Dixie Chicks at the 41st Annual GRAMMY Awards
Photo by SGranitz/WireImage
'Fly' Away: Dixie Chicks' Landmark Album Turns 20
Dixie Chicks played by their own rules. No one⏤not the establishment, not a producer, not a politician⏤was going to strip them of the right to say (and sing) exactly what they wanted. Years before a political divide would rend their standing was bonafide country superstars to a pile of rubble and flaming merchandise, they were making the kind of boundary-pushing country music that not only honored its roots but extended well across the aisle to pop.
Even on their landmark 1999 studio album, Fly, their second major-label release (which turns 20 on August 31), they displayed tremendous fearlessness and heart while maintaining a knack for melding bluegrass, blues, plaintive folk, honky tonk and outlaw. From the cold-feet, altar-sprinter "Ready To Run" to the provocative mattress-dancer "Sin Wagon" and the getaway hoedown "Some Days You Gotta Dance," the album handles themes of womanhood, independence, retribution, heartbreak and sun-kissed romance in ways Music Row had never before witnessed. Frontwoman Natalie Maines and multi-instrumentalists Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer (formerly known professionally as Emily Robison) were renegades upending convention and redefining the format at every single turn.
Where their 1998 album Wide Open Spaces put everything in motion for one of the most legendary careers in country music, Fly ramped up the energy, tenacity of lyrics and musical volatility. Together, both sets are diamond-certified by the RIAA (figures of 12 million and 10 million, respectively) and present a trio of women so strong and resilient they were connecting to consumers of all walks of life, bridging gaps no other act could or has since. Fly would go on to win the Best Country Album distinction at the 2000 GRAMMY Awards, as well as the same honor at the Academy Of Country Music Awards, Billboard Music Awards and the CMAs.
The band’s 1998 debut with Sony, on the Monument Records imprint, contained such ubiquitous hits as "I Can Love You Better," "There’s Your Trouble" and the title cut. While making radio names for themselves, and becoming a global phenomenon in the process, it was Fly that let them soar to even more dizzying heights, personally and musically. When the last album single, "Tonight, The Heartache's on Me" was settling (peaking at No. 6 on the country singles chart), the visionary trio set to work collecting and writing songs for the followup.
In the spring of '99, producers Paul Worley (Lady Antebellum, Martina McBride) and Blake Chancey (Mary Chapin Carpenter, Little Big Town) both returned to helm the sophomore entry. Meanwhile, the label pushed for the group to expand their usual writing pool and held a songwriting retreat at Center Hill Lake, roughly 50 miles outside of Nashville. It was there that many of Fly’s new blood came into the picture to add what would soon become considerable contributions to the modern country pantheon.
"The beauty of the Chicks was that they already had a career in Texas. They didn’t look at it as 'if this doesn’t happen, life is over.' They were going to continue doing what they did anyway," songwriter Eric Silver (Diamond Rio, Neal McCoy) tells The Recording Academy. Digging into the sonic sheen of the record, which saw the group once again defying the norm, he notes the avoidance of "any reverb on the album. That was a point in time when everything had a lot of reverb and sounded produced. When the album first came out, a lot of people were listening to it and said, 'What’s going on with this mix? There’s no reverb on everything... it’s all dry!' That made everything more in-your-face and more raw and real," he says. "Even in that, I think it changed a lot of things technically in the way people started thinking about making a record. To a lot of people, it didn’t sound like they had finished it."
Songwriter Stephony Smith (Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Trisha Yearwood) echoes the sentiment: "I think everything about this album was a game-changer. At that time, you had Shania, Faith, Patty Loveless and all these badass women. It was all perfectly in-your-face kind of music. They fit right into that slot. 11 million records? Come on! That kind of speaks for itself."
For many songwriters involved, getting a Dixie Chicks cut at the height of the band's popularity proved to be a monumental turning point for their careers. GRAMMY winner Marcus Hummon (Rascal Flatts, Sara Evans) landed not one but two songs on the record. "I was surprised, and I knew that I was not only going to have two songs on the record but the first two singles on the record. That was just a huge breakthrough and exciting occurrence in my life," he remembers. "It’s hard to put it into perspective. They were so big, and they were also good. There’s something to be said, too, to have songs on a record and songs done by a group that you considered as good a country group as you saw. They did it the way I like it. I’m a roots baby myself. It’s guitars, banjo and piano for me. They were really the best."
He adds, "It’s the biggest breakthrough for me, professionally. I paid off my home. I own the house because of them. I've always felt that as a songwriter, if you own your home, you need to be happy. It’s a lucky occurrence."
