Penthouse Retrospective

by James L. Dickerson Originally Published: September, 2000

Dixie Chicks | 20 Years Ago This Month

The Dixie Chicks are to road stories what Thelma & Louise is to chick movies.

Penthouse Magazine - September 2000Road Chicks

It surprises a lot of people to hear this, but the Chicks have been touring for more than ten years. There isn’t much these fearless Texas women haven’t seen or done. But they might never have gone on the road if it hadn’t been for the generosity of one of their female fans.

Among the ranks of hard-core Dixie Chicks boosters in the early 1990s were billionaire H. Ross Perot, Lady Bird Johnson, and the entire family of the late Senator John Tower, especially his married daughter, Penny Cook. All of them hired the Chicks for private parties, and all seemed eager to spread the gospel of the all-girl band. The only dark cloud was the group’s inability to pique the interest of a major record label.

When it finally sank in that there would be no dialogue with a label until they had demo tapes to offer, the Dixie Chicks priced several studios and discovered they could afford none of them. They were lining up bookings one after the other (not only were they the only all-girl bluegrass band in Texas, they were the cheapest band, period), but those paychecks, split four ways, provided no savings to draw upon. (In the early days, there were four Dixie Chicks-Robin Macy, Laura Lynch, and sisters Martie and Emily Erwin. Macy left in 1992, after a dispute over whether drums should be added, and Lynch was replaced by Natalie Maines in 1995. The Erwins now use their married names, Martie Seidel and Emily Robison.)

In the fall of 1990, when it appeared their dreams of becoming recording artists would never be realized, a small miracle occurred. Penny Cook showed up at Laura’s house unannounced and said, “Okay, you’ve got to make a record so we can hear you when we can’t see you. What do you need?” Stunned, Laura replied, “I think it would cost about $10,000.”

Without saying another word, Cook wrote out a personal check for $10,000. “Good luck,” she said. “Just pay it back when you can.”

The product of that generous loan, Thank Heavens for Dale Evans, contained 14 songs that were all recorded live in the studio, the way Scotty Moore, Bill Black, and Elvis Presley did it back in the 1950s, and Patsy Montana and Bill Monroe even earlier.

“We had to be skimpy on studio time, so we gathered around the microphones and played the songs live,” says former lead singer Lynch. “If we all ended the song at the same time, we’d say, ‘That’s a keeper,’ and then move on to the next song. We didn’t do any dubbing or any of that rigmarole. We did it the way that was the most efficient and economical.”

Now that the Chicks had sunk the money into pressing a CD, they had no choice but to go out on the road so they could repay the loan. It was the beginning of one hell of a wild ride.

Emily breezed into the van one day, her eyes wide as saucers. ‘You’ll never believe what happened to me!” she exclaimed. Everyone else had been waiting for Emily, the youngest of the Dixie Chicks until Natalie Maines joined in 1995, and their attitude was pretty much that it had better be a damned good story. Emily didn’t disappoint.

For the past several months she’d been dating someone. The relationship had about run its course, but Emily had never found breaking up easy to do. Since she was out on the road so much with the Chicks, avoiding the guy seemed easier than dumping him. Besides, he had a key to her house and watered her plants when she was out of town. Why mess with a good thing?

The problem was, Emily had met another man. Her new love interest was the lead singer of a band that was packing honky-tonks all across Texas. Unlike Emily’s boyfriend, he was a big fellow who towered over her. Out of respect for his Texas-size girth and his steer-roping passion for privacy, let’s just call him Big Fella.

Big Fella had spent the night at Emily’s house, she explained to her bandmates, though she hurried past that bit of news to get to the good part of the story. In the morning, as she rushed through a shower, she’d heard a sound that sent shivers up her spine-shades of Psycho. Someone was coming in the back door.

In an instant she knew who the intruder was. She had not called her boyfriend when she’d returned home the previous day, for obvious reasons. Thinking she was on the road, he’d stopped by to water her plants. What a guy!

Quickly, Emily jumped out of the shower, threw on a towel, and dashed into the kitchen just in time to greet him at the door. She was dripping wet.

“You should call before you come over,” Emily said, uttering the phrase that sets off alarm bells for any male. The boyfriend looked at Emily, then in the direction of the bedroom. Suddenly his dark eyes flashed, and he bolted for the other room.

Three years before the Dixie Chicks figured out that music and politics rarely mesh like a beautiful chord, they had fun stories to tell.