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There's old country. There's new country. Then there are the Dixie Chicks.

Natalie Maines, Martie Seidel and Emily Robison have taken the Texas-bred sound of a fiddle, banjo, dobro and crystal-clear vocal harmonies into whole new territory. They are the rare act that comes along a few times in a generation that is destined to shake things up, rewrite the rules and become the new musical trendsetters.

The public has certainly noticed. The Dixie Chicks' first Monument album Wide Open Spaces has become the biggest selling album ever by a country duo or group - racking up some 6 million sales by the time their second album, Fly, was completed. The tremendous sales only demonstrates that while the Dixie Chicks have established themselves as a true country music act, they have also won over audiences outside the country genre. In a music field routinely known for selling to the conservative 30 and over crowd, more than 60% of the Dixie Chicks sales have been to consumers under the age of 25. Their concert audience is as likely to be comprised of entire rows of young women in their early teens and twenties as it is to include middle age couples and entire families complete with pre-teen girls dressed like their musical idols and singing every Dixie Chicks' song word for word.

The press has certainly noticed. Publications from Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and People to Harper's Bazaar, In Style, Seventeen and TV Guide have documented how the Dixie Chicks are bending the music world to their will and making country music more 'hip' than ever. With the wrap-up of 1998, numerous national publications named them the "Breakout Act of the Year" and recognized Wide Open Spaces as one of the "Best Of" albums of the year. USA Today credited the Chicks with single-handedly returning the banjo to country radio and Rolling Stone summed it up when they called them "the badass queenpins of country." At a time when much of the press on country music has lamented the 'sameness' of the sound and the artists, no less than the Los Angeles Times conceded that "the Dixie Chicks are the perfect antidote."

The music industry has certainly noticed. The Dixie Chicks' fellow musicians and industry peers, in particular, have overwhelmingly acknowledged their contribution. In a year's time, they have been honored with two Grammy Awards (Best Country Album and Best Country Vocal Performance Duo/Group), two Country Music Association Awards (Group of the Year and the Horizon Award), plus three Academy of Country Music Awards (including Album of the Year), one American Music Award and two TNN Music Awards. On Nashville's Music Row, where the unspoken business strategy often seems to be "if we can make it work once, we can beat it to death," the music industry has obviously been taking notes. It's likely not a coincidence that almost every record label in Nashville has signed a female trio since the Dixie Chicks exploded on to the scene. But clearly what makes this act work is not just that they are a female trio. The difference is this: There simply is no other act in any musical format that sounds like the Dixie Chicks.

The Dixie Chicks came out of the chute with enough sass and confidence to adopt slogans like "Chicks Rule" and "Chicks Kick Ass." Months later, with chicken foot tattoos on their feet signifying their No. 1 singles and gold and platinum successes as well as a vast array of awards, it appears that they were right from the beginning.

So how do the Dixie Chicks follow up? The obvious temptation would be to stick with what's worked and produce more of the same. But that safe approach to their art just wouldn't be what made the trio unique in the first place. When the three got together to plan their second Monument album, Fly, following the status quo is exactly what they did not want to do. This time, instead of contributing one song on their album, the Dixie Chicks wrote or co-wrote five new tracks. But more than that, they were determined to push the envelope and themselves as far as they could go in terms of instrumentation, production, vocals and - above all - spirit. The end result is an album that shines with artistic growth on every level.

"We didn't want to remake Wide Open Spaces," says Emily, "so we had to go back to that nothing-to-lose feeling. I definitely think we've grown. It's been a couple of years since we recorded Wide Open Spaces and I think that shows. We're not as scared to let the harmonies come through or take extra time to have an awesome solo. The only rule this time around was that there were 'No rules'."

Natalie agrees, "We didn't want to be afraid to try something different. So we didn't go into it scared. We went into it thinking that we're just going to make the album we want to make and if people like it, great. If they don't, we wouldn't be happy about that, but at least we made the album we wanted to make. The three of us sound better together and have become even better friends and that makes for better music. We grew as writers and all of our abilities just grew from playing so much and being around each other so much."

You can hear the band's confidence from the opening bars of the album. It doesn't start with a guitar lick or even a vocal hook, but with an Irish jig, played by Martie's fiddle, which melds into the first track and the first single "Ready To Run." And then, within a few lines, you can hear something else, the sound of personal independence that is a constant theme throughout the album.

The songs on Fly are all about women defining themselves their way. While they long for and cherish true love, they will look for it on their own terms, thank you very much. Stand By Your Man, it's not.

