The biggest country group of the 90s? You would be hard pressed to argue against the Chicks. Natalie Maines together with sisters Martie Maguire & Emily Strayer (nee Erwin) burst onto the scene with their album Wide Open Spaces and never looked back.
Crucially, they were part of modern Nashville but they also weren’t. All three were Texans. Martie and Emily were from a traditional country background, but Natalie - despite having pedal steel master Lloyd Maines as a father - was a fan of alternative rock & R&B. Their manager was English, and all of them thought nothing of speaking their mind and forging their own path.
And it worked spectacularly well.
Right from the get go in 1998, their records were huge, huge hits and their look and attitude modern but not so much as to alienate the older country fan. Their constituency was broad, from older fans to a generation of younger fans and forward to the likes of Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris, who saw in them a way to operate as a forward-thinking female artist in an industry that didn’t always encourage that.
And then in March 2003 it all blew up. During a concert in London, Natalie criticised President George W. Bush from the stage and by the end of the week - in a now eerily prescient preview of cancel culture - the Chicks had been dropped completely from country radio and subjected to an avalanche of criticism and abuse unparalleled in the history of the music.
It would have crushed lesser artists, but the Chicks took a deep breath and kept right on going, ultimately taking their brand of country to a mass audience across the world, and doing it in the face of the received wisdom that says you don’t get anywhere without country radio behind you.
After 2006 the tours kept on coming, but the new music didn’t - it wasn’t until 2020 that The Chicks (now minus the original “Dixie” after the cultural shifts prompted by the killing of George Floyd) re-entered the fray with Gaslighter. It went straight to number one on both the country and all genre chart in the US like they’d never been away.
A year on from Gaslighter’s release, we took a look back at band’s discography to create the definitive list of the best the Chicks songs.
We can’t forget that the original incarnation of the Chicks was as a Western Swing and bluegrass band founded by the Erwin sisters in Dallas in 1989. That version of the band - a very traditional beast with a kitschy cowgirl image to go with it - made three long gone albums and toured for over six years without ever coming close to mainstream success, until they essentially broke up and reformed with Maines as their lead singer.
The playing was always immaculate though, especially from Martie Maguire's fiddle, and this tune, from 2017's DCX MMXVI Live gives you a taste of how those Chicks sounded: lithe, nimble and all jigs and reels with a little 'Seven Nation Army' thrown in to the mix as well!
Back after 14 years with a new name but no change in attitude, 'Gaslighter' is the title track from the Chicks' iconic 2020 return; a coruscating demolition of Natalie’s ex husband!
Covering Bob Dylan or covering Sheryl Crow? Either way this Chicks version of one of Dylan’s most enigmatic songs is now a mainstay of their live shows right up to the present day.
This is where the Chicks stick their chins out and set off on their own. Facing down what they call “the incident”, 'Not Ready To Make Nice' - and its accompanying album - still has a foot in country, but really it’s a smart contemporary pop record.
And this is where it gets ugly.
This is the song that Natalie prefaced with her infamous remarks about George Bush in London in March 2003, remarks that were quickly qualified by Martie before they struck up the track itself.
I was at that show, and I was also with Chicks manager Simon Renshaw at the Top of the Pops studio two days later when he got the first phone call from the US warning of the unrushing tsunami. I can testify first hand that nobody had any idea what was about to happen as a result of expressing critical remarks that had made no impression at all on a West London winter’s night.
And the song? Written by Emily’s one-time brother in law Bruce Robison, it’s a sensitive portrayal of a long distance romance between a soldier serving in Vietnam and his girlfriend back home, emphasising the human cost of warfare.
'Travelin’ Soldier' hit number one in the US late in 2002. The Chicks have never had another Top 10 country hit.
Let’s talk about sex, shall we? It’s in lots of country songs of course, but rarely as directly and pointedly as this, Natalie even doubling down on the mattress dancing at one point in case you missed it the first time.
Inspired by Sandy in Grease, it scared the Chicks’ record company to death, was a smash at the 2000 CMA Awards and gave a whole generation of young female country fans permission to take control of their sex lives.
'Landslide' was The Chicks’ first big cover, and their first US all-genre No. 1. It even outperformed the Fleetwood Mac original in Australia, where it remains the Chicks’ biggest hit.
A gorgeous melodic piece, ‘Cowboy Take Me Away’ takes the great American need for movement and twins it with the contradictory desire for romantic stability. Not bad for a song that takes its title from a water softener advert!
1998's Wide Open Spaces proved to be a monster debut for the Chicks - 13 million sales, two Grammys, on the charts for over five years - but Fly was even better and remains the single best non-compilation Chicks album.
First out of the blocks, 'Ready To Run' sets the tone from the start, a proper rollicking anthem for independent women the world over, delivered with an irresistible panache.
Seen the meme?
"Male country music = I got my beer, my truck, my dog.
Female country music = Oops I killed my husband."
Well, this is pretty much where it started.
Delivered with an irresistible glee, Goodbye Earl is a funny song that makes a serious point about domestic abuse and delivers it in a box of candy with a big red ribbon on top. Plus, it came with a b-side cover of Tammy Wynette’s ‘Stand By Your Man’ for extra laughs.
The second single from Wide Open Spaces was the Chicks’ first country No.1, and what a great song it is too. Throughout their career they’ve had an astute eye for outside material and this one is right up there with the best.
Mark Selby & Tia Miller’s words and music dance around each other in a perfect quadrille that wears its skill very lightly indeed, more than matched by Natalie’s first truly great vocal performance.
The title track of the Chicks' first major label album, and the difference is clear straight away. Emily & Martie's old time country sound is still there, but it's broadened and sweetened with the introduction of Natalie's rock and soul influences. Lyrically, it sets out their stall too - rebellious but rooted in tradition, respectful but unafraid to stand up when it's the right thing to do.
And it sounded right as well - when the big sound in country was the Mutt Lange uber production of Shania Twain, Wide Open Spaces was just that: rangy and sparse, with backing vocals drifting away across a sonic prairie that gave everything room to breathe.
Listen to the full playlist of The Best Chicks Songs below now