The Chicks take flight

I would’ve been around six years old when I first heard ‘Landslide’ by Fleetwood Mac. I didn’t know it was the original. Before then, I had only ever heard the song performed by the Chicks, then known as the Dixie Chicks.

Consisting of powerhouse talents Natalie Maines, Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire, the Chicks are a country band hailing from the heart of Texas, and for one night only, they were back in Melbourne.

Prior to the Chicks’ set, a technicolour montage of retro performances plays on the screen, of powerhouse women from the 20th century including Stevie Nicks, Annie Lennox and Tina Turner. Suitably interrupting Joan Jett & the Black Hearts’ ‘Bad Reputation’ is a theatrical glitch, a motif of the show, and a drop of the banner at the front of the stage, revealing the Chicks in all their glory.

As if to announce their arrival, the opening chant of the titular track of their 2020 album rings out: “Gaslighter, denier, doing anything to get your ass farther.” I find myself overwhelmed, completely.

The Chicks have always been a part of my life. They were my introduction to actually enjoying and identifying with country and bluegrass, and here they are in front of me, proudly denouncing the deep-seated strategies of the patriarchy.

It only made sense to transition from one bop to another with ‘Sin Wagon’, then ‘Texas Man’. Shifting to a more stripped-back set-up, lead singer Maines stands under the spotlight and sings ‘Julianna Calm Down’. Referring to Harper, Eva, Violet, Juno, Yaya, Berta, Hesper, and Amelia, the trio remind the women in their lives that things get better by name-dropping them specifically, all while offering the same comfort to the thousands of people singing along.

‘The Long Way Around’ flashes back to the Chicks’ 2006 album Taking the Long Way and reminds the crowd just how unapologetic they’ve always been.

The crowd bolts upright as the fiddle and penny whistle opening of ‘Ready to Run’ kicks off. It’s the first instantly recognisable needle drop since the show started, and everyone appears to be lapping it up. I see men, women and children as they shout along about leaving their man at the altar.

With ‘Travelin’ Soldier’ and ‘Wide Open Spaces’, the walk down memory lane continues. ‘Travelin’ Soldier’ was my favourite as a kid. The simple storytelling meant the tragic love story could practically unfold right in front of me. I remember listening to it over and over, sitting too close to our silver Panasonic cassette player.

Tonight, ‘Wide Open Spaces’ hits even harder. Moving away from home will do that to you.

Throughout the night, the Chicks pluck from their newest album, the first in fourteen years. Over the course of the set, a total of nine songs from Gaslighter are played. It’s a risky move, especially on a stadium tour, but the catchiness and veracity of their newer stuff makes it impossible not to dance along.

Maines, Strayer and Maguire are as charismatic as they’ve ever been, and every time they’re projected on the screen behind them, you can feel just how much they enjoy performing. It’s infectious.

The musical fluency of the group is captivating, as they multitask with the banjo, dobro, guitar and the violin to name a few. Strayer is particularly impressive as a multi-instrumentalist as well as a vocalist, while Maguire’s proficiency on the violin has to be seen to be believed, and even then it’s hard to accept how she can keep it up.

The first half of the set closes with a cover of Beyoncé’s ‘Daddy Lessons’, in an arrangement identical to their controversial collaboration at the 2016 Country Music Awards. The performance brings everyone on the stage to the front as accompanying black and white footage of the rehearsals with Bey play.

A brief intermission is taken to rearrange the stage. The lights come up and reveal a much more intimate setup, appropriate as the first notes of perhaps their biggest song, ‘Cowboy Take Me Away’ sound out. The crowd sways from side to side and belts along when the chorus hits.

Maines introduces her son, Jackson ‘Slade’ Pasdar as a guitarist in the band, hiding in plain sight before breaking into ‘Landslide’, driving home that children really do get older.

It becomes apparent just how talented the Chicks are. Each performance has been interchangeable with the studio recordings, and it takes the stripped-back stylings of ‘Landslide’ for that skill to become clear.

A fresh addition to the Chicks World Tour is a cover of the Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton collaboration ‘Rainbowland’. Maines, an outspoken Cyrus fan, insists that everyone sings along, and bouncing ball lyrics are provided. It’s a joyous karaoke session. Multicoloured lights shine on the crowd and a pride flag hangs from the head of Pasdar’s guitar.

Undeniably drawing a thematic connection in the form of criticism, ‘Rainbowland’ is immediately followed by a cover of Patty Griffin’s ‘Don’t Let Me Die in Florida’, an unsubtle denouncement of the current political situation in the Alligator State.

The Chicks have gained notoriety as a group unafraid of controversy. They have leaned into this reputation in the 20 years since the blacklisting and boycotts in response to their criticism of George W. Bush.

‘March March’ is their most overtly political release to date and stands powerfully as an anthem for change. Grouped with ‘For Her’ and ‘Everybody Loves You’, the band confronts social issues including gun control, climate change, and gender inequality. During ‘Tights on My Boat’, playful graphics mocking Trump, Putin, and DeSantis can be seen as Maines sings about the power of karma.

Like all good bands that have been around long enough, the Chicks finish with a bang. The change of pace is brisk but effective. ‘White Trash Wedding’ signals a return to the classics and precedes ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’, their biting response to the backlash that occurred in 2003. As the bridge sounds out, the message remains raw, two decades later and time hasn’t healed everything.

With a discography that fluctuates between empowering anthems and delicate ballads, there’s a lot to choose from when it comes to closing numbers. But when you really think about it, it was always going to be ‘Goodbye Earl’. With merch for sale including trucker hats and bumper stickers that read ‘Earl’s in the Trunk,’ it was inevitable. Born from the era of ‘Thelma and Louise’ and ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’, ‘Goodbye Earl’ is the song to scream along to.

You bid farewell to the Chicks feeling empowered and full of energy, with an appetite for Tennessee ham and strawberry jam.

Ruby Box

Header Image via Valerie Lee

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

Sign up for Catalyst Magazine

Get the latest on what's happening
* = required field