Taking the Long Way Label: Columbia Records
For most artists, four years between albums is a career-threatening eternity that most would not be able to survive. For the Dixie Chicks, however, they have found a way since their last record, Home (2002), to hold more than their share of headlines and, for better or worse, not let the public forget who they are (or what they stand for!). With her now-infamous Bush-bashing rant on that London stage three years ago, lead singer Natalie Maines has become a lightning rod of controversy and the poster child for Hollywood war-haters versus the White House. I say Hollywood because these Chicks have achieved celebrity status during this process, even further distancing themselves from Nashville’s country core.
On the latest, Taking the Long Way, any doubts about musical direction from their country roots are thrown right out the window as the great Rick Rubin is enlisted to produce a very retro ‘70s California guitar rock endeavor, reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac in their heyday. It doesn’t hurt that the Chicks open their studio door to a veritable who’s who of modern rock heavyweights, including John Mayer, Pete Yorn, Sheryl Crow, and Dan Wilson (of Semisonic). Hardly sounds like a country record now, does it? The Jayhawks’ Gary Louris garners several songwriting credits, though the girls still write the majority of their own material – a rare attribute that’s always set them apart from many country counterparts – and Smokey Hormel and Heartbreaker Mike Campbell provide much of the guitar strength. Whew, and that ain’t even half the collaborative credits on this project!
As for the lyrical content this time out, it’s not the same ol’ sugar-coated Dixie Chicks either. Gone are the themes of wide open spaces and lusting for cowboys, replaced instead with pissed-off mantras about being “mad as hell” over the tidal wave of criticism following Maines’ anti-Bush decree. “The Long Way Around” opens with a lone acoustic guitar and Maines recalling, “My friends from high school married their high school boyfriends, moved into houses in the same zip codes where their parents live.” But not Maines, she “hit the highway in a pink RV” and never looked back. Nowadays, taking the long way means she “wouldn’t kiss all the asses that they told me to.” On the new single “Not Ready to Make Nice”, Maines proclaims, “It turned my whole world around and I kind of like it, I made my bed and I sleep like a baby.” Yep, she built this bed of controversy and now she is gonna revel in it, even turn it into her musical advantage.
Politicking aside, these songs have far too much world-class musicianship behind them to fail. Louris pitches in on the dreamy “Everybody Knows,” a Jayhawks-like sing-a-long that stands as an instant classic. When they want to crank it up – like on “Lubbock or Leave It” – they rock with an abandon of Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” Surprise, surprise that Campbell rears his head (and guitar) on this one! Alas, the ballads still dominate, and that’s not a bad thing. Crow jumps in on “Favorite Year,” a stark and poignant love song, and motherhood abounds on the hushed, almost spoken word, “Lullaby.” “As you wander through this troubled world in search of all things beautiful,” Maines preaches, “how long do you want to be loved?” With everything from hate mail to death threats to public battles with patriot Toby Keith now under her belt, Maines has launched a war of her own and lived to tell about it. Whether you agree with her or not, it sure would have been disappointing to get a record full of sappy apologies and wimpy regret.