Ahead of Fly’s 20th anniversary, The Recording Academy spoke to a slew of songwriters, including Silver, Annie Roboff and Troy Johnson, among others, on writing some of the most enduring classics of our time.
"Ready to Run"
Written by: Marcus Hummon and Martie Seidel
"Ready to Run" was released in June 1999 as the album’s lead single, serving as also the opening track. It would later find its way onto the soundtrack for Runaway Bride, a romantic comedy starring Julia Robert and Richard Gere. Following its finish at No. 2 on Billboard, the song snagged the GRAMMY Award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group.
Co-writer Marcus Hummon has also had such cuts as Rascal Flatts' "Bless the Broken Road,” which won him a GRAMMY for Best Country Song in 2005, and Tim McGraws’ "One Of These Days." Both songs originally appeared on Hummon’s 1995 debut album, All In Good Time, for Sony Records. He is a two-time NSAI Songwriters Hall of Fame nominee and has several other industry nominations and wins to his credit. Hummons also lends his talents on guitar for the recording of "Ready to Run."
Hummon: This was the first song we sat down to write. Martie and I wrote quite a few songs that were considered for subsequent records, too. Only two were ever recorded. I’ve always thought of it as a very special writing relationship. You never know when that’s going to happen. The reason I got to write with them is that I was on the way out. I had made a record [on Columbia], and nobody played it, basically. [Laughs.] People knew the record. It was a hybrid of roots⏤banjos, grooves, acoustic pianos. I guess, the Dixie Chicks knew at least of me and that record. When I got let go at Sony, I had said to hell with holding songs. For years and years, any songs I felt were any good, I’d hold them and not pitch them. But then, I was in a different headspace, so anyone could have anything.
Everything had changed, and suddenly, I was going to be a gun-for-hire. The other side to the way Nashville works, you get put into situations with bands and artists, and people try to match artistry. I think their song "I Can Love You Better" had been out for a week or two. I was already aware of it. It’s a very groovy record. Kostas [Patty Loveless, Jo Dee Messina, Dwight Yoakam] co-wrote it, and I loved him. I knew a little bit about the group. I have some Texas connections through my family, so I had known the Dixie Chicks, as a group, had existed for a long time. I knew that they had a new singer, and I didn’t know much beyond that.
I met Martie at Fido, a coffee shop in town, about a mile from my house. The thing about that song is she only had a couple hours before she had to get on a bus. I knew that, and so, I had actually started a wee bit of a song with a groove in the beginning of the verse. I knew they do funky groove really well, and I don’t get to write that with a lot of people. It’s not what everybody wants to do. We got a cup of coffee. It was the afternoon or early evening. When we got back to the house, she liked the blues groove.
She goes, "You know what would really sound great with that?" And she takes her fiddle out, and she plays the most Celctic melody you’ve ever heard. I remember thinking, "Wow, that’s really funky. That has nothing to do with what I’m doing, and I just love it." I think I must have said something to that effect, and then, we just powered into that song. There are sort of three different genres, really, and made this strange child of a song. She went off, and I thought, "Man, I love this, but they’re never going to do this."
However, I did a demo of it, and actually, they weren’t so huge yet. So, she still had some time in Nashville. She came by, and she played that fiddle part and worked on the demo with me. Then, we just handed it off, and I didn’t really hear anything.
Paul Worley was a friend of mine, the guy who had signed me to Sony, and he often lets me play guitar on these things. He called me up, and he said, "You know, I think we need the way you play guitar. We’ve cut the whole track, and the acoustic guitar at the center of it is too straight. Can you come and swing it?" I remember going to the studio, and he said, "By the way, we’re thinking of making this the first single." I got so nervous. [Laughs.] By the time they’re cutting "Ready to Run," [the Dixie Chicks are] a huge, worldwide phenomenon. I said, "Are we going to do several takes?" And he said, "No. You get one. If I wanted perfect, I would have gotten someone else. I want you to play it with some aggression."
That’s exactly what I did. I remember when I put the headphones on, and I was playing along with it, they had added the Irish penny whistle, which we did not put on the demo. It was a stroke of genius. It’s not the kind of thing you would expect on a country record. That didn’t happen often, despite all the connections of Irish music and Celctic music and Scotts-Irish, and it’s obviously a huge part of what country music is. It’s not like people put Irish whistles on songs. I remember thinking, "Damn, this is great! Don’t screw it up…"
Runaway Bride soundtrack
Hummon: That was a funny deal. My understanding is that the studio [Paramount] told the Dixie Chicks that they wanted "Ready To Run" to be the theme song for the end title. But the deal was that the Chicks had to incorporate the film in a video on CMT⏤they had to do one of those videos where you had scenes from the film. The girls were like, "No, no thanks." As it turns out, what had happened, I believe that they had done their own treatment. That first record sold so many records, and it was such a big deal. Then, there was the idea of the sophomore slump, which, of course, it wasn’t at all.
