In early 2007, the Dixie Chicks were, as one of their songs put it, on “top of the world.” They just won Grammys for Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year, and they were well-earned — especially since the trio had angered many of their original country fans after singer Natalie Maines made an infamous comment about President Bush onstage in 2003. If the world’s biggest-selling female group ever deserved to take a break, the time was right.
But that’s easier said than done, particularly if you’ve been playing music your whole life. The other two Dixie Chicks — sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire — started playing together when they were five years old. By their early teens, they were in a bluegrass band and formed the Dixie Chicks before Robison, the younger one, reached 20.
After the group’s post-Grammy break stretched past a year, Robison started getting antsy. “Taking that long of time off, I felt a little lost,” she admits. “I was really just trying to find out what I was going to do with the talent I have.”
Robison had just gone through a divorce from singer-songwriter Charlie Robison and discovered it was a fertile source for songs. Knowing that Maines wasn’t ready to get the Chicks back together, Robison considered pitching her new songs to other singers. She sent a batch of them to her sister, who told her they were too good to hand over to someone else. So they decided to work on the songs and see what happened. “It was a nice accident that she had just finished building an amazing studio at her house,” says Robison. “All the pieces just kinda fell together.”
They named themselves the Court Yard Hounds, taken from David Benioff’s novel City of Thieves, which refers to talent as a “fanatical mistress.” The recording, which took place over several months last year, was totally unlike pressure-packed Dixie Chicks sessions. “It was definitely more relaxed,” says Robison.
(For the record, the Dixie Chicks are still around. Earlier this summer, they opened for the Eagles on a short tour. “It was just like old-home week,” says Robison.)
The biggest change for Robison wasn’t writing Court Yard Hounds (she wrote and sings all but one track); it was singing lead after years of harmony vocals. But the transition fit in with what was going on in her personal life. “There was a freedom of having gone through my divorce, writing this album, and going out on this limb and all these things that hadn’t been in my comfort zone before,” she says. “I’m in a different place in my life, and it’s a very free place to be.”
Many of the album’s songs are quite personal but without being strictly autobiographical: The breakup in “It Didn’t Make a Sound” yields the “sound of freedom bells ringing.” In “April’s Love,” Robison sings, “I’m OK, but I’m not the same.” And a sense of self-discovery runs through “Then Again,” where the narrator admits that, “I never did understand me.”
Robison and Maguire let the folk-pop sound grow naturally from the songs. The album runs the range of quieter, acoustic-based numbers (like “Skyline” and “Fear of Wasted Time,” which bookend the record) to more upbeat tunes, like the sunny, Sheryl Crow-like rocker “The Coast” and the punk-twangy “Ain’t No Son” (one of the few songs not about the breakup).
In addition to many of the cuts from their debut, the Court Yard Hounds are playing some brand-new songs during their sets at Lilith Fair this summer. For Robison, the tour is sort of like a homecoming: The Dixie Chicks were part of the 1999 version of Lilith Fair. “I have very vivid memories of that tour and just how giddy we were to be playing in this amazing festival of women,” recalls Robison. “We were not only getting to meet our heroes at the time, but also getting to play with them, which was doubly amazing.”
Robison enjoyed writing and recording with Court Yard Hounds so much, she says the group isn’t just a one-off project for her and Maguire. “I see the Court Yard Hounds being forever,” she says. “It just depends when we do what. We might end up having three or four bands.” —Michael Berick
Lilith Fair, 2:30 p.m. at Blossom Music Center. Tickets: $13.75-$38.50
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