So apparently people are still buying music. Because I just looked at wikipedia’s list of the best-selling albums in the U.S. — which has been my guide while constructing these reviews — and apparently it’s changed. I thought this album was going to be the 43rd best-selling album of all-time when I wrote this, but a few albums got rearranged on this list when it was updated, so now it’s number 41. Just wanted to clear that up.
Album: Wide Open Spaces
Artist: Dixie Chicks
Release Date: January 28, 1998
Copies Sold In The U.S.: 12 Million
Why Was This Popular?
Because America Loves Musicians With Opinions, Just As Long As They Don’t Have To Hear Them
Looking back, the Dixie Chicks are one of those artists where it’s pretty easy to see why they were so huge, because put simply, they had a lot going for them. Their music was firmly entrenched in traditional American music, (particular country and bluegrass) which gave them a “realness” that would appeal to hardcore country fans as well as music critics. But at the same time there was a contemporary pop element to their songwriting, which of course gave them an appeal towards a broader pop audience, which included hordes of teenage girls that were looking for something with a little more bite than Britney or Christina. And to further drive home their pop appeal, the Dixie’s were a bunch of pretty ladies, though not so pretty that it would provoke suspicion about their credibility as musicians.
Also, I have to imagine that the noticeable feistiness of lead singer Natalie Maines was another part of the Dixies’ appeal, and also what ultimately managed to undue their widespread popularity. What I’m inferring to of course is the comment that Maines made about then-President George W. Bush in 2003 at a British concert, in which Maines spoke out against the Iraq War, stating that the Texas-born Dixies were ashamed that President Bush hailed from their home state. This then led to a complete whirlwind of vitriol that was aimed at the Dixies from conservative news outlets, while country radio refused to play their songs.
In conjuncture with listening to this album, I also ended up watching the 2006 documentary Shut Up And Sing, which captures the Dixie Chicks during this very turbulent moment in their career. And while watching this film, it’s hard not to look at the Dixies as anything other than a class act. Sure, they never meant to cause such a stir with their more conservative fans (which was a lot of them), but you have to give them props for standing by their statements, since they probably could’ve continued to sell a lot more records if they had apologized all over themselves. However, they instead continued to maintain their opinion that our 43rd president was kind of a dumbass. That’s free speech in action, y’all.
Did It Deserve To Be Popular?
Now let’s jump back a few years before all that controversy, when the Dixies were just a few sweet girls with some infectious tunes that featured an uncanny amount of banjo and fiddle. Wide Open Spaces happened to be the first Dixie Chicks album to feature Natalie Maines as lead singer, and thus gave the band just enough of a pop influence to break through to the mainstream. And while I wouldn’t say Wide Open Spaces quite has that quality of seeing a band capturing lighting in a bottle for the first time, since there is a slightly calculated quality to these songs that feels like there were probably a few record execs in the studio while this album was being recorded. Still, compared to a lot of the 90’s pop country I’ve heard (which isn’t a lot), Wide Open Spaces holds up pretty darn well.
So I guess I’ll just come out and say it: I like this album quite a bit. I don’t know why this is so hard for me to admit, but I suppose the Dixie Chicks have always been one of those bands that I’ve always felt predisposed to thinking are really lame. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that they were popular during my pre-teen years, which was a period in which I hated pretty much all music that was popular at the time. And looking back I can’t really blame myself, since the late 90’s/early 00’s was a pretty shitty time for mainstream music. This was the height of boy bands and nu-metal, which I’m sure is what sent me looking towards the past for a lot of the music that I spent my teenage years listening to.
However, if I had been a bit more open-minded as a youngster (there’s an oxymoron for ya), maybe I could’ve seen that the Dixie Chicks were in fact the real deal. Though you’d be hard-pressed to call this anything other than CMT-bound country pop, it actually might be one of the few cases where a massively popular country album sounds pretty darn country. And then on top of that, these girls’ potent mixture of yearning harmonies accompanied by mandolins and fiddles makes it perhaps the only time outside of the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack that the sounds of bluegrass were brought to a massive modern audience.
Would I Pay Money For This?
See, this is where things get complicated.
I’ll be the first one to admit that this kind of music isn’t really my thing. But regardless, it’s pretty great for what it is. In fact, I could definitely see a more reputable music critic making the statement that this is one of the defining albums of 90’s country pop, and I’d believe him. Me on the other hand, am in no position to make such a claim since as I said, this isn’t really my thing.
But you know what? Fuck it. I’d spend money on this if I was in the mood to let my inner country girl spread her wings and fly along with the Dixies. Granted, my inner country girl doesn’t really exist, so that’s kind of a weird thing to say. But my point is, this album’s actually pretty good if you’re willing to give it a chance. Who knew?
Next Time On The People’s Albums: Things get hot, sticky, and hopefully sweet when I pour Hysteria by Def Leppard into my earholes.