THE DIXIE CHICKS COME HOME TO BLUEGRASS
Nov 1, 2002 12:00 PM, by Elianne Halbersberg
Deciding on a career was never an issue for Dixie Chicks lead vocalist Natalie Maines. Her father, renowned pedal steel player and producer Lloyd Maines, recalls, “My wife and I got a call one evening from Natalie's second grade teacher saying, ‘I've got to tell you something Natalie did.’ They were in math class and Natalie raised her hand and said, ‘Miss So-and-so, I won't need to know this.’ The teacher said, ‘Oh really? Why is that?’ And Natalie said, ‘Because I'm going to be a star!’”
It was a prescient observation. Maines, fiddle player/vocalist Martie Maguire and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Emily Robison, who plays banjo, dobro and acoustic guitar, are the only female group in music history to sell over 10 million copies of each of their first two albums: the 1998 Wide Open Spaces, and its follow-up, Fly. With 14 chart hits and five Number One singles, the Dixie Chicks' three-part harmonies and pleasing blend of traditional and contemporary country have filled a musical void in radio's wasteland. But, while the operative rule in Nashville is to never fix what isn't broken, the Chicks threw caution to the wind with their new album, Home. They ditched pristine Music Row studios for the peace and quiet of Austin, Texas,' Cedar Creek, separated from their production team — Paul Worley and Blake Chancey — in favor of Lloyd Maines, and opted for a bluegrass-flavored acoustic album, bringing in Grammy-winning engineer Gary Paczosa (Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton, Nickel Creek).
As if musical transitions weren't enough, the Chicks were without a record label during the making of Home and in the midst of a lawsuit against Sony Records over royalties the group alleged that they were owed. The matter was settled, and Home was released on the Chicks' new Sony imprint, Wide Open Records. In the meantime, however, being free agents allowed the trio to make the record that they wanted.
Home began as a set of demos, and what appears on the CD isn't far from the original ideas. “[The Chicks] called and said they'd written songs and were thinking about experimenting with an acoustic approach — no electric instruments, no drums, upright bass,” says Lloyd Maines, who also played pedal steel on the group's first two albums. “They wanted me to help, and I said, ‘Of course.’ I rehearsed with them and worked out arrangements, and we went in the studio as an experiment. We cut six songs in October  to make sure we wanted to go in that direction, and it turned out great. Natalie's vocals are really featured, there is harmony, and Emily and Martie are great players, so it gave them a chance to showcase. Everything gelled and they liked the first six songs, so we went back in February and did another six, and that's the album as you hear it.”
Cedar Creek Studio, where Home was recorded, is a favorite of Lloyd Maines. “It's been owned by Fred Remmert since 1982,” he says, “and he has an old Neve board and a 1974 Studer 24-track that was used at Graceland to record all or part of Elvis' last two or three records. But we did all of the recording on a Nuendo digital system. It was all 24/96 sampling rate and mixed in Nashville [at Emerald] on a Euphonix board.
“Cedar Creek is not a large studio at all. It would ideally have been better if it had more isolation booths because we had to re-cut a lot of parts. Martie and Emily were in the same room and the parts would bleed from one mic to another. But we had such a great vibe. It's 10 minutes from downtown Austin on nine acres of thick oak trees; a great piece of property in a residential area, so it's very private. The girls could feel like they had solitude, and there's a huge back deck so you can go out and enjoy the trees.”
While the Chicks are listed as co-producers on Home, they were, in fact, involved in the production of their first two albums but declined name recognition. “Our whole career has been stepping stones and climbing stairs to get to a certain point,” says Natalie Maines. “At the time that we recorded the first two albums, we were focused on song selection and our playing. We knew our sound, knew who we were and chose the songs. [The Chicks also wrote some of the material on those albums.] Paul and Blake had years of experience in the studio, and while we did the arranging, they were the constant thread throughout the album-making process, while we'd do interviews during the mix. This time, we mixed it ourselves with Gary, and I see the commitment involved. I even went to the mastering. We produced it with my dad, and it was another stepping stone. I'm not sure I have honed my skills enough to solely be in the studio, even with the three of us. We're not gearheads; we don't know the equipment used. My dad has amazing ears. I listen to a fiddle overdub for a couple of hours and have to get away from it, and he's solid all the way through.
“My dad and I — music bonded us; we always had that in common,” she continues. “I got a lot of what I hear and arrange from him, and he's a better communicator of what I hear than I am, because he can put it in technical terms. He knows the three of us have a strong sense of who we are, and that's why it's great when the four of us work together. It felt like family. It was easier for the three of us to write because we need a comfort level to say, ‘I like that’ or ‘I don't like that; let's move on.’ You throw it out there and want feedback, and so it's equal, there's never any arguing. The only thing different about being in the studio with my dad is I couldn't be as crude as I usually am, and probably vice versa!”
Maines' crystal voice — a powerful instrument that can shift from tough to tender on a moment's notice — is at its best on Home, where Maguire and Robison weave around her vocals. They also shine on the album's instrumental track and fills. Maines credits Gary Paczosa for much of what is actually heard on the finished product.
“Gary is very rootsy and raw,” she says. “He is tuned in to Emily's and Martie's instrumentation, and he knew we wanted a semi-bluegrass album. Martie and Emily picked up new instruments along the way. The textures of my voice come out more — partly we honed our skills and partly it was Gary. My dad takes a different approach to vocals: He likes for me to sing one time and go back and fix parts, whereas Blake and Paul had me sing parts six times and they pieced it together. So this was not as perfect, but it was more emotional, and when it gets very soft, he didn't try to bring it up. People would see us live and say, ‘I love your records; I had no idea you sounded like this.’ So we approached this record that way.”
