My first concert t-shirt—that’s right, not my first actual concert, but my first concert souvenir—was a jet-black frock with the words “Dixie Chicks” emblazoned on the front in scribbly neon-green lettering. My aunt purchased the tee for me at a Chicks (they were still the “Dixie Chicks” back then) concert, and, for a four-year old wearing a t-shirt advertising a country trio, I looked very punk rock. It’s funny, though, because as the years have passed, The Chicks themselves have acquired a punk rock attitude. No, their music doesn’t feature screeching guitars, thrashing drums or screams, but they’re in open defiance of The Man. They don’t take bullshit. And they certainly don’t tolerate anyone telling them what to do.
This flare for opposition is abundantly apparent on their new album and first in over a decade, Gaslighter, which, while lacking their token bluegrass roots, still upholds that badass, country-pop Chicks spirit. It’s definitely different, with noticeable pop flourishes (courtesy of producer Jack Antonoff), but it’s still a dang good Chicks album that features what could be their first ever protest song. In honor of Gaslighter and one of the most colorful, debated discographies in country music, we decided to rank all five Chicks albums featuring the lineup you know and love: Natalie Maines, Martie Erwin Maguire and Emily Maguire Strayer. Prior to 1994, the band released three CDs featuring the Maguire sisters plus Laura Lynch and Robin Lynn Macy, a roster that made a name for themselves playing bluegrass festivals in the late 1980s and early ’90s. But for the purposes of this list, we’re just going to focus on the Chicks as we know them post-Natalie Maines, beginning with their commercial breakthrough, 1998’s Wide Open Spaces. So pull up a chair, slide into your favorite pair of boots and get ready to feel all the feelings of heartache, love, revenge and betrayal. Bonus points if you can still fit into your Dixie Chicks shirt from 2001.
There may be no better Chicks catchphrase than “Not ready to make nice,” the title of the third song from their 2006 album Taking The Long Way, appropriately released a handful of years after they made their infamous comments about George W. Bush at a concert overseas. Some artists may have cowered in that situation, but The Chicks—as you’ve probably realized by now—are strong in their convictions. “I made my bed, and I slept like a baby,” Maines sings at one point. As the trio sings throughout the song, they have no regrets—romantic, political or otherwise. And I have a feeling if you asked them today, they might say something along those same lines. Another Taking The Long Way cut, “Easy Silence” is as touching a love song you’ll find anywhere in country music. It’s about the refuge we find in relationships (romantic and/or platonic, so it seems) as the world around us becomes increasingly chaotic. Featuring a gnarly guitar solo and biting lines like “Children lose their youth too soon / Watching war made us immune,” “Easy Silence’ is a quiet haven among a catalog of barn-raising bops and revenge anthems.
The Chicks have never tolerated liars, cheaters or scoundrels. They coaxed dirty secrets from their lovers’ mouths on “Let ‘Er Rip,” promising strength in the face of the truth. In another case, the offender in question was such a scumbag they plotted his murder. In 2006, on their most recent album Taking The Long Way, they still weren’t ready to make nice. While they’re famous for romantic songs like “Cowboy Take Me Away” and hopeful ballads like “Wide Open Spaces,” Natalie Maines, Martie Erwin Maguire and Emily Strayer have always been tough as nails. So it should come as no surprise that the band are consistently resilient on their relentless fifth LP Gaslighter. Ultimately, Gaslighter is powerfully split between the band who were once the Dixie Chicks and who are now The Chicks. Old demons dance alongside new loves. Meanwhile, Natalie, Emily and Martie shout their political opinions, cries for justice and messages of support on behalf of abused women everywhere from the mountaintops, all to the tune of polished, country-pop gold (in part thanks to the production savvy of Jack Antonoff).
Maybe more than anything else, the Dixie Chicks are detailed and vivid storytellers with the ability to deliver an anecdote from multiple perspectives. Home is full of these stories of heartbreak and tribulations. The “Travelin’ Soldier” folktale is a particularly heartbreaking one as Natalie, Martie and Emily knit together the happenstance events of a Vietnam soldier and his one-time love. If George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” was one generation’s sob-worthy country song about death and those left behind, this is ours. And it may be surprising to see another band’s song so high up on a list of the best Chicks albums, but if you’re a longtime fan of this firecracker trio, you probably agree “Landslide” deserves this honor. Believe it or not, some children of the 2000s probably grew up thinking “Landslide” was written by the Dixie Chicks. And perhaps more shocking to Fleetwood Mac fans, some people would even argue this version is better than the Fleetwood Mac original (I won’t be taking sides!). Regardless of your stance in this debate, the Dixie Chicks certainly have their way with “Landslide,” adding another emotional layer to an already emotional breakup song for the ages. Sometimes music just sounds sadder with banjo and mandolin mixed in.
The opening track on The Chicks’ 1998 debut album (at least in their current lineup) Wide Open Spaces, “I Can Love You Better” introduced us to the trio’s springiness and sass right away. With bouncy acoustic guitar and fierce fiddles, it sounds a lot like the conventional, female-driven radio country of the day (as popularized by Shania Twain, Martina McBride and The Chicks themselves), but there was no one else doing the forget-her-and-love-me song with harmonies like these. While the video for “Wide Open Spaces” is interpolated with footage of The Chicks playing to fields of thousands of screaming fans and traveling America in a shiny 18-wheeler tour bus, “Wide Open Spaces” is a song of hope and opportunity for anyone, whether you’re an aspiring country star or a single mom who dreams of going back to school. This song is simultaneously about our internal hunger for something more than our lowly state, an American dream that’s actually in reach, growing up, moving away, learning from experience and Manifest Destiny. It’s an incredibly smart and moving country ballad that actually could apply to just about everyone in one way or another (“Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about?” Maines sings as she opens the track). “Wide Open Spaces” is representative of the timelessness of The Chicks’ music and their steadfast ability to inspire people. It’s also a sign-in-the-sky to drop everything, gas up the tank and chase after that dream you’ve been shoving down for too long. Just don’t forget to check the oil.
More than 20 years after this country classic debuted at number one on the Billboard charts, a few truths still hang in the dusty air: Boys will always take you on a “wild goose chase,” a bird can’t sing when you’ve “tied its wings” and Earl had to die. Fly is a perfect country album because it has everything you could ever ask for in a country album: heartache, hilarity and hell’s bells, all conveyed through impeccably told and sung stories. It boasts a barnful of jubilant hootenannies, like the just-for-fun take on “9 to 5,” “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” and the promiscuous rebound anthem “Sin Wagon” (“that’s right, I said mattress dancin’”). But it also has its share of classic country heartbreak ballads à la George Jones or Tammy Wynette—there are two songs called “Hello Mr. Heartache” and “Heartbreak Town,” for pete’s sake, as well as the lonesome “Without You,” and if-you-love-him-let-him-go loveletter “Let Him Fly.” While it’s country through and through, Fly briefly pivots to alt-rock (“Cold Day in July”) right before perfecting the murder plot of the decade in “Goodbye Earl.” The Celtic/country mashup “Ready To Run” is as smart and sassy as anything in The Chicks’ catalogue, but there’s no doubt as to which Fly song has the most staying power: “Cowboy Take Me Away,” a master thesis in three-part harmony, is a certified classic. At the end of the day, Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Erwin Robison are big-hearted dreamers with the voices of angels, and the Wild West romance of “Cowboy Take Me Away” has as much beauty and feeling as your favorite romance movie.