Even before all the political stuff that happened, the one thing that those who worked with them closely knew about them was that they were going to determine their own path. They were going to do it their way, and they were. This was just another example. They had an idea they thought was fun and funny and appropriate. They didn’t care about Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. [Laughs.] They got on the movie anyway, but only in a little 15-second [scene] of Julie hitting a punching bag. It didn’t really matter, though. That video is hilarious!
"If I Fall You’re Going Down with Me"
Written by: Matraca Berg and Annie Roboff
"If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me" was released in early 2001 as the album’s sixth single and eventually peaked at No. 3 on Billboard.
Matraca Berg has a wealthy pedigree of songwriting cuts. Most notably, her credits include "Strawberry Wine" by Deana Carter, "Wrong Side of Memphis" and "XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl)" by Trisha Yearwood, "I’m That Kind Of Girl" by Patty Loveless" and "Wild Angels" by Martina McBride.
Annie Roboff has other such cuts as Diamond Rio’s "Walking Away," Faith Hill’s "This Kiss" and many others. A musician and composer by trade, she originally lived in Los Angeles to pursue a career and moved to Nashville in 1994, a decision that quickly paid off.
Roboff: Everyone knows and respects Matraca's writing. It might have just been that we decided to write together. It was a few years after I had been in Nashville. I walked in and she said, "Let me play this for you. I’ve played it for a few people. Nobody’s really jumped on it." After she played me that dynamite hook, I musically knew what the bridge should be. Musically, I also had a good sense of what would be a good setup for the chorus. I was like, "Well, I’ll work on that. That’s fabulous!" The channel going up to the chorus, I wanted it to change keys or modulate a little.
I don’t remember how much of the lyrics had been written before lunch, but I know we came back from a Meat & Three without a musical verse. I played around with it and Matraca thought it should go in a more Tom Petty direction. I followed her idea and that was that. Again, I knew musically where it could go, but Matraca wrote 100 percent of the lyrics. Songwriters in a room contribute to everything. I didn’t just do anything myself. The only thing Matraca did before we walked into the room was the chorus, which is a big deal, but once you’re in a room with another writer, you’re writing the song together.
They are an incredible group that were able to connect with the general public. It wasn’t just country fans. You can talk to people up in New York, and you can say, "The Dixie Chicks are on!" And they’ll want to listen to it. They just know how to take a song and make it their own, and they did a really good job on this song. If you listen to a Dixie Chicks song, Natalie’s voice with Emily and Martie were great together. As a whole, they’re stronger than their parts. They’re an exceptional band. Their sales were blazing.
I’ve never been able to force a song to be a hit. I’ve never had one of my lesser songs be a hit. A lot of people have, but I haven’t. I’ve never had a hit with a song that made someone go, “Why’d they do that song?” When you’re writing a song, you can get really excited and say, “Damn, this sounds like a hit!” But I don’t start with thinking I’m going to write a hit song.
I remember playing the Bluebird, and a friend of mine who’s a doctor came to the show. She and her husband brought one of their parent’s daughters. We were playing in the round. The next time I saw the doctor, she said, “Oh my god, when you played that song, it was the best song.” She loved that song and couldn’t believe we were there playing it. You just don’t know what kind of impact it has on people.
"Cowboy Take Me Away"
Written by: Marcus Hummon and Martie Seidel
"Cowboy Take Me Away" was released in November 1999 as the second single and would become a chart-topping hit on Billboard the very next February. Previously, Hummon has gone on record to detail mis-hearing the title as "Calgon Take Me Away" (while eating canned spaghetti), but here, he goes a bit deeper into the songwriting, as well as the song’s reception and legacy.
Hummon: It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever been a part of. By the time we wrote this, the band had sold a lot of records, so they were very much in demand, in terms of co-writes. I had a relationship with Martie and had an opportunity to write with her. The three women had cottages, and so they were sequestered. It was the knowledge that someone else was coming at 3:00 to write. We had been working for quite awhile on a song for two days that really wasn’t very good. But when she said she had this title and that she wanted to write something for her sister’s wedding, I realized, "Oh my gosh, I’ve almost missed my opportunity." That’s really what we should have been working on.
