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With new tour, the Dixie Chicks reopen doors of country inspiration

A few years ago, Caitlin Doyle created a vision board, a cut-and-paste road map of her goals as a singer. Front and center was a photo of Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks.

"I wanted to sing with Natalie Maines," she said. "Natalie's my hero, and she has been for a very long time. I know every single song off every album."

Doyle laughs telling the story. "I know I sound like a total stalker right now," she said.

Here's the thing: Not long after, Maines was at a concert when she heard a song she liked. Turns out it was Doyle's band, Smooth Hound Smith. Maines reached out on Twitter, and they became friends. Now Smooth Hound Smith is opening for the Dixie Chicks on their first North American headlining tour in a decade, which hits Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on Friday.

In the 21 years since Maines joined the group founded by sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer, the Dixie Chicks have paved paths and opened doors for a generation of artists just like Smooth Hound Smith. From the women responsible for modern country's most forward-thinking albums, to artists of all genres emboldened to speak their minds from the stage, the time is right for a reappraisal of everything the Dixie Chicks brought to American music — and how their influence is still felt today.

"The coolest thing was just hearing a group of women really be loud, really speak up and just change the game a little bit," said Maddie Marlow of the chart-topping duo Maddie and Tae. "Every time we're writing, we never just settle on a song that feels good. It's always like, hey, we want to make sure that this song has a little punch. Because if the Chicks can do it, we can too."

• • •

How far back should we start?

Should we start in 1989, when Maguire and Strayer formed the Dixie Chicks as a bluegrass group in Dallas? Or 1995, when they replaced their singer with a feisty young firebrand named Natalie? Or 1998, when the new group's Wide Open Spaces blended pop melodies, edgy lyrics and classic country instruments to become a blockbuster sensation? Or 2007, when Taking the Long Way swept the Grammys?

Or maybe we start where everyone starts with the Dixie Chicks: March 10, 2003, when Maines told an audience in London: "We're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas."

Twelve words. Sixty-seven characters. If an artist tweeted something like that about Donald Trump today, would it even make a ripple?

Put it this way: When Trump ambiguously suggested that "Second Amendment people" might be able to prevent Hillary Clinton from taking away America's guns, Maines tweeted: I get banned for not liking Bush and now Trump can practically put a hit out on Hillary and he's still all over country radio! Hypocrites!

Did you notice that tweet at the time? Did anyone? Hello?

But times were different in 2003. The Dixie Chicks lost a lot of fans then, and their relationship with country radio never fully recovered. Few bands before or since have paid so dearly for making a political statement.

But as the Chicks held their ground, so did a core group of fans. Others who fled were replaced by more liberal-minded rock and Americana fans who embraced the Chicks' Not Ready to Make Nice attitude.

"They were kind of like the punks of country music," said Rick Barrio Dill, bassist for the soul-rock band Vintage Trouble, another opener on this new tour. "Now you're starting to see people with substance come through a little bit more, and it's able to get traction, as opposed to a fringe thing in a safeguarded industry. It's awesome, and bands like the Chicks had a large part to do with it."

Thirteen years later, in the midst of a presidential election every bit as divisive as America's political climate in 2003, Maines' 12 little words still reverberate.

"The same things they were talking about with Bush, we are going through today," said Vintage Trouble singer Ty Taylor. "Everyone is questioning how they feel about stuff going on now because of that, and I would hope that they would be proud of that. In hindsight, yes, maybe they lost some sales. But they're going to go down in history as a country band that stood up against most of its fans because of what they believed in. The true fans are the ones that are going to be filling these arenas."

• • •

Politics isn't the main reason the Dixie Chicks still matter. It's their music.

Wide Open Spaces came out on Jan. 27, 1998. At the time, Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood and Kimberly Perry were all 14 years old. Taylor Swift was 8. Maddie and Tae were 2.

All these artists came of age to the Chicks' oeuvre: The heartfelt country balladry of There's Your Trouble and Cowboy Take Me Away; the confrontational, punkish Sin Wagon and Goodbye Earl; the sweeping melodies of Wide Open Spaces and Landslide; the bluegrass-borne harmonies and instrumentation of their 2002 album Home.

"There was something so cool about the Dixie Chicks because they were doing something that no one else was doing," said Maddie Marlow. "It was this really cool thing where three women came together and had this super-loud voice that no one could really ignore or turn down. They had these messages in their songs that were so much bigger than a feel-good summer song."

But why limit the discussion to women? Think of all the men who've incorporated bluegrass into their music since the Chicks broke big, artists like Dierks Bentley and the Avett Brothers.

"When they left the genre, they left a big void of great music," Bentley said. "That fiddle and that banjo, they had that acoustic drive, but did it in a real rock and roll spirit. Even now, it's a sound that I don't think has been replaced yet."

Artists are trying. Over the past couple of years, younger women have produced much of the most memorable music to come out of Nashville.

There are echoes of the Dixie Chicks' gender-flipping spunk in Kelsea Ballerini's Dibs; their delicate songcraft in Cam's Burning House; their unapologetic pop ambition in Maren Morris' 80s Mercedes. Retro-minded artists like Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price and Aubrie Sellers keep pushing country back to its historical roots, just as the Chicks did in the '90s.

"With women, it's been way harder for us in country music," said Marlow, whose single Girl in a Country Song echoes the flinty feminist bent of Goodbye Earl. "It's so hard to break a female act that they come with a little more punch whenever they do break."

For Caitlin Doyle, Maines wasn't just a great singer ("Her voice is unmistakable") and relatable personality ("She's someone that I could hang out and have some beers with and just talk s---"), but a role model for how to make music on one's own terms.

"She's very relatable to me personally, and I think to a lot of women," Doyle said. "When we met her, we were thinking, 'Oh god, she's a superstar. She's gonna have a diva attitude.' But she was nice as can be. Exactly how she is on stage is exactly how she is in person."

And she would know. Years after she made that old vision board, Doyle sings with Maines every night. The Dixie Chicks made her dreams come true.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

The Dixie Chicks

Vintage Trouble and Smooth Hound Smith open at 7 p.m. Friday at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, 4802 U.S. 301 N, Tampa. $35 and up. (813) 740-2446. livenation.com.

With new tour, the Dixie Chicks reopen doors of country inspiration 08/16/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 17, 2016 11:39am]
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