It’s so ironic you couldn’t predict it if you tried; the Chicks’ highly anticipated comeback fourteen years in the making, originally slated for May 1st, was postponed until July 17th due to COVID-19. You may be wondering where the “Dixie” went: just yesterday, the band announced that they were changing their name due to it having racist connotations. You can read more about this here.
The Chicks’ upcoming album, Gaslighter, promises election-year-appropriate political undertones and production by Jack Antonoff, known for his work with acts like Lana del Rey, Taylor Swift, St. Vincent, and Lorde. The fiery lead single “Gaslighter” nailed the trio’s trademark combination of the political and personal; it’s twangy yet modern, natural yet adventurous.
Most recently, the trio released the understated pop track “Julianna Calm Down,” a lesson from mothers to daughters on how to get through that first heartbreak, and “March March,” a very topical protest anthem that is accompanied by a music video featuring police brutality protest footage from around the world.
The upcoming record looks promising so far, and it’s sure to pack more than a few surprising punches.
It’s jarring to look back on The Chicks’ “canceling” in 2003, when lead singer Natalie Maines declared onstage that she was ashamed then-president George W. Bush was from Texas. Fans burned CDs, radio stations banned their records, and the band’s promising career was seemingly wiped out in an instant of well-articulated rage. Seventeen years later, most popular musicians are outspoken about their political convictions, particularly their feelings about the current president, with no negative consequences.
Though the country music world has cultivated its own political ecosystem, it’s difficult to imagine the widespread boycotting the Chicks endured in the early 2000s occurring today. But the irony makes their return all the more compelling for fans and critics alike.
Regardless of how times might have shifted, 2020 eagerly awaits the Chicks’ voices. In anticipation of “Gaslighter’s” new release date, we now have just two weeks to study up on Chicks lore, to honor their past, and get excited about their future. Listed below are their twelve most essential tracks, ranked.
1. “Cowboy Take Me Away“
“Cowboy Take Me Away” is one of those rare songs born from an ageless state of mind, rather than a specific experience. The narrator could be anyone from a young girl daydreaming about a future with her cowboy prince charming, or an older woman looking wistfully back on her bucolic youth, indulging in a well-earned fantasy. It’s one of the Chicks’ quieter moments, but its sheer beauty has been powerful enough for this track to sustain itself in cultural memory. The indie supergroup boygenius (Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus) covered this song recently, marking a musical inheritance from one plucky trio of women to another.
2. “Top Of The World“
Patty Griffin’s heartbreaking “Top of the World” found its wings as the closing track of the Chicks’ 2002 album Home. One of their great gifts is the ability to maintain an unshakable point of view while convincingly telling others’ stories. “Top of the World,” a heartbreaking ballad from the point of view of a man reflecting on his life with regret, is the best example of this musical shapeshifting. Its verses are straightforwardly tragic (“I wish I was smarter/I wish I was stronger/I wish I loved Jesus the way my wife does”), and its lilting chorus takes a more metaphorical approach (“think I broke the wings off that little songbird/she’s never gonna fly to the top of the world right now”). The two-minute outro renders mandolins and fiddles heartwrenchingly cinematic, cementing “Top of the World” as the emotional apex of the Chicks discography.
Few songs have as profound of a lifespan as this one. Three years after Maines’ controversial remarks on George W. Bush and the Iraq War, the trio released their comeback single “Not Ready to Make Nice” to an industry that had effectively written them off. On February 11, 2007, the track won three Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year and Song of the Year. “Not Ready to Make Nice” is a rousing exercise in graceful female rage. It’s a dismissal of the pressure to forgive and forget. It’s a direct jab at the world that cast them aside, but general enough to apply to the wide spectrum of trauma every woman is subjected to. And in case anyone was wondering, the Chicks know their conscience is clean (“I made my bed / and I sleep like a baby”).