The writing of it itself, as I remember it, is I had a few lines started. It was like a poem. I think it was the first few lines of the song, and she pulled out the mandolin and had that melody. It was one of those moments in time when everything comes unbelievably easily. It was almost as if we were speaking the lines through each other. I don’t remember it taking hardly any time at all. In that sense, it’s a really beautiful experience.
I remember about Hank Williams, and he had talked once about how in writing sometimes a song comes out fully formed and quickly. For some reason, I think he used the metaphor of a calf being born. They plop out, mom cleans it up and they’re walking! That song was like that. I think that what he was saying is that you do all this work and use those muscles, and you’re constantly thinking about words and music. Every now and then, for a variety of reasons, there’s that moment a song comes out fully formed.
I don’t know if we even edited the song much. I remember we wrote it, and she seemed kind of happy about it. Then, I never heard anything. I went off and did a demo. I knew we had achieved a purpose. I was later told to go buy a People magazine by someone, "Oh, hey, there’s a little article about the Chicks and Emily’s wedding, and they sang a new song called 'Cowboy Take Me Away.’” I saw that and said, "Wow, that’s great." But that was it. I just thought that that was the end of it. It was one of those songs that’s a beautiful little poem that was about her sister literally marrying a cowboy. Obviously, in a larger sense, it was about going back to the earth. It was a very country idea about things that are real and substantive and natural. That was really what was driving the music.
"It was a very country idea about things that are real and substantive and natural. That was really what was driving the music."
I play the song all over the country. I played a corporate gig the other night for Southwest Airlines. I guess they had rented out an entire bar downtown with a couple hundred people there. I started in on "Cowboy Take Me Away," and I don’t know if I’ve ever heard it sung back to me so lustily. [Laughs.] I just stopped playing and let them sing. In that sense, it’s very rare to have a song like that.
I remember a review of Fly. It was a big review. The writer singled out "Cowboy Take Me Away" as being the "disappointing" song on the record because it just sort of implied that the woman in the song needs the cowboy to make the dreams come true. I remember thinking, "Man, you have totally missed the song." One of the reasons that song has resonance is that it actually tied itself into the fiercely independent nature of the Dixie Chicks themselves as people. Obviously, outwardly, Natalie is a powerful, self-assertive person. If you think about the line "I want to grow something wild and unruly," it’s really about that. That’s where it connected. So, the times I’ve heard them in concert and they sing it, it’s the very strong character sharing their love of simple things, honest things, true things. Also, it’s their determination to be in that space at all costs. That’s the spirit of the song.
What you get with "Cowboy Take Me Away" is that you still have that sense of fierce independence, but you also have someone saying, "I love you." Natalie is as good a singer as I remember in my time in the business as I’ve ever come in contact with. I have a handful of voices that I love, and it’s been an extraordinary era to be a part of. Really, nobody is better than Natalie. She has all kinds of emotion, technique and versatility. She’s just a remarkable singer.
"Hello Mr. Heartache"
Written by: Mike Henderson and John Hadley
Mike Henderson is a founding member of The Steeldrivers, along with Chris Stapleton and Tammy Rogers. With the original lineup, the group earned several GRAMMY nominations, including Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for "Blue Side Of The Mountain" and Best Bluegrass Album for 2010’s Reckless. Henderson won the 2017 GRAMMY for Best Country Song for penning Stapleton’s "Broken Halos." He has also had cuts with Patty Loveless, Kenny Rogers, Travis Tritt, Trisha Yearwood and Randy Travis.
John Hadley has had songs cut by George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Reed, Linda Ronstadt, Joe Cocker and countless others.
Henderson: John and I had been writing together for years. We used to write on a pretty regular basis, usually once a week. As I recall, I had that title somehow. I don’t remember now how it came to me or where it came from. For us, it was just a regular writing appointment. We’d just sit down and write a song. We’d always finish it. He and I both work pretty quickly.
They had the Dixie Chicks stationed out a state park around Center Hill Lake. They were running songwriters out to write with them. I went out there, and Natalie and I tried to write a song. I don’t think we got very far with it. You got three hours, and then, the next guy was coming in. At that writing appointment, I pitched the song to Natalie. Blake had already heard the song and passed on it. But I thought, "Well, I’m going to give it one more shot." So, I gave it to Natalie. I guess they listened to it and liked it, and they started playing it in their live shows. When it came time to record, they told Blake they were going to cut it.
When you have a writing deal like I had, you have to keep your calendar pretty full with writing appointments. I think most anybody in town would tell you that you write a song and you do your best to forget it, so that all your songs don’t sound the same. You want to come into each appointment with an open, clear mind, so that you’re not writing the same song over and over again. I would just write them and forget about them. When it came time to make demos, we would usually do four or five songs on a session, and I think the publisher, as I recall at EMI, would have about as much input as I did.
