If there's a single moment that endeared The (formerly Dixie) Chicks to their gay fans, it would be lead singer Natalie Maine's criticism of President George W. Bush at a London show in 2003. "The controversy," as Maines refers to it 17 years later, landed The Chicks on an industry blacklist. It also solidified their queer fans' loyalty.
"There was sort of a shared 'we know what you’re going through' with being suppressed or hated," Maines tells me over a Zoom call with her bandmates Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer. "And they watched us stand up to that, especially with [2006's] 'Not Ready to Make Nice.' There’s always been a connection with our gay fans in that way—having to overcome and stay happy and fun, and not let it beat you down."
Their theatrical, fashion-forward looks helped too, she adds, to affirmative laughs from Maguire and Strayer: "I’ve asked my gay friends like, 'Why has the gay community always been such fans?' And my best friend Dean, who is gay, was like, 'Because you wore every fad, all at once!'"
A lot has changed in the country-pop world since the "Not Ready to Make Nice" days, but The Chicks' unapologetic stick-to-the-man attitude has not. In 2020, the music industry vets nixed the "Dixie" and released their first new album as a group in 14 years, shedding two things they'd outgrown: a name with Confederacy-era connotations and their contract with a record label that had burned them in the past.
The result, the Jack Antonoff-produced Gaslighter, is one of the most cohesive records in their decades-long discography. It's also one of their angriest. Tracks like "Sleep At Night" and "Tights On My Boat" make unsubtle jabs at Maines' cheating ex-husband ("You can tell the girl who left her tights on my boat / That she can have you now"). "March March," with its military imagery and haunting string sections, is as much as self-empowerment anthem as it is a call-to-action for the Trump era.
"Gaslighter definitely touches on being a divorce album," Strayer says. "And when you’re going through that, you go through every emotion. But rage can be really powerful to get you to the next step."
Beneath all that anger, something else simmers below Gaslighter's surface: hope. In juxtaposition to the song's impassioned lyrics, the music video for "Sleep At Night" shows Maines, Maguire, and Strayer literally and figuratively uplifting each other. "Julianna Calm Down," an inspiring ballad toward the end of the record, name-checks The Chicks' daughters, nieces, and other female loved ones while encouraging them to "breathe / It'll be okay."
If rage is The Chicks' fuel, then hope—for a "Texas Man" with patient hands, for Trump to get voted out of office in November, for a world without racism and police brutality—is their end goal. And music, Maguire says, is their vehicle: "Everyone’s talking, so how do you break through the noise and get to the heart of change? Being musical artists, we feel like we have not only a responsibility but a privilege to be able to express that rage or anger in music."
And use their platform, they have. In 2020, looking back on "the controversy" that got The Chicks #canceled is laughable given the current president's almost daily tirades on Twitter. Would her criticism of Bush have been received differently if Maines were a man, or if she'd voiced it on her "home soil" instead of onstage in London? Maines has no fucking clue. Is there any point in even going down that rabbit hole? By vocally denouncing an injustice, The Chicks stayed true to themselves—and inspired country-pop artists to come, including their friend and collaborator Taylor Swift, who cites The Chicks among her personal heroes.
While they no longer consider themselves part of the country music world after "the controversy," The Chicks have watched female and LGBTQ country artists prosper since '03. Maines remembers knowing which artists were gay when they were coming up in the industry all those years ago. "A couple were open to us, but we knew it was a secret," she recalls. "They couldn’t be out. So I do think we’re seeing that that has changed. We’re seeing that people are still able to come out and have a career and be accepted."
Strayer points to Brandi Carlile, an acclaimed country artist she's always loved who happens to be a lesbian. "When she got her Grammys...she’s been doing the work for a long time," she says. "To see her get recognized is awesome."
But the work isn't over yet. The stakes for marginalized Americans—including women, Black people, and the LGBTQ community—are higher than ever, and the group feels a moral imperative to speak out against hate or injustice. The only difference? Instead of being shunned for speaking out, The Chicks are being celebrated. "It feels good," the trio agrees, although they certainly aren't ready to make nice in Trump's America.
"Rage over George Floyd is what has led to all this change, and it’s awesome," Maines says. "It’s what leads to all revolutions, right? Revolutions don’t happen because everyone is happy and hunky-dory. Rage can be very powerful when used for good and when used for bad. But yeah, I think we’re seeing it used for good."
Gaslighter is out now.