Dixie Chicks - Under The Spotlight

First Published in Country Music International – June 1998

Having played for tips on street corners in Dallas, Dixie Chicks toured Europe and released a clutch of independent LPs before hooking up with new lead singer and setting their sights on Nashville.

If there is any one act that earned success it is Dixie Chicks. Starting out as street performers in the historic West End of Dallas in the late 1980s, the band developed into one of the most entertaining acts in country music. Initially, a bluegrass band, Dixie Chicks have incorporated other country music styles, especially western swing, honky-tonk, modern country and cowgirl ditties, into their repertoire. More recently, however, they have eschewed some of that wide-ranging, and often confusing eclectism for a more cohesive, mainstream sound that led to their being courted by the major Nashville labels.

Comprising founding members, sisters Martie Seidel (fiddle, mandolin, vocals) and Emily Erwin (Dobro, guitar, banjo, vocals), and 23-year-old lead singer Natalie Tarabay, daughter of noted Texan steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, Dixie Chicks landed a record deal with Sony Nashville three years ago. They released WIDE OPEN SPACES, their first major label album, earlier this year on Monument Records, part of the Sony Nashville stable.

Dixie Chicks have been around for a long time, scratching and clawing every rung up that ladder to success. Seidel and Erwin, have been playing professionally since the early 1980s as members of Blue Night Express. Seidel’s fiddle playing is a vigorous blend of bluegrass and swing stylings that combines the hoedown-inspired vim of Kenny Baker’s playing with the smoothness of Cliff Bruner.

Four years ago she turned down an offer to join Vince Gill’s band. “It was tempting for all of five minutes,” she says. “But we’ve worked too long to get Dixie Chicks established to throw it all away for something like that.”

It was one summer day in 1989 that the sister joined with two friends to form a street band, performing for tips on Dallas street corners. By then the sisters were both veterans of the bluegrass festival circuit. The six years they had spent in Blue Night Express had honed their skills and lined their pocketbooks. And passers-by were so enthusiastic about this street act that the group didn’t have to get summer jobs that year. In fact, people immediately started to hire the band.

“We’ve made a three-digit income in about an hour—we knew there was something magical, or at least lucrative, about women playing music together,” Seidel recalls. “The only problem was that we didn’t have a name. We were on our way to the street corner one day and the Little Feat song Dixie Chicken came on the radio.”

“That was it! We were the Dixie Chickens!” Erwin chimes in. “Only Martie didn’t want to be a chicken,” Tarabay adds. “So the name was shortened to Dixie Chicks.”

Having built a reputation throughout the Lone Star state and toured extensively in Europe, and with three independent LPs under their belts, Dixie Chicks were more than ready to make an impact on country’s mainstream. After several personnel changes, one important thing was missing—a dynamic lead singer. They knew Natalie Tarabay and decided that her powerful voice and personality were exactly what they needed.

“With Natalie, that’s when the wheels started rolling,” Seidel says. “You could tell there was excitement there—an energy we didn’t have before. That was when the labels in Nashville really took notice of us.”

These three women possess uncompromising togetherness that demands a solidarity on and off stage, and their music reflects this relationship. A visually and aurally inventive group, Dixie Chicks have an abundance of style, and WIDE OPEN SPACES emphasises the unique personality that makes them so enjoyable in concert—young women singing flawless three-part harmony and tearing it up on the fiddle, Dobro, mandolin, banjo and guitar. This is straight-down-the-road country packed into a contemporary style—heartfelt emotion and daring enthusiasm.

“Those first five or six years as Dixie Chicks happened so fast,” Seidel says. “It was a real growing time for the band. We went from street corners to dance halls, from jeans and boots to tailor-made cowgirl. After finding some fashion sense and evolving musically, we found Natalie. That was the best thing that ever happened to Emily and me.”

Natalie recalls watching them play with some envy. “Martie and Emily had always been the best of Dixie Chicks. I had been waiting for my shot. I was in college and had changed my major four times, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I just knew I wanted to sing.”