"We have to say things when the time is right to say them, and we've been quiet for 10 years, so get ready."
That's how Emily Strayer, one-third of The Chicks (formerly of Dixie), described the long-awaited return of America's best-selling female band of all time with the Associated Press in early July. Though her math may be a bit off—it's actually been just over 14 years since the group released Taking the Long Way, their last album of new material—the sentiment remains the same: She and her country-pop compatriots Natalie Maines and Marti Maguire are back with points to be made.
"It just seemed like a good reflection on our times," Maines explained. "In 20 years, we'll look back at that album cover and title and remember exactly what was going on in the country right then."
Gaslighter, their eighth studio album out July 17, however, was never guaranteed; its mere existence the latest act of defiance in a career marked by a steadfast refusal to go with the flow. To understand why its arrival is so special, we first must go back to what the trio refers to now as "the incident," the moment in 2003 that changed the course of their career for good.
In March of 2003, the band was in London to promote Home, their third album released as a trio with Maines, as the United States was preparing to invade Irag. As their track "Travelin' Soldier" sat atop the Billboard Country Chart, the frontwoman told the crowd, "We're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." The comment, made in those early post-9/11 days when criticizing the American government's response wasn't tolerated, especially in the patriotic world of country music, brought hell down on The Chicks.
Country radio disowned them. Album-burning rallies were held. Death threats—credible ones—were made. And through it all, they refused to back down.
They made the cover of Entertainment Weekly nude, with every label they'd had lobbed their way written across their bodies. They documented the toll the backlash took behind the scenes in the documentary Shut Up and Sing. And they set to work on the career-defining smash album Taking the Long Way.
Working on the album, which confronted the backlash head-on with tracks like "Not Ready to Make Nice," "Easy Silence" and "The Long Way Around" and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, was no easy feat. "The stakes were so high," Strayer told The New York Times this month. "This song had to be perfect; this line had to be just-so."
Country may have turned its back on them, but they'd suddenly been opened up to a wider pop audience. The swept at the Grammys, winning all six categories it had been nominated in, including Album of the Year, and helped them develop what Maines described to the NYT as "a true ability to not care." But it also took its toll.
When it was done, "I was tired," Maines added. "I just wanted to raise my kids."
So, they went on hiatus. While apart, they released music of their own—Maines, an album of covers called Mother, while real-life sisters Maguire and Stayer recorded two albums under the name Court Yard Hounds. And yet, they could never manage to stay away from each other for too long, reuniting for tours in 2010, 2013 and, eventually, a massive headlining tour throughout North America in 2016.
They could've kept on like that, just successfully touring thanks to the enormous amount of cultural cachet they'd garnered over the years, but something drew them back to the studio. And in 2018, after signing with new management, they were at work on what would eventually become Gaslighter, named after the term, used to describe a person who manipulates the truth to make the victim of their abuse feel crazy, that's found itself used with some frequency these days.
"I was going through a lot of things personally, so I had a lot to write about," Maines told the NYT about the new material, which came easily once the trio started writing together. Initially, they envisioned creating the album with a rotating cast of producers, but "I was raw," Maines added. "It was too hard for me to reveal myself to a lot of different people." Once Jack Antonoff, the Grammy-nominated producer whose worked on Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey and Lorde's latest albums, entered the mix and endeared himself the the women, they made the decision to craft the entire LP with him, even taking him and recording engineer Laura Sisk on a repurposed three-week work trip to Kauai.
"Laura and I were also sort of on a family vacation" with the trio and their families, Antonoff told the NYT about their time in Hawaii, noting that one minute they'd be enjoying the sights, while the next "we'd be combing through these heartbreaking lyrics about betrayal and grief."
While Maines' public separation from actor Adrian Pasdar seems the obvious inspiration for the album, especially the incendiary title track, each of the women have had their share of divorce, leaving there plenty to draw from. "I think people had it in their minds that this album is about one thing and one thing only, and it's not," Maines told the AP. "People are jumping to conclusions."
What the three singles released in advance of the album's release—the aforementioned title track, "Julianna Calm Down" and "March March"—have made clear is that, though Antonoff has pushed their sound further into the pop landscape, there still lies the beating heart of country music at their core. "For some reason, we will always be in the dollar country bin at the record store," Maines told the NYT. "Obviously, we have harmonies and we have a banjo and a fiddle."
Even if they've dropped the Dixie from their name, distancing themselves from the nostalgia it implies for the brutally racist Civil War-era American South—a move they told the Times they've wanted to make for years, but didn't out of fear of hampering their own success.
And even if country fans don't come rushing back.
"I used to care way too much what people thought," Strayer admitted to the publication. "I really have a don't-give-a-[expletive] part to me now, which I didn't have before."
As Antonoff noted, "They could have sailed off into the sunset. That they didn't, he gushed, "is one of the most inspiring things to me, ever." No gaslighting noted.
Gaslighter is available now.