are all over the map, I just don’t buy the sass of a song like this unless it has the instrumental accompaniment to convince you that the performers are having a rip-roaring good time.
12. Fear of Wasted Time
Back to ballad mode for a subdued finale – it’s so sweet to hear the two ladies hold the wistful sustained notes in this one that I don’t mind it being so subdued and drawn out. One of Emily’s opening lines grabs me right away : “I was raising Cain, now I’m raising babies.” An apt description of the transition from celebrity to motherhood, and the balance she tries to strike between the two now. It’s no coincidence that the music has a lullabye sort of quality to it – just an acoustic guitar and a bit of slide guitar accompanying it, the sort of thing that could easily lull a baby to sleep, and that’s exactly what Emily sings of herself doing, except she’s so driven by this Type A desire to capture all of the good moments that sometimes she can’t sit still and just enjoy the peaceful, quiet hours for what they are. It’s peaceful, yet tension and unrest lurks underneath it, and it’s a beautiful way to close out the record even if it isn’t a huge, attention-grabbing finale like “Top of the World” was.
I wish I’d given Court Yard Hounds their due in mid-2010 when their record was brand new, but you know, sometimes you have to walk away from a record for a while before you’re really in the sort of place where you can best appreciate it. Most of the record seems well-suited to chilly winter days, curled up somewhere warm and just relaxing with a good book or – who am I kidding – webpage, while looking forward to the warmer days ahead. So I guess it’s fitting that this became the record I was most compelled to review at the beginning of 2011, seeing as it just barely slipped into my consciousness with enough time to make my Honorable Mentions list for 2010. I look forward to hearing what the duo will come up with next, with or without Natalie Maines, and I hope that some of the Hounds’ songs survive and make their way into Dixie Chicks setlists if and when the group reunites, just to get the wider audience that they deserve.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Coast $.50
Delight (Something New Under the Sun) $1.50
See You in the Spring $1.50
Ain’t No Son $2
I Miss You $0
April’s Love $1
Then Again $1.50
It Didn’t Make a Sound $1.50
Fear of Wasted Time $1
Emily Robison: Lead vocals, banjo, dobro, guitar
Martie Maguire: Backing vocals, voilin, viola, guitar, mandolin
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.