If there was one I felt strongly about, I could cut it. The way that would work is you’d have a demo session every four or five weeks. You’d have four or five new songs for them to run with. Once you got the demo done, you could say, "Oh, that sounds like something that’d be good for X or Y." Usually, it would take being done with the demo to decide who you were going to try to go to with⏤rather than just the work tape, which is just a guitar and vocals.
Neither Hadley nor I were much of a singer, so you couldn’t really tell how the song was going to sound until we had a real singer come in. I think Joy White came in and sang the demo. I used to use her on a lot of stuff. I’m pretty sure she would have been the one to sing that.
Written by: Stephony Smith, Natalie Maines and Emily Robison
Though never released as an official radio single, "Sin Wagon" soon took on a life of its own and has become a legacy fan favorite.
Stephony Smith has written such chart hits as Tim McGraw & Faith Hill’s “It’s Your Love," Reba’s “How Was I to Know,” Trisha Yearwood’s “Perfect Love,” Kenny Chesney’s “Big Star” and Heidi Newfield’s “Johnny and June,” among others. She was named BMI’s Songwriter of the Year in 1998.
Smith: I was asked to come out to a little place outside of Nashville for a writer’s retreat. I wrote one with Emily, and we were sitting around at the end of the day after we had finished. I think Natalie was stood up by somebody else, so she was like, "Well, hey, let’s just write one while we’re sitting here." She's so laid back, and she said, "I got this title from Grease." It just jumped off from there. We're like, "Why not!"
I was playing guitar, and Emily was too. I was doing a Bonnie Raitt kind of groove. It had a similar swing to it. We got the chord structure and the words started spitting out. It was cool. It was easy. They’re so good, and it just flowed. We did a lot of laughing. There were some raunchy rhymes here and there that we didn’t use. My favorite part of writing this with them was⏤at the end of it, Natalie said, "Hey, can I play your guitar for a second?" I said, "Sure." So, I handed it to her. There was a coffee table in front of me, and she put her foot up on it. She put the guitar up on her knee, and she said, "I hear it like this." And she does this bluegrass strum, up-down, up-down, up-down. I was like, "OK, whatever. Sounds great to me!" Somebody said, I can’t remember who, "Nobody’s going to cut it anyway. They’re never going to let us cut it."
They were sitting around with Paul and Blake, and they asked, "Have we heard all the songs?" The girls were like, "Yeah, we played you everything." They were like, "No, think back. Is there anything else?" We didn’t even do a work tape of the song because we didn’t think anything was going to happen with it. We thought it was suggestive, and we didn’t mean it that way. But we thought the country market would take it that way. So, they’re sitting there, and they go, "Well, there’s this one song called 'Sin Wagon.'" As I understand it, they just sang it a cappella to Paul and Blake, and they lost their minds and did the arrangement right there.
I couldn't have been happier. When I heard it, I thought, "How the heck did we get from where we started to that?" It was basically what Natalie heard in her head⏤that bluegrass-y slam.
One particular line, “On a mission to make something happen / Feel like Delilah lookin' for Samson / Do a little mattress dancin' / That's right I said mattress dancin',” drew tense sideways glances from label executives for what was perceived as a sexual overtone. That line was nearly cut from the final version.
Smith: I never saw that line as that. I saw that line as a guy and a girl on a mattress just jumping up and down and acting silly. And the label took it the other way. As I understand it, the girls were pretty forceful about leaving that line in.
In 2000, "Sin Wagon” was the target of $500,000 lawsuit filed by the family of Albert E. Brumley, songwriter of the 1929 hymn "I’ll Fly Away." The entire basis of the suit was centered around a sample of the hymn used to bookend the song.
Smith: In a nutshell, when someone says, “Oh, you used part of our song,” what they think is that you started the whole song with that. We did not start the song with that. That was a last-minute thought and a tip of the hat kind of thing. The song started with the "Sin Wagon" line in Grease. We won that lawsuit because there was no intent from the beginning to base it around "I’ll Fly Away." That’s not even the subject of the song. It’s just a funny piece at the end.
Written by: Eric Silver and Natalie Maines
“Without You” was released as the album’s fifth single in August 2000. It hit the chart summit at the top of the following year.
Eric Silver has also written songs by Diamond Rio (“This Romeo Ain’t Got Julie Yet,” “Can’t You Tell,” “Nothing in This World”), Neal McCoy (“The Luckiest Man in the World,” “Tails I Lose”), Toby Keith (“You Don’t Know Anymore”) and Reba (“I’m Not Your Girl”).
