The Chicks, now Dixie-free and on tour, talk music, feminism and singing the anthem at the 2003 Super Bowl

The Chicks, the groundbreaking country-music trio formerly known as the Dixie Chicks, have a specific requirement for the members of their new, talent-rich touring band.

“We do have a policy,” said violinist and vocalist Martie Maguire. “We have a ‘no a–holes’ policy.”

“No a–holes — and no armpit hair!” added lead singer Natalie Maines, prompting her, Maguire and banjo player and vocalist Emily Strayer to burst into laughter.

“They can have armpit hair,” Strayer, who is Maguire’s sister, quickly clarified. “They just can’t show it!”

By way of illustration, Maines and Strayer simultaneously pointed to their own armpits, which were covered by their clothing. The two then gleefully chorused: “They can’t show it on stage!”

More laughter ensued as The Chicks savored perhaps their first-ever public discourse on the preferred grooming habits for the musicians in their six-piece band. It was a sly reflection of the indomitable spirit that has made them favorites — and personally selected collaborators — of everyone from Beyoncé to Taylor Swift.

Back on the road for the first time in five years to promote their absorbing 2020 album, “Gaslighter,” The Chicks perform July 23 at North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre. Their tour continues through Aug. 13, then resumes in late September for three more shows, followed by two October dates at the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

The Dixie Chicks are shown in 1999

The Dixie Chicks, as the group was then known, are shown in Toronto in 1999. That is the same year the group delivered show-stealing performances during the multi-act Lilith Fair tour. From left are Emily Strayer, Natalie Maines and Martie Seidel.

(Rick Madonik / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Lilith Fair show-stealers

The tour marks a welcome return. Like no group before or since, The Chicks have made country music appealing to a generation or two of new listeners. Those listeners had paid little attention to the genre before the trio soared to stardom with its 1998 album, the suitably titled “Wide Open Spaces.”

The Texas-bred group went on to score six chart-topping singles, win a dozen Grammy Awards, sell more than 33 million albums and often steal the show from the headlining Sarah McLachlan and Sheryl Crow on the 1999 Lilith Fair tour. The Chicks also weathered an intense, soul-sapping national controversy in 2003 — more on that later — only to re-emerge even stronger and more determined.

The trio reflected on their storied career during a June interview via Zoom. Maines spoke from her home in Los Angeles, Maguire from Austin, Texas, and Strayer from San Antonio.

Because they could see and hear one another, in real time, they played off each other throughout the 30-minute conversation. They did so with the same near-telepathic interplay, wit and conviction that characterizes the music they have long made as America’s top-selling female band of all time, in or out of country music.

Depending on the topic, The Chicks responded with candor, introspection or frivolity, if not all three at once. A telling example came when their interviewer read aloud — from a 1999 San Diego Union-Tribune interview — Maguire’s thoughts about feminism.

“We don’t use that word,” she said at the time. “But there’s got to be a ‘90s word for strong women. I feel like the word ‘feminism’ and the women’s movement left a bad taste. And we are very traditional females; we love men and a lot of the traditional female roles. So, I don’t think we’re feminists. …”

Hearing this 23 years later, Maines laughed heartily while Strayer grinned from ear to ear.

When the laughter subsided, the conclusion of Maguire’s 1999 quote was read aloud: “But we are looking for that perfect word that will sum up the strong, ‘I can do anything’ ‘90s woman.”

The Chicks: Emily Strayer, Martie Maguire and Natalie Maines.

The Chicks appear on a 2022 episode of TV’s “The Kely Clarkson Show.” From left: Emily Strayer, Martie Maguire and Natalie Maines.

(NBC / NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

‘Hey, it’s your quote!’

Before Maguire could respond to her thoughts on feminism from nearly a quarter century ago, loud barking erupted.

“My dogs are going crazy,” Maguire said, “so I’ll let (Maines and Strayer) talk.”

“Hey, it’s your quote!” Maines responded, followed by a burst of laughter from all three Chicks.

“I’m sorry,” Maguire said of her animated canines. “Maybe they’ll quiet down.”

“I would say,” Maines interjected, “Martie has come a long way since that quote!”

The three convulsed again with laughter.

