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How The Chicks took on the US president, death threats and ditching Dixie

THEY’RE the singing sisterhood who took on a US president . . . and braved a huge backlash.

Now they’re simply The Chicks after dropping the “Dixie” over its association with the slave-era South.

Passionate and principled, Natalie Maines and siblings Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer have been on a 25-year rollercoaster ride of euphoric highs and crushing lows.

But, through it all, the country pop superstars have maintained unshakeable bonds with each other.

More on their dramatic name change in the wake of the George Floyd murder to come, but first let’s consider why The Chicks are on the march again.

After a Covid-enforced delay, they’re releasing a new studio album, Gaslighter, their first in 14 years.

It’s an intense and emotional song cycle drawing on the heartache and bitterness surrounding broken relationships yet infused with the fighting spirit on which they built their reputation.

As the album heads for a Top 5 spot in today’s UK chart, I’m speaking to all three Chicks, dialling in from different corners of the States.

“It’s born out of some sadness,” admits Emily, “including having five divorces between the three of us. Nobody wants to go through horrible situations but the silver lining is that you have things to write about.”

Gaslighter is filled with rousing tunes and unflinching lyrics, a worthy successor to 2006’s Taking The Long Way, which won five Grammys.

With nine children between them explaining the long gap between albums, they’ve made room for a song dedicated to the girls in their families, Julianna Calm Down, aimed at helping them navigate life.

“Julianna is one of my twins,” explains Emily. “Then we decided to put in the names of all our daughters and nieces.

We’ve all been so relieved to lose the Dixie

“It’s as if we’re telling our younger selves or our kids how to put things in perspective during the angsty teenage years. I love that song.”

Another track, March March, began as a rallying cry against America’s gun nightmare but, thanks to a memorable video, has turned into an anthem for our times.

Footage highlights the Black Lives Matter protests, the fight against LGBTQ prejudice, the face of the climate change crisis, Greta Thunberg, as well as women’s rights and the right to vote.

“March, march to my own drum/Hey, hey, I’m an army of one,” intones lead singer Natalie with fire in her belly, over a minimal, martial beat.

“I’ve always had that spirit . . . I think since I came out of the womb,” she tells me.

“Looking back at my bond with Martie and Emily, a lot of it is just so lucky. When they asked me to join the band (in 1995), we barely knew each other.

“So it would have been really difficult for me if they hadn’t been liberal-minded and forward-thinking — a real bad shock if I’d learned they were conservative!”

Natalie adds: “In a lot of ways, it was meant to be that we found each other. They’ve never tried to tell me to not be me or say the things I say.

“I like to be candid and kind of mouthy and they have always been supportive of that. I think I have to be. It would be really stifling for me if I couldn’t be myself.”

In turn, the sisters talk fondly about Natalie, with Martie saying: “I love her parents. Me and my daughters were just talking about her dad and something funny he did. I think of him as a father and her mom as a mom.

“Even though she’s not our biological sister, I relate to how Natalie was brought up with strong family values.

“We’ve experienced a lot of career highs and lows together so we feel the bond and we understand each other’s personalities. There’s a deep love.”

So let’s cast our minds back to The Chicks’ 2003 gig at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire and the most controversial moment of their career.

As US armed forces prepared to hit Saddam Hussein hard, Natalie couldn’t hide her dismay that George W. Bush came from her home state.

“We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas,” she told the audience.

Cue the band being blacklisted by countless country music stations, death threats and a negative impact on their album and ticket sales.

“We were literally the only three people who really understood what that felt like,” says Natalie.

Emily adds: “This was before social media and we were one of the first acts to experience cancel culture.

“Now everybody gets a platform and everybody can say what they want. That’s probably a good thing but so many people have a voice that I’m not sure anyone’s listening.”

All these years later, Martie can raise a smile over the Iraq controversy. “Bring back George W! I love him compared to who we have now,” she quips, referencing the much-criticised, sandy-haired incumbent.

The big news, apart from the new album, was the sudden dropping of “Dixie” from their name, brought to a head by the racist murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop.

That appalling incident led to the Black Lives Matter protests which in turn led NASCAR, the giant, billion-dollar car-racing series, to ban the Confederate flag from its events.

A quick history refresh here. The flag represented the Southern states below the Mason-Dixon Line during the American Civil War, an area that became known as Dixieland. Natalie says: “The other girls never liked the name. When I joined, we discussed changing it but I thought it was the best thing about them . . .  ‘Nooo, Dixie Chicks is great!’ I said.