Silver: I was very good friends with the girls when they first started their career. We met at a party at Sony Records for the release of an album by the Kinleys. They were the new act that was at the label. The focus was all on the Kinleys. Everyone thought that band would be the next big thing. That’s not what happened. It was the Chicks.
I definitely feel like I’ve participated in modern country music. I don’t know if I’ll be bold enough to say "contributed." The interesting thing about "Without You" is that in that era of what the Chicks were becoming and becoming known for⏤which was a female act that wasn’t afraid to voice their mind and be a little on the edge⏤this song came into the fray late in the game. It wasn’t that. It was much more of a typical country song.
I remember when Natalie sang the melody to me, what she was imagining as the melody, I remember thinking, "This just doesn’t sound like what I think it’s supposed to sound like, but I’ll go with it." She has her own way. It’s a brilliant melody, but it took me a while to wrap my head around it. It wasn’t something I thought of. The girl I was dating had broken up with me right about the time we were finishing the song. Natalie said to me, "Well, what do you think about the second verse?" I said, "I don’t know. I have to think about it." She said, "Well, your girlfriend just dumped you. You must be able to think of something sad!"
In the chorus, when it got to the last part, I said to her, "I think I’ve got the lyrics for the whole thing, except the line right before the hook." The only thing I could think of was "my heart is stuck in second place," and then it needs to have a rhyme. I just kept going, "ooo, ooo, without you." I said, "I’m just trying to figure out what to put in at the 'ooo, ooo.'" She said, "Well, what’s wrong with ‘ooo, ooo’?" I said, "Well, everybody will say we just copped out. Gotta say something!” She said, "No, it doesn’t. Listen. [sings] 'My heart is stuck in second place / Ooo, ooo / Without you…'"
I had already written some songs with Emily and some songs with Martie, but Natalie and I started that song at the songwriting retreat. We recorded it on a cassette, but it was the end of the day. We were kind of tired. We recorded it, and I didn’t even listen back to the tape. Then, when I heard it, it was so garbled that I couldn’t even hear what we had done. We talked a little about the song because they were getting ready to go into the studio. I said, "I can’t really hear anything we said." Things got really confusing. They started working on the album, and we’d not finished the song. She asked me a couple times what I thought and if I wanted to finish it. I said, "Yeah, I want to finish it whenever we can!" They got really busy.
At some point, she reached out to me and asked if I thought the song could be a slow song. Apparently, I wasn’t really privy to what was going on, but they must have been lacking a ballad or something. I said, “Sure, any song can be driven any direction.” I did a different version of it. I remembered a little bit of the lyrics. She said, “Well, we’re pretty busy, but if you get ideas for the song, can you just send them to the studio?” At the time, I had to send all my ideas via fax. While they were recording, I went in to my studio thinking and writing, and everytime I had an idea, I’d send it to her.
She liked it, and she’d send back a thumbs up and a “I like this part, I like that part.” That’s how I got through the lyrics. Then, I never heard back. Again, I’m thinking, “Clearly, this isn’t happening.” She called me one day and said, “You know, have you recorded the song?” I said, “No, I didn’t know what was happening with the song.” She said, “Well, I need to put a vocal on it.” I was really in the dark and went ahead and recorded the song. She came by one day and sang the melody. She said, “Just give me a rough copy of it on a cassette.” I did and said, “Do you want to put harmonies on it or anything?” “No, no, I just want to show it.”
Basically, I didn’t hear anything back. I didn’t even know "Without You" had made the album. The Chicks had become such a hot commodity at that time that they started keeping all the news and information about the records really close to the chest. I worked a lot of the sessions as a musician, too, so I was calling all the guys I knew in the band that were recording and kept saying, "Do you remember this song? Did you cut a song called ‘Without You’?" The Chicks had had a couple songwriting retreats where they booked a place and had different writers come out and work for a few days.
“Some Days You Gotta Dance”
Written by: Troy Johnson and Marshall Morgan
Troy Johnson has had other cuts with Sara Evans, Thompson Square, Trace Adkins, Montgomery Gentry, Little River Band and Keith Urban.