“One thing about getting older,” Strayer said, “is I don’t give a sh– about what other people think anymore. So, if the word ‘feminism’ (offends someone), I’m not going to let anyone tarnish that word. It’s a beautiful word. I think we would all proudly say we are feminists, but that doesn’t make you a …”

“I think what I was reacting to back then,” Maguire clarified, “is that I don’t like it when a word becomes polarizing, (because) it kind of hijacks the whole cause. You know, I just watched a documentary about the women who started the first lesbian magazine. And, back then, people were attacking the word ‘lesbian,’ and they were thinking about coming up with another word …

“Semantics, sometimes generationally or through different eras, kind of hijacks the purpose. I mean, we are feminists. We are strong female advocates, human advocates, for all walks of life. So, that (1999 quote) was probably a snapshot in time when I was feeling a certain way. But nothing inside me has changed.”

Does that perfect word for strong women exist today? And how encouraged, or discouraged, are The Chicks by where we are now as a nation compared to 1999?

“As far as where we’ve come from and where we’re at now, man, it’s reeled backwards in so many ways,” Maines lamented. “(There are) more mass shootings, less women’s rights. So, people are a lot more vocal now and have these platforms to … band together to say how they feel, whether it’s social media or mass protests.

“And that can be great. But that also can be horrible with how fast misinformation and bad people can join together and create hate. So, yeah, it’s disappointing. I definitely thought we wouldn’t be going backwards.”

At a time marked by such turmoil and division, do The Chicks seek a balance between entertaining concert audiences — which has always been their primary goal — and periodically providing timely commentary?

“Sometimes I feel like, if we say too much, it’s just kind of a cliché… (when) artists are constantly talking at you,” Maguire said.

“We try to pick our moments really carefully. And you don’t always have to attach your band, or your brand, to how you feel and to what motivates you.

“So, we individually do what we do, a lot of stuff, that isn’t a ‘Chicks thing.’ Because sometimes attaching your band to it is a little too obvious. … But, yes, we definitely feel a responsibility to get involved with things that are important to us.”

“And,” Strayer added, “(while we’re) using the show, first and foremost for entertainment, it’s also an extension of who we are. So, we do touch on things that are important to us collectively.”

The Chicks are shown performing July 2

The Chicks are shown performing July 2 at Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, New York. From left: Emily Strayer, Natalie Maines and Martie Maguire.

(Kevin Kane / Getty Images)

‘Nobody pushes them around’

The Chicks have been exemplars of independence and tenacity since even before Maines replaced original lead singer Robin Lynn Macy in 1995.

The group’s first three albums, recorded under the Dixie Chicks moniker, were all independently made and released.

When Maines, Maguire and Strayer signed a major label deal with Sony/Monument in 1996, they insisted they play their own instruments on their albums, not Nashville session musicians. The group was also adamant about having equal say with producers at Sony/Monument regarding which songs they used on their albums.

Then, as now, such stipulations were unheard of in Nashville — and in country music in general. Record companies routinely tell new and established country artists alike exactly what to do, and where and how, not vice versa.

But the Chicks were determined to forge their own path. It was an undertaking bolstered by their sterling vocal and instrumental skills, songwriting prowess and unwavering devotion to their craft and creative vision.

Or as Maines’ father, pedal-steel guitar great Lloyd Maines noted of the trio in a 2004 Union-Tribune interview: “Believe me, nobody pushes them around.”

This contention was dramatically underscored by the events of, and after, March 10, 2003. It was that night, during a Dixie Chicks’ concert in London, that Maines publicly expressed her misgivings about then-President George W. Bush and his administration, just eight days before the U.S.-led invasion Iraq.

“Just so you know,” Maines told the London audience, “we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence. And we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.”

If not for a concert review published in The Guardian newspaper, Maines’ measured remark might well have been forgotten in that largely pre-social-media era. But when word of her comments made its way back to the U.S., the response was swift and unequivocal.

A good 15 years before “cancel culture” came to prominence, The Chicks were almost canceled, virtually overnight. Their record sales plummeted and their songs were dropped by country-music stations nationwide, including San Diego’s 99.3 XHCR-FM. Record burnings followed.

On March 13, three days after the London concert, Maines issued a contextual statement: “I feel the president is ignoring the opinions of many in the U.S. and alienating the rest of the world. My comments were made in frustration, and one of the privileges of being an American is you are free to voice your own point of view.

“We are currently in Europe and witnessing a huge anti-American sentiment as a result of the perceived rush to war. While war may remain a viable option, as a mother, I just want to see every possible alternative exhausted before children and American soldiers’ lives are lost. I love my country. I am a proud American.”

A week later, Maines issued a mea culpa: “As a concerned American citizen, I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful. I feel that whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect.”