4. “Long Time Gone“
Written by Darrell Scott, “Long Time Gone” tells a rags-to-riches story of a small-town kid moving to Nashville to make it big as a country star; only this time, the story ends with the narrator moving back home in defeat to raise a family. It’s a sordid yet sassy twist on the Chicks’ usual tales of freedom—but still finds the runway to dig at the state of country music. That’s the fun of the Chicks; they’re revolutionary in their messaging but sonically, they draw from the playbook of country music legends. It sounds natural for them to make accusations like: “They sound tired but they don’t sound Haggard / They’ve got money but they don’t have Cash / They’ve got Junior but they don’t have Hank.”
5. “Wide Open Spaces”
1998’s “Wide Open Spaces” is lush, timeless, and unforgettable. It tells the story of a girl who leaves her home to explore the great unknown, though she isn’t naïve; as Maines reminds us, “she knows the high stakes.” It’s a classic independence anthem that’s written like a memory, but considering the Chicks’ future, sounds more like a prophecy.
6. “Truth No. 2“
Truth No. 2, another Patty Griffin song, is one of the most finely crafted bluegrass moments in the Chicks canon. Their harmonies are always airtight, but these are especially pristine. Their fiddles are always lively, but these have a little extra spunk. “Truth No. 2” is a brilliant kiss-off song that sounds traditional but urges its listeners to engage in the candor that at this point in their career, is the Chicks’ native language: “I might get to the end of my life/Find out everyone as lying/I don’t think that I’m afraid anymore/Say that I would rather die trying.”
The 2002 cover of Fleetwood Mac’s masterpiece came at a crucial point of musical maturity for the trio and was one of their biggest commercial hits. Equally full of conviction and whimsy, the band’s trademark musicianship and harmonies only build on Stevie Nicks’ sacred heritage. The cover is especially poignant because Maines has said she was drawn to the track because she was the same age as Stevie Nicks was when she first performed “Landslide.”
8. “Goodbye Earl”
Simply put, it’s the greatest of the “girl-murders-boy” country songs, with a specific storyline down to the poisoned black-eyed peas. It’s morbidly hilarious, a precursor to the type of cheekiness the world could expect from the Chicks for the rest of their career. Here’s to hoping for a 2020 version of “Goodbye Earl” produced by Jack Antonoff. Jane Krakowski should reprise her role in the music video.
9. “Ready to Run”
Never ones to default to the expected, the Chicks opened their sophomore album “Fly” with the Celtic fiddles and penny whistles of “Ready to Run.” There are several independence manifestos in their discography, but “Ready to Run” is the most anthemic of them all. It’s as punchy as an opening track could be, and even made its way to the soundtrack of 1999’s Runaway Bride with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.
10. “I Can Love You Better“
In 1998, Faith Hill and Shania Twain were each at the peak of their country-crossover careers, redefining what it meant to be a woman in country music. The Chicks’ debut single “I Can Love You Better” sounded old-timey in comparison but catapulted the three newcomers into a country scene just learning to handle an influx of successful women in the modern age. More importantly, it set the stage for a snappy and assertive career for the band. All three artists went on to win major awards that year, but it was “Wide Open Spaces” that won Best Country Album at the Grammys and Album of the Year at the ACMs.
11. “Cold Day in July“
Even the Chicks’ heartbreak ballads pack a punch. “Cold Day in July” is a classic country music turn-of-phrase song animated by Natalie Maines’ wailing vocals and anchored by electric guitar. The metaphor is simple, unpacked in the verses: “You always said the day that you would leave me / would be a cold day in July.” But the chorus steps outside the figurative and settles into the heartbreaking moment itself: “Sun’s comin’ up down on Main Street/ Children shout as they’re running out to play / Head in my hands, here I am standing in my bare feet / Watching you drive away.”
12. “Easy Silence”
“Easy Silence” is the musical version of an eye of a hurricane. The piano-driven adult contemporary track expresses gratitude for a partner who provides refuge in a contemptuous world. The Chicks can easily start fires with their fiddles and fieriness, but the earnestness of “Easily Silence” proves they can quell them, too.
Singles “Gaslighter,” “Julianna Calm Down,” and “March March” are available to stream now, and the album “Gaslighter” will be available on July 17.