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05.03.10

The Dixie Chicks' Stealth Comeback

Four years after they last played together, two members of America's most-successful female act return today with a new band, album, and tour schedule. Martie Maguire and Emily Robison tell The Daily Beast about how country music ostracized them—and how, politically, they’d do it all again.

Mandolin-playing Martie Maguire wasn't used to being so close to the crowd as she was during a gig six weeks ago at Antone's, an Austin nightclub that can hold a crowd of 600. "I remember thinking 'this girl in the front row is going to spill her beer on my fiddle,'" says Maguire. "Doing something like that is a little bit of a detour."

Better known as one of the three members of the Dixie Chicks, the most successful female group in American music history, Maguire is familiar with larger stages, bigger crowds and brighter lights. But things are more intimate as one-half of the Court Yard Hounds, a new band she formed with her sister—and fellow Chick—Emily Robison.

“I think we would have done the same thing under any circumstances. I think that’s what you have to do survive.”

It promises to be a big summer for the duo: Their self-titled, debut Court Yard Hounds album debuts today, and the pair is scheduled to play 11 dates, mostly as part of the Lilith Fair tour. With Natalie Maines, they will also return to stadium stages as the Dixie Chicks for eight dates with the Eagles— the first time the group has toured in nearly four years.

After a bout with massive fame—and, in the case of the Dixie Chicks, a political backlash to match—the side project allows Maguire and Robison to indulge in a pared-down persona, akin to Chris Cornell's gig with Temple of the Dog and Jack White's membership in The Raconteurs. For the sisters, it is a chance at redefining their musical identity.

As two-thirds of the Chicks, the sisters had " the biggest balls in American music." Most famously, Maine's admission during a 2003 London concert that the group was "ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas" launched them quickly into the land of pariahs. Radio stations refused to play their music; one station in Shreveport, Louisiana, sponsored a "Chicks Bash" where fans could steamroll their albums. Bill O'Reilly said "they're simply not smart enough to know what's going on," Reba McEntire accused them of singing "with their foot in their mouths," and Toby Keith displayed a Photoshopped picture of Saddam Hussein embracing Maines during his concerts. "Dixie-chicked" became a verb for the ostracizing of dissenters. The country-music establishment could tolerate pop infiltrating its veins, but patriotism was still its lifeblood.

"I think at the time we had to buck the system. Because of the controversy, people wanted to make us bigger than life," Maguire now says. "I think we would have done the same thing under any circumstances. I think that's what you have to do to survive."

Now their public legacy has taken a backseat to their private lives as mothers. Maguire and Robison each have three children, from ages 1 to 7, and live less than three hours from each other in Texas. But the trappings of domestic bliss diminished in 2008, when Robison went through a divorce, emerging with a stack of songs to prove it.

"When Emily sent ["April's Love"] to me, I just bawled my eyes out," says Maguire, of a song that chronicles the end of a relationship. "That was the first song I felt like 'Wow, people need to hear that.'" The two decided to record Robison's lyrics early last year, but with Maines intent on staying on sabbatical in Los Angeles with her young sons and husband in Los Angeles, the sisters embarked on their own project.

It may be logical to wonder how country radio and fans will receive the Court Yard Hounds, but the truth is the group really isn't country. Maguire and Robison say the Rolling Stone label of "folk rock" best categorizes the new group, not that all traces of Nashville have disappeared. "I don't listen to a lot of country right now, but being a fiddle player it's hard to get away from country," says Maguire, 40.

"Just because they play a banjo and a mandolin, that doesn't make them country. They don't sing like country artists," says Jim Scott, who co-produced the album. "It's a rock record and it's a folk record."

But more than the sound has changed since the sisters were last playing gigs. The Dixie Chicks' popularity peaked during a time when the music industry—especially the Walmart-fed country-music industry—was making money. They gained initial traction on the heels of Shania Twain and Garth Brooks, when Nashville was hungry for hits, stars were polished, and controversy and sex were part of the marketing packaging. Country had gone pop.

The group's first album in 1998, Wide Open Spaces, sold 11 million copies and holds the record for the top-selling debut country album of all time. Their followup album Fly sold 10 million copies. The "Top of the World" tour grossed $62 million—the top-grossing country tour of the year—in 2003, the same year the group swept the Grammy awards, taking home five awards including Best Album, Best Record, and Best Song. They remain the top-selling girl group across all musical genres, with a total of 30.5 million albums sold.

Now, digital singles have superseded albums. Big acts rely on outsize tours to make money— the average ticket price for the top 100 tours has climbed 55 percent since 2000, according to Pollstar, the concert trade publication. The sister act even had a hard time finding an original name since any backyard band can lay national claim on a name by setting up a MySpace page. "We knew it would be so hard to start a new band," says Robison, 37. "It's a different game. I don't know that we know how to play the game anymore."

Their return to the studio and stage has been calculatedly muffled. "We didn't want people to know," says Robison. "It was nice not to have the rumor mill going while we were recording the album." Court Yard Hounds was recorded in Maguire's home studio, where "all the cousins could play together." Scott, who worked with the duo on the last Chicks album, flew in from California for 65 days to record the album with the help of local musicians. "We made a record in an untested homemade recording studio by the seat of our pants," says Scott. "And we did it quickly, almost like an indie record."

If their blockbuster days are fully behind them, the sisters sound unfazed. "We were happy when we sold a lot of records, but I think that's such a trap," says Robison. "It's like being in band practice again. When you start throwing numbers in, it can bring out the un-fun."

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Lauren Streib is a reporter for The Daily Beast. She was previously a reporter for Forbes.