Wide Open Spaces can be counted more as a reboot than as a debut. Sisters Martie Seidel and Emily Robison had originated the Dixie Chicks with vocalist Laura Lynch as a cowgirl-themed act who played bluegrass and Western swing on a series of independent albums during the early 90s. But for their move to a major label, the Chicks parted ways with Lynch and brought in powerhouse frontwoman Natalie Maines, whose pop and rock influences lent a strong commercial slant to the trio’s style. Still, Wide Open Spaces suffered from strange marketing early on. With the poptimist movement still several years away, the Chicks were often compared unfavorably and inexplicably to the Spice Girls, as though the standout pop hooks on singles like “There’s Your Trouble” and “I Can Love You Better” were in any way something to be derided. Then, as the trio’s reputation for first-rate musicianship grew within more traditionalist-leaning circles, they were often couched as an alternative to the slick, studio-created pop-country of Shania Twain… as though the standout pop hooks on “Any Man of Mine” and “No One Needs to Know” were in any way something to be derided. Even as a reboot of their brand, then, Wide Open Spaces was subject to something of a false start. But the album ultimately accomplished the feat of announcing the Dixie Chicks as a trio of uncommonly talented musicians with a deep-seated appreciation and a real facility for the conventions of country music; a group whose affinity for strong, distinctive pop would never limit them to being mere traditionalists.
The Dixie Chicks would go on to refine this formula on their sophomore album, Fly, but Wide Open Spaces remains a genre classic on its own merits, even if the Chicks are still considered personae-non-gratae by some of country music’s gatekeepers.
Indeed, songs like “Wide Open Spaces” and “I’ll Take Care of You” nearly perfected both halves of “pop-country.” “Tonight the Heartache’s on Me” is undiluted honky-tonk and the cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “Give It Up or Let Me Go” sounds like contemporary Americana without the crushing self-seriousness. Of a piece it scans as country in meaningful ways, even though the individual tracks all impress for their diversity. What makes the album so effective as a singular, coherent declaration of intent are Seidel’s and Robison’s close vocal harmonies and instrumental know-how and Maines’ ballistics-grade voice. From her first notes, the influences of Joy Lynn White and Maria McKee (whose “Am I the Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way)” ranks as the best of the album’s covers) are all over Maines’ phrasing and timbre. Few vocalists can sell a feisty kiss-off like “Let ‘Er Rip” with more gusto, but Maines is at her best on the tender “Never Say Die” and mournful “You Were Mine,” which Seidel and Robison wrote as a reflection on their parents’ divorce. The Dixie Chicks would go on to refine this formula on their sophomore album, Fly, but Wide Open Spaces remains a genre classic on its own merits, even if the Chicks are still considered personae-non-gratae by some of country music’s gatekeepers.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.