In Natalie and Emily's song Don't Waste Your Heart, the woman straight out tells the man trying to snag her that "It's funny how the girls get burned, but honey as far as I'm concerned, the tables have turned." Another Natalie/Emily contribution, Sin Wagon, notes how "He's lived his life now I'm gonna go live mine" before proceeding to live a wild night on the town arriving on a 'sin wagon'. On Ready to Run which Martie wrote with Marcus Hummon, the woman in the song fully realizes that she should be ready to settle down but instead decides "all I wanna do is have some fun/What's all this talk about love?"

"The album mirrors our lives," says Natalie. "If we're all happily married and we settle down and have kids, we'll have an album that reflects that. We're going through a lot of stages in our lives right now and that's what we relate to, think about, talk about and write about."

One song that is sure to have journalists writing and politicians pontificating goes even further. Goodbye Earl is a surprisingly upbeat-sounding tune about a woman called Wanda who is repeatedly beaten by her husband Earl. Eventually, she and her best friend Marianne decided that the only way to stop Earl from hurting Wanda anymore is to take Earl out of Wanda's life - terminally.

"It's pertaining to wife-beaters, not men in general," says Emily, reassuringly. "It's not putting the finger to guys. It's putting the finger to abusive guys."

Besides, the music on Fly is really universal. Women will identify and men will get a great glimpse into how many of today's young women feel but the songs are not gender specific emotions. As Martie explains, "Just about everyone can relate to songs about needing the freedom to chase your dreams or dealing with a broken heart or falling in love or even just wanting to be a little wild and crazy every now and then."

She adds, "Women today are stronger and healthier than ever before but that can make male/female relationships better. When you're younger so much of life revolves around men and male acceptance that it's hard to know who you are. Then you reach this point in your life where you discover girlfriends provide so many things that you forget about men a little bit. We're all three, married or not married, focusing a lot on female relationships and singing songs that reflect our confidence as women. It's not a negative thing because you have a better relationship when you don't depend on the man in your life for your whole identity."

It can be a little intimidating for a man when coping with female stardom on the level the Dixie Chicks have attained. "Men have definitely got to be strong to deal with it, and to have their own exciting thing going on," says Emily. But none of the band is complaining about the pressures of success - they can all remember the alternative.

For years, the Texas-trio booked their own dates, hired equipment and carted it to and from gigs themselves. Originally performing on a street corner in Dallas, the band's combination of bluegrass, cowgirl music and western swing earned them $300 in their very first hour and soon led them to barbecue joints, corporate gigs (including private parties for Ross Perot), and regional nightclubs. Early stints even included a nursing home, the produce section at a grocery store and a funeral! With 10-years of paying their dues, there's nothing they don't know about empty rooms, indifferent audiences and flea-bitten motels. "We'd all three stay in the same room and flip a coin to see who'd sleep with Emily because she's a cover hog," jokes Natalie. "Even when we got our own rooms we were still in sleazy motels - the kind that have the little machine by the bed to drop quarters in and make the bed shake."

Nowadays, things are different. "Our lives are very weird and un-normal," says Natalie. "But it is fun. We get a lot of perks now that we didn't get before but I don't think money is that important to any of us. None of us have made any extravagant purchases. Where I used to have to count my money all the time, now I just know I can eat the $5 M&Ms out of the hotel mini-bar and it's okay."

Which leaves just one question: Why is the new album called Fly?

"It's the whole Chicks thing. We've kind of earned our wings," relates Martie. "The first album was like the mama bird, the record company, pushing us towards the edge so we could learn to fly. And now we're doing it on our own. We've always stood up for what we believe in. But now we have more confidence and ability to soar and fly. Our career has really taken off. Natalie was flying from a situation she didn't want to be in. Emily's flying to a better place with someone she loves, and I'm experiencing the musical flight that I've waited so long to take. When I said to the girls, 'What about Fly for the title of our album?' we started to see how many references there were to flight, birds, or wings in the songs. There are so many meanings to it. It was like a sign."

But this is only the beginning of the Dixie Chicks' musical legacy, and their legacy of shaking things up. To some of the more conservative members of the Nashville community, there is something scary about the way the Dixie Chicks relish the opportunity to bust every convention going. (They even kept their picture off the cover of Fly just because everyone would have expected such a 'visual' act to put it on). "We're doing what we want to do. We're playing what we want to play. We're looking like we want to look. We're saying what we want to say. In other genres, that's ok but in country, the attitude tends to be more 'I'm just happy to be here,' responds Natalie.

But anyone who thinks the Dixie Chicks might mellow with time and fame has another thing coming. As Natalie proudly declares, "I have a feeling that if we're around for 20 years, there will still be things we do that scare them."

It's a safe bet, however, that the thread that will run constant through the Dixie Chicks' career will be that Chicks will continue to rule.

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