Her apology fell on deaf ears, with Bush pointedly noting that people had a right to not buy The Chicks’ records. The trio was pilloried with a vehemence that suggested the group had committed multiple acts of treason. The weapons of mass destruction Iraq was alleged to have — which fueled the U.S. invasion in the first place — were never found.

The trajectory of events irrevocably changed the course of Maines, Maguire and Strayer’s lives. What has been largely forgotten is that on Jan. 26, 2003 — only a month and a half before their London concert — The Chicks triumphantly sang the national anthem at San Diego’s now-defunct Qualcomm Stadium to kick off that year’s Super Bowl.

The Dixie Chicks sing the national anthem

The Dixie Chicks sing the national anthem at the start of the 2003 Super Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.

(KMazur / WireImage)

‘It felt very patriotic’

“The NFL likes to switch up who does the anthem by age, gender, race and things like that,” Maines said in a Union-Tribune interview a week before the big game. “So, it took a while for it to be the year for three White girls singing country music! But we believe everything happens at the right time, and this was always a goal of ours.”

What do The Chicks recall now of their anthem performance at a time when they were regarded as America’s sweethearts, not pariahs?

“Well, I just remember that when we did that it was still pretty fresh after 9/11,” Maines replied. “So, I found it very emotional when the (U.S. military) airplanes flew over the stadium, and felt very patriotic. To then be hated by half of the country, a couple of months later, was definitely a weird feeling,

“We just did this extremely patriotic, moving version — our version — of the national anthem. And to (soon) be hated by many was definitely … interesting.”

On May 1, 2003, The Chicks embarked on a sold-out U.S. tour that included a potent, self-affirming concert at SDSU’s Viejas Arena. Their unapologetic and unbowed tone was later reflected in the group’s 2006 song, “Not Ready to Make Nice,” and album, “Taking the Long Way.” Both won Grammys, despite being shunned by country radio.

It would be their last album of new music for 14 years, although the group toured intermittently. Maines released a solo album, “Mother,” that consisted largely of cover versions. Maguire and Strayer put out two arresting albums under the name Court Yard Hounds.

During their hiatus, Maines and Maguire each divorced their respective husbands. Some of the most powerful songs on The Chicks’ 2020 “Gaslighter” album eloquently chronicle the downward spiral of Maines’ marriage.

Now, as in previous decades, The Chicks continue to make their music and pursue their career their way. Doing so, and bucking the often elusive logic of the music industry, has been a key to their success.

“I think people think there is a mold, or a way to success, or a model to succeed,” Maines said. “But I think when you break mold is when you usually succeed in music.”

Maguire agreed and noted that The Chicks are no longer signed to a record label.

“This is the first time in I don’t know how many years that we’ve been free agents,” she said. “(It) definitely feels different to us, not being under the thumb of a label, not that we allowed ourselves to be anyways, But it definitely now feels like we can absolutely do anything. Not that we might not go back to (a label) in the future, but we are free agents.”

For The Chicks’ current summer tour, which was postponed from 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have opted for an expanded musical family affair. Their new band includes Maines’ 22-year-old son, Slade Pasdar, on guitar and keyboards, and Maguire’s daughter, Eva, on second violin.

“She’s 18. She’s really excited!” Maguire said, her voice filled with parental pride.

Maines spoke with similar pride about Pasdar, her multi-instrumentalist son. She stressed that he is not The Chicks’ new drummer, despite a recent article to the contrary in a national entertainment weekly.

“People magazine got that wrong, which is hilarious,” Maines, said.

“We laugh at the thought that people who come to the show might think that our drummer (Jimmy Paxson) — who might be older than me — is my son. So, I’m going to introduce (Paxson) as my son!”

The Chicks at a glance

Formed: In 1989 in Dallas

Original lineup: Sisters Martie and Emily Erwin founded the group with Robin Lynn Macy and Laura Lynch. It became a trio when Natalie Maines joined the Erwin sisters in 1995.

First album: “Thank Heavens for Dale Evans” (1990; self-released)

First major label album: “Wide Open Spaces” (1998)

Most recent album: “Gaslighter” (2020)

Chart-topping songs: “There’s Your Trouble,” “Wide Open Spaces,” “You Were Mine,” “Cowboy Take Me Away,” “Without You,” “Travelin’ Soldier”

Awards: 12 Grammys

Films: The 2006 documentary “Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing”

The Chicks, with Jenny Lewis

When: 7:30 p.m. July 23

Where: North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre, 2050 Entertainment Circle, Chula Vista

Tickets: $40-$179.50