“But after the Bush controversy, I wanted to change it too because I felt people had misunderstood who we were as people.

“Once this racist connotation dawned on me, it felt icky and I didn’t like it. I mean, none of us did!

“We tried calling ourselves DCX and we always referred to ourselves as the Chicks but for me the point of no return, ‘Oh my gosh we’re doing this’, came when NASCAR banned the Dixie flag.”

This big-name reaction got Natalie thinking about all the values she, Martie and Emily share.

“Could we really defend the word Dixie?” she says, before answering the question herself. “No, we had to lose it.

“Though there wasn’t any racist intention behind our name, it came from a historically hateful and negative place.”

Emily adds: “It’s such an important time to show solidarity with what’s going on and the long overdue changes. Being from Texas we don’t really consider ourselves Dixie anyway.”

Martie has the final word on the subject: “I remember interviewers asking how we felt about calling ourselves ‘chicks’ and whether it was degrading to women.

“Dixie was never brought up as the troublesome part of our name but George Floyd’s murder makes me emotional just thinking about it.

“When the pot boils over, how could we hold on to a name that represents so much pain for so many people? There was no choice and we are so relieved — relieved is the word!”

Though recorded last year, March March is fast becoming THE protest song of 2020.

“It was about gun violence and school shootings,” says Natalie, “but it’s interesting that it has lined up with what’s happening this year.

“Our broader meaning is a person fighting for what they believe in, an army of one.”

But she is wary of society taking things a bit far. “I read that in one state, the realtors (estate agents) were stopping using the term master bedroom.

“I was like, ‘Oh! Right’. I’d never thought about why it’s called that!”

As you can tell, Natalie isn’t afraid to speak her mind, despite run-ins with the sniffy Nashville-based country scene.

“The Chicks have always been different,” she says. “That’s what our fans like about us.

“We were never rebellious just to be rebellious. We just weren’t toeing the line the way some artists do. We didn’t have a problem with who we were and we weren’t going to purposely hide that.

“People used to ask, ‘What kind of music do you listen to?’ As a kid, I would say, ‘Anything but country’.

“I’ve always been honest that country music is not my thing but I liked our industry and I was all-in.

“Then they dumped us in a heartbeat (after the Bush comment) and I was like, ‘Oh, OK’. Not that there’s any animosity but it was a case of, ‘We’re going to move on — nice time we shared together. Good luck with your future, good luck with ours’.” However, the band does have a high-profile friend and supporter who also started out with a similar country vein . . .  Taylor Swift.

The Chicks guest on her track Soon You’ll Get Better from latest album Lover and Natalie sang with Taylor on her “1989” tour.

“She’s really sweet and always complimentary. She says how much we inspired her,” says Natalie. “And one of her recent videos has a secret nod to us.”

There’s another strong connection in the shape of Gaslighter producer Jack Antonoff, whose credits include work on Taylor’s last three albums.

Martie says: “I don’t think we could have made this emotional record without him. You have to feel safe to share things you want to say.”

Emily describes him as “everything from counsellor to little brother to Svengali” while Natalie says “he’s such a supporter of women artists, very humble and very funny”.

Of course, 2020 has been a strange year for all of us with coronavirus dominating everything — including for The Chicks.

With the album out to a great critical reception but America still in the grip of the pandemic, I ask how they’ve been spending their time. “I know people hate to hear this but it’s not been horrible for me,” says Natalie.

“I get sad for other people who are super social but I really am good at entertaining myself.

“I have lots of hobbies and both my boys have been here with me the whole time. I’ve always liked home life, cooking, cleaning, gardening and yard work. I call myself the quarantine queen.”

Martie says: “I’m very grateful the record is done because we couldn’t have finished it in three different places.”

And it sounds like she’s been an excellent parent in lockdown. “I’m the chauffeur and I’ve been helping the kids keep up with homework, music lessons and sport,” she says.

“I like being hunkered down, having the chance to recalibrate. We usually live in such a rat race.”

Emily admits: “I find myself coming in and out of different phases. I’m fine being a homebody and can always keep my hands busy, find projects, especially as I have four kids.

“But then I am getting a bit of wanderlust right now. I love to travel.”

Will that involve the unstoppable Chicks winging their way to the UK in the not too distant future? We live in hope.

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