Johnson: This is the first country song I ever wrote. I was in college. Before coming to Nashville, I was writing songs but just as a teenager. I was writing more pop-oriented material. While I was at Belmont University, my dream was to be a songwriter and get a publishing deal. I hadn’t written any country material, so I sat down in my terrible apartment at the time with my guitar. I thought, "If I’m going to write for this town, I’m going to need to write some country material." So, I had just learned how to play guitar pretty recently, and I knew a handful of chords. The only thing that really popped into my head when it came to country music was the train beat. I grabbed an A and started playing that rhythm. As a 19-year-old, all these lyrics started popping out of my head. The hook came out of my head instantly. I just went with it. I didn’t know what I was doing at the time.
That song was birthed in about 20 minutes. I wrote a couple more tunes and put together a demo and started to pass it out to as many people as possible. My first publisher was with Alex Torrez and Marshall Morgan. Marshall really thought the song had some legs, so we got together and sort of re-structured the ends of the verses and how it went into the chorus. I learned a lot from that particular writing session. The song itself has had a pretty decent life when you think of it. It was very visceral as far as emotions go. It was a simple song that a nothing writer at the time came up with in the solace of his dinky apartment.
During that time of their career, the Chicks did a Crossroads with James Taylor, and he ended up choosing that song to do for the show. He ended up cutting it on one of his records, too [2008’s Covers]. I couldn’t be prouder of the little ditty that I came up with.
Landing On The Album
Johnson: I got a call from my publisher saying, “You won’t believe what just happened, but the Chicks are going to cut your song!” I was like, “You gotta be freaking kidding me.” It was their second record, and their first one had done so well that the anticipation was pretty high. By that time, I had worked with Blake Chancey on some other projects and gotten to know him to a certain degree. The first time I heard the cut, we were out somewhere. He said, “Come out to my car, and let me play you what we did.” So, I went out to his truck, and he played me what they cut. I think it was just the board mix of the day. I was just floored. They took a three-chord song and really turned it into something special. I was very thankful.
I was thinking, “Man, I’ve made it. I’m on my way! I hope there’s many down the road.” I certainly felt gratified for a long time⏤just to know you’re on a record of that quality.
Written by: Darrell Scott
Darrell Scott has enjoyed a healthy career writing, playing and recording with many of Nashville’s elite. His songwriting cuts include Travis Tritt’s “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive,” Faith Hill’s “We’ve Got Nothing But Love to Prove” and Robinella’s “Head South,” among many others. He’s also collaborated with Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Guy Clark, Mary Gauthier and more in varying capacities. In 2007, he won Song of the Year at the Americana Association for “Hank William’s Ghost,” from his 2006 studio album The Invisible Man.
"Heartbreak Town" originally appears on Scott’s debut album, 1997's Aloha from Nashville.
Scott: Blake was an old friend of mine, always helped me out. He was always trying to help me and get me on sessions. Well, there was a period where Paul, especially, was trying to get the Chicks to write with others. Paul put me together with Natalie while they were working on the Fly album. So, while Martie was overdubbing on fiddle, Emily was literally writing with Mary Chapin Carpenter in another part of the studio complex. Then, Paul set me up to write with Natalie in another part. The way I talk about that is it’s like there’s a party going on on a carnival cruise and people getting to know each other and having a great time ⏤ and then suddenly I get helicoptered in to the boat out in the middle of the ocean. They all know each other, and I’m the odd guy out. That was the atmosphere of it. I go off with Natalie to write, someone who I’ve never met before. It was a factory of sorts, a nice factory, but we’re going to get some work done.
Paul walks Natalie and I back to the other part and goes, "I’ll see you in a couple of hours." So, he leaves, and here’s the two strangers in a room to write. I start saying, “Oh, we could write this kind of tune.” And I’d play a song for her that was that style. Then, “There’s this kind of tune we could write.” One of those tunes that I played for her just to show her an array of style was “Heartbreak Town.” When that song finished, she said, “Oh, I love that song!” Then, we started trying to work on a song together. Well, that went on for awhile, and we really weren’t coming up with anything. There were a couple of lines.
A couple of hours went by. Paul came back to check on us. He said, “Hey, how’s it going in here?” We said, “Well, we sort of have something, but we’re not very far on it.” Then she said, “But he played me a song that I love.” Paul looked at me like “you idiot, you weren't here to pitch songs, you were here to write songs.” He didn’t say that, but that’s what his look said. I wasn’t aware of the pitch, on my part, so to speak. I was literally just trying to show her my many styles.
She just loved "Heartbreak Town" and drove it through the next process. We didn’t get any further on whatever song we sort of started. The next thing I knew, the band had recorded it. Then, the next thing I knew, they had over-recorded for the album. They had cut 40 but only needed 12. Then, I heard this song made the second cut, and then it made the album. All this time, I hadn’t even heard the recording or anything. I’m not one of those guys who hangs around the studio where someone is supposedly cutting my song. I stay out of the way completely. Really, the first time I heard the song was on the album. It made the whole gauntlet.
