Few superstars go out on top. Björn Borg. Jerry Seinfeld. The Dixie Chicks. In 2007, they won five Grammies, including Song and Album of the Year for Taking the Long Way. Then they figuratively dropped the mic and left the stage.
Since then, everyone in the band has more or less moved on. Sisters Emily and Martie Erwin have a new group, Court Yard Hounds, which released their second album in July. In May, Dixie Chicks frontwoman Natalie Maines made her solo debut, Mother, comprised primarily of covers that were recorded with Ben Harper.
"The timing was coincidental. I wasn't looking for anything in particular. I pretty much feel like a pretty satisfied, settled person," Maines says. "I didn't even approach it like I was making an album. I didn't even admit to myself I was making an album until about seven songs in. I didn't want to admit to the pressure of having to write anything. I was just really enjoying the process of making music."
There have been scattered performances over the years for the Chicks, some benefit and festival appearances, as well as some shows supporting the Eagles in 2010. This fall they'll do their first sustained tour in six years, a total of 10 dates, all in Canada.
Maines doesn't sound like she's interested in making any new music with the Chicks at this point, but she's certainly not closing the door on something down the road. "There's a part of me that feels very protective of the Dixie Chicks and the legacy," says Maines. "For me so far, the ending is on five Grammies, and that's brought me satisfaction."
Always the rebel in the group, Maines bore the brunt of the pain when she told a London audience in 2003 that they were ashamed Dubya came from Texas. Four years later, that feeling in America would be nearly legion, but at that particular moment she ran head-on into a jingoistic buzz saw. Though she wasn't beaten by the heat she took, Maines was a little worn down.
"You take a beating and get in fight mode and maybe only later grasp the way that it is penetrating," she says. "It's not that I care what people think. It's just that some people are really hateful and horrible. You stand up to the bully, but it sinks in at a certain point, into your subconscious."
Maines bore the weight not only of those who hated her, but also those whom she loved. A band is like a family, and her decision to pull back into domesticity and raising her children had a very real impact on her bandmates.
"That was the pressure that hung around," she says. "How it affected other people, my unwillingness to want to do it for a while ... the desire went away a bit, but I don't know that it was for reasons of the controversy. I think it was just where I was in my life, and I like feeling settled. I like being domestic."
When Maines partnered up with Harper, the jam-circuit performer offered Maines a chance to cover some of her favorite artists including Patty Griffin, Dan Wilson (Semisonic), Eddie Vedder, and the Jayhawks. She also delivers a strong sympathetic reading of Pink Floyd's "Mother."
"I just really love their melodies and I love their lyrics. Even with [The Jayhawks'] Gary Louris. I don't even know what he's talking about, and I still love the way they sit," she says. "It's more about how they sound and form with the notes and the melody."
The experience seems to have stoked Maines' creative fires. While her kids limit her flexibility, she's looking forward to all the opportunities to broaden her horizons. She hoping to find other artists and producers to collaborate with, much as she did with Harper. Maines was always more rock 'n' roll than the other Dixie Chicks, and she wants to keep stretching those muscles.
"I do want to continue the solo thing. I just feel the need to write a lot more for whatever the follow-up will be," she says. "As much as I love our sound and love what we've done, there could be more. There is a certain formula to the Chicks as far as what the three of us can bring. So it was nice to not have to pick a song that has fiddle or three-part harmonies or banjo or whatever. So I did feel I did have to get this out of my system. But it's not out of my system yet. I'm still liking it."
So Maines has dipped her toe back into performing, and the Dixie Chicks will be out on the road this fall. While Maines clearly has other things on her mind, it would seem a Dixie Chicks reunion is more a matter of when than if. But when the Erwin sisters and Maines finally go into the studio again together, don't expect them to make any bids for country radio.
"The nature of country music and the standard, typical radio country industry definitely turned me off," she says. "So I was not interested and still am not interested in that, and music is supposed to be fun. I've always been very headstrong in that thought. I can't create for money or success. It has to be fun, and country music definitely stopped being fun for me."