“They had real strong ideas about how they wanted things to sound on this record,” adds Paczosa, “so it was really a collaboration between all of us. It was the three girls, Lloyd and myself, and everyone needed to be satisfied, so it took a while longer than usual [16 days] to get this record mixed. I had not worked with Lloyd before, but I loved working with him. He's a no-bullshit kind of guy and had a great sense of how to translate their ideas and turn them into a record.”
When he engineers, Paczosa says, “I can't do an acoustic record without my Neumann KM54s or the Neumann 582s. My chain is almost always a Mastering Lab Pre, GML EQ and GML compressor. I love the Sony C800G on upright bass. I really don't know what the ‘Nashville method’ of making records is. Whether I am working in Ireland, Austin, L.A. or Nashville, it is pretty much all the same: cut great songs and catch good tone, then mix until everyone is happy.
“[The Chicks'] approach is relaxed but very focused. Our days were not long, but I worked my ass off because even after you wear one of them out, there are always two others that are fresh and raring to go.
“If I need to be great at anything, it would be that I better understand the tone and emotion that the player is trying to get across for that particular song. The girls work really hard on parts and solos, and they critique and coach each other in a really constructive way.”
Home's bare-bones approach emphasizes all sides of the Dixie Chicks. Their passion for bluegrass lends itself perfectly to their interpretation of Stevie Nicks' “Landslide.” Maguire's and Robison's lightning-fast licks take the spotlight in the instrumental “Lil Jack Slade” with Maines on rhythm guitar. The trio's furious energy is captured wonderfully in the lyrically lightweight “White Trash Wedding.”
Maines' vocals are impeccable on every track, but the standout session, according to her father, was the Radney Foster song “Godspeed.” “I'm a musician first, and Martie and Emily totally slay me with the way they play,” he says. “So the instrumental tracks were great; the hot picking. But in the second group of six, we recorded ‘Godspeed.’ Natalie said she would like to try to sing it front to end in one take and get into the emotion of the song. So we formed an isolation spot for her, lit candles, created an atmosphere. It was late at night, and it's a very stark track. Emily sang harmony, Martie played viola, we had an upright bass and a snare. There are no drums on this album, just a snare with brushes on one song. Natalie absolutely amazed everyone with her voice. It was a totally emotional moment. We just tried to create the ambience for it to happen, and we pretty much cut it in one take. It's one of her best vocal performances of all 12.” The primary lead vocal mic on the sessions was a Sony C800G; backups were recorded using Neumann M269s.
Whether cutting something as purely entertaining as “White Trash Wedding” or as poignant as “Godspeed,” Maines' approach to production never changes — he strives for both sonic and emotional results. “It was a total combination on every song, even on ‘White Trash Wedding,’” he says. “When we play that thing live — we did two shows, in Nashville and L.A. — I feel like we're playing a rock 'n' roll song because it's so high energy. It's not a deep subject, but coming out of the speakers, you can tell there's rock 'n' roll energy, and we're just wrung out after playing it. We have to take a breath and regain energy for the next song. So if it's ‘White Trash Wedding’ or ‘Top of the World,’ which is a very deep subject matter, I have one thing in mind: make every instrument sound as good as it can sound. Although ‘White Trash Wedding’ does not emit any emotional thing, you still have to be emotional with it, and whether it's that aggressiveness or the subtle sadness of ‘Top of the World,’ you try to keep things sonically right. If I have to choose, I'll keep going with emotion. Mistakes, gaffes, goofs: Unless they disrupt the flow of the song, and if it's not an overt blunder, sometimes it can add to the situation. I played in enough blues situations and with Joe Ely for many years, and the greatest moments onstage came when something went a little awry and finding your place was the moment of the night. I'm not one who thinks everything has to be pinpoint perfect, because perfect can be a little boring.”
Despite all of the changes and departures that Home represents for the Dixie Chicks, Lloyd Maines is the one who really took a flying leap; last year, he was still a diehard analog man. “Actually, that's what I thought until I heard the 24/96 high resolution,” he says. “It sounds like we A/B'd stuff, because the first time we came in, we laid stuff down in analog, and then we did the same stuff in digital and everyone picked digital. Before, analog was a warmer format, but now they've developed digital converters to where you don't lose the warmth. I listened to the upright bass through the board and after the fact, and it sounds the same. At home, I probably won't go to computer because I don't like staring at a screen. But the Tascam 2424 digital hard drive makes you think you're working in analog because it has fast-forward, rewind and pause, so ultimately, I might get that for the house.
“I had done some things in Pro Tools, some projects at other studios. A lot of people are hanging on to their analog preference, but after working with Nuendo and with Pro Tools, it's the way to go. If you lack warmth, you can always run the mix through a high-quality stereo compressor. But it's such a great medium to record to, especially when it comes to editing, moving things, punch-ins. Analog is so time-consuming. I don't mind that, but digital has improved to where it sounds as good, if not better.”
With the Chicks' audience estimated at 60% under the age of 25 — despite the fact that the group usually writes and selects songs dealing with decidedly adult subject matter — Natalie Maines agrees that Home, while retaining the trio's identity, was a calculated risk in terms of airplay. Still, the album's first single, “Long Time Gone,” was an immediate radio add and instant hit, with “Landslide” ready to follow in its footsteps.
“We've always had a bluegrass feel because of Martie's and Emily's instruments,” she says, “but we never made an album by listening to what's on the radio. To be honest, we don't really listen much to radio, and if we did, we would want to do what other people weren't doing. We don't sound like anyone else, and that makes longevity. You don't want to be compared to others or have them compared to you because it's bad for everyone. We planned on making strictly a bluegrass album, and when we started arranging and choosing songs, that's not where we went. We love where we went even more, and the bonus is that it turned out to be radio-friendly.”
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