The girls became a fan of what I was doing, so if I had a record out, they had a wide-open net of listening. I was on their radar. They’d also come to shows. When I’d play Austin, Natalie would come out with her dad and mom. Natalie was in my corner and followed what I was up to.
Writing His True Nashville Story
Scott: When I moved to Nashville in ‘92 from Boston, that song was my story of moving there. Details like literally crossing the state line and honking the horn, that’s how we drove from Massachusetts to Tennessee. When I was a kid, we didn’t take a lot of vacations. I think we took our first vacation when I was six, and that was to Nashville from northern Indiana. Every time we crossed a state line, we’d honk the horn. I still do that, to tell you the truth.
"Heartbreak Town" is absolutely autobiographical, and it’s anticipating the cold shoulder. Whether it was true or not, it certainly felt that way for awhile. It broke, of course, and suddenly, I was playing tons of sessions and records and getting cuts. Lines in there like "square people in a world that’s round"⏤those are my biting comments toward commercialized Nashville. My first record I made, which this was on, was called Aloha! From Nashville. You know, “aloha” means "hello" and "goodbye," and I was very aware of that. I just knew that when I made my record, I was going to blast through there. I was just going to tell my little truth about how hollow Nashville can be sometimes.
It’s funny that the Chicks, who were already a very successful group, would want to sing a song about somebody who is on the other side of success. That’s to the credit to those girls.
Any time I tried to write for somebody, the songs would always suck without exception. They sounded as bad as a lot of other songs sound. I never wanted that. I wanted the songs that stood up and stood out, so I didn’t do that. What I did was write what I wanted to write. “Heartbreak Town” was written for me and my experience of coming to a new area and feeling like I wasn’t quite accepted. The rest of my writing career is pretty much exactly the same. I caught on early that I should be writing what I feel like. I follow my muse and let the chips fall. I did not chase very strongly at all the idea of following market trends or who’s cutting or what kind of song this person wants and all that. I did not play that game. Anytime I did play that game, I came up with shitty songs. I’m one who believes there is enough shitty songs in this world.
The Chicks' Legacy
20 years later, the Dixie Chicks legacy is as strong as ever. The songwriters leave with some final thoughts on the band’s work and their lasting imprint on Nashville.
Mike Henderson: I thought [the band] was interesting and it was a good idea⏤the way they brought the banjo and all that into the music. The banjo had kind of been poison for a long, long time. They were good. They could actually sing and play well. They were very successful. People liked them.
Troy Johnson: Well, I have to say I first thought their name was a little silly. At the time, it was like, "Who am I?" I was probably a lot more braggadocious in my younger days than I am now. I probably said more things than I should have back then. I’m sure that’s one thing I might have mentioned to Blake. They’ve obviously proven my stupid ass wrong. They’re wonderful musicians, and Natalie’s a killer singer.
Darrell Scott: I always thought the Dixie Chicks were amazing at following that line⏤of commercial and integrity. They didn’t kowtow. They were a standout and outspoken on all levels. The bottom line is, they had the music and talent and chutzpah to pull all of it off. They were undeniable. I remember the first time I heard them. I was playing a festival called MerleFest, and they were, too. This was long before they had any radio hits at all. I remember specifically they were doing an obscure James Taylor song, and they were doing three-part harmony and killing it. I remember thinking, "I don’t know who these women are, but this is fantastic." It was with Natalie but pre-release. I heard them before the influence of radio going crazy for them. I knew they had it then.
"They didn’t kowtow. They were a standout and outspoken on all levels. The bottom line is, they had the music and talent and chutzpah to pull all of it off. They were undeniable."
Eric Silver: To think back to that era when the Chicks were selling 10 million, 12 million albums, that feels pretty amazing to be a part of. I talk to some of the songwriters⏤we’re all still in touch⏤and it’s something you never dreamed was going to be so unusual. It seemed really cool at the time. Basically, the big three that were going on at the time were Garth, Shania and the Dixie Chicks. At the same time, it didn’t ever register in my mind that that was as big as it was going to get in the industry.
Being a semi-older-timer from Nashville, the one thing I have seen is having worked with Shania in the very beginning of her career, as well as the Chicks, I don’t think anybody could have ever planned exactly what happened. Those artists did what they do well. They did what was really true to them, and that’s what has seemed to have worked. I didn’t work with Garth, but I saw Garth happening from the beginning. I was friends with his manager. The common thread was they weren’t copying anybody. They were doing their thing.