superlatives

The Best and Worst of the Chicks, According to Natalie, Martie, and Emily

Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire, and Emily Strayer on the Chicks’ best and worst songs, the band’s name change, Donald Trump, and more. Illustration: Agnés Ricart

Drop the “Dixie.” It’s just “the Chicks” now. Seventeen years after disavowing President George W. Bush and 14 years after releasing Taking the Long Way, a Grammy-winning middle finger to the world of country music and the album that gave wronged folks of the world an anthem in “Not Ready to Make Nice,” the trio is back with a new album, Gaslighter, to go with their new name. That last album title turned out to be even more apropos, given the prolonged gap since the group released any new music. (A delicious cover of Lemonade’s “Daddy Lessons” performed with fellow Texan Beyoncé and background vocals on Taylor Swift’s gutting “Soon You’ll Get Better” last year notwithstanding.) A lot has happened since 2006, from lead singer Natalie Maines’s divorce — the album gets into it — to Donald Trump’s election. (Gaslighter also gets into that without ever really having to get into that; a toxic man is a toxic man.)

Talking with Vulture from Los Angeles and Texas, Maines, Martie Maguire, and Emily Strayer look back on the Chicks songs they still love, the ones that make them want to “take a shower,” and why they’ll keep playing “Ready to Run” even though they’re (mostly) over it.

Best Chicks song

Martie Maguire: “Not Ready to Make Nice.” That’s got to be up there.

Natalie Maines: That is, but when you count the new album … ooh it’s hard. All right, I’m gonna go “Not Ready to Make Nice,” too. We definitely had a lot to say at that time about the controversy, and it was kind of our first presence, or comeback statement, after we had gone away to write the record. I think a lot of fans relate to it so much because of whatever struggles they’ve had in their own lives. The crowd gets the most excited about that one for sure.

Emily Strayer: I’d have to go more old-school and say “Cowboy Take Me Away,” only because if I hear that song I still get a visceral reaction to it. Whether it’s the production or it’s that time in our lives when things were starting to blow up, it just means a lot to me. It was such an important song for that time.

Worst Chicks song

MM: I know what Natalie’s going to say.

NM: Hands down “There’s Your Trouble.”

MM: Hands down “Let ‘Er Rip.”

ES: “Let ‘Er Rip.” And the dance moves that went along with it were equally horrid. I still have it. “Let ‘er rip.” Bah nah. [All three Chicks snap their heads over their right shoulders and back to camera in unison.] Then we’d get into the boogie-woogie thing. [Strayer shimmies a little.] It was so horrible.

NM: I hate to dog “There’s Your Trouble” because we didn’t write it; other songwriters wrote it. I don’t want to be mean. So we can stick to the dancing. I would argue that the dancing in the “There’s Your Trouble” music video was better than anything in “Let ‘Er Rip,” because in “Let ‘Er Rip,” we were trying to be tongue-in-cheek and funny. [But] “There’s Your Trouble” is a lot of, like, pointing with the bow and step touch. Pretty lame.

Most surprising fan

NM: One of you guys might remember which tour it was, but Charles Barkley was in the front row singing every single word. We got offstage and I was like, “Did you guys see Charles Barkley? Singing every word?” He was pretty much in front of Emily. It looked like he was by himself. He couldn’t find a friend to come, but he apparently was a fan.

MM: I think it was when we opened for the Eagles that run, because it was a stadium.

NM: It was outdoors, yeah. That’s funny.

MM: Wanda Sykes came out in support of us and loves the “March March” video. I was like, Oh, okay!

Band name you came closest to choosing instead of ‘the Chicks’

MM: Squatter’s Daughters!

NM: That’s past history.

ES: Oh, that’s right. [Laughs.]

MM: We were so kitschy. You know, all the fringe and the hats. Our lead singer was really a bluegrass purist and she had gotten … remember her Aunt Jenny weighed in on some name? I think that was her name. Anything with squatting. I think she meant the early people, the squatters that came to America.

NM: You would be a squatter, but not a chicken. Recently, the one I leaned toward the most if we didn’t go with the Chicks, or couldn’t go with the Chicks legally, was gonna be MEN. It’s our initials: Martie, Emily, Natalie. I liked that we would go from Chicks to MEN.

Pettiest lyric you’ve ever written

MM: Like trying to get back at someone? A low dig?

NM: What about the one, “farewell to old friends.”

MM: Yeah, what were those lyrics?

NM: “Remember, uhhhh.” [Starts to sing “Bitter End.”] “Remember the day when you laughed.” There was a verse about country radio. [Sings again.] “Oh where’d you go.” We had some digs at country radio.

ES: I forgot about that song.

There’s a line on the new album in “Tights on My Boat” about tax paying that is seared into my brain. 

ES: Oh, that’s brutal.

NM: We won’t talk about that one. [Laughs.]

ES: That’s just totally original.

NM: I would say … well, never mind. I’m not gonna say a word.

The Chicks song Donald Trump would hate the most

ES: “Gaslighter.”

NM: Does anyone believe the man listens to music? Heartless people can’t listen to music.

MM: He would hate “Gaslighter” because everybody thinks it’s about him.

ES: That’s why that song “You’re So Vain” is like the perfect song. “You probably think this song is about you.” I’ve had my ex ask me if “Gaslighter” is about him, and I’m like, “I didn’t write it about you, but you are a gaslighter.” It’s like that song. The people who might think something’s about them, you don’t want them to think it’s about them.

NM: Donald Trump is too narcissistic. Donald Trump would hate every single song because they’re …

ES: That’s what I was going to say. He probably thinks they’re all about him. Good, bad, or otherwise. He just likes the attention.

NM: He won’t even listen. The man cannot listen to music. There’s just no way. Can you imagine him, like, tapping his toe or like [bobs head]. Slapping his knee.

Song whose meaning has changed the most

MM: “Cowboy Take Me Away” was written about Emily’s first marriage [to fellow country singer Charlie Robison]. That’s totally … he’s not your cowboy now.

NM: And it’s still her favorite!

ES: I don’t associate it with that at all. Oh, God.

NM: You wanna change your other answer?

ES: Yes. Now I do. I feel like I need to take a shower.

NM: For me, and I’ve talked about it onstage, it’s “Landslide.” Not so much since we started doing it, but I just remember why I was really attached to it and wanted to do a cover of it. Obviously we’d all, or most of us, heard that song, and then as I got older it definitely took on new meaning. That’s why I felt so connected to it and really wanted to try a version. As you get older you understand a lot more about that song.

Lowest point since the last album

MM: The death threat had to be the lowest point.

NM: Really?

MM: Not for you?

NM: No.

MM: What? Getting a legitimate death threat, that was scary.

Was that a onetime occurrence? 

NM: A lot of people threatened [us], but this person had a specific date and time and “shot dead.” I felt confident that the Texas Rangers and law enforcement had figured out who it was. I felt safe. I guess I don’t think of being scared as a “low point.” I think of being sad as a low point. It’s hard to think [of one] because we haven’t had a lot of sad times. We’re kind of shallow. [Laughs.]

MM: We’ve had pets die.

[Laughter.]

When my dog Ralph drowned, we wrote a song about him. We wrote a verse about him in that song “Farewell to Old Friends” as well … Well, this got depressing.

Most-requested song you’re sick of playing

NM: “Ready to Run.”

MM: “Wide Open Spaces,” a little bit, for me.

ES: Yeah, maybe, “Wide Open Spaces.”

MM: The sisters keep agreeing on everything.

NM: I’m not sick of “Wide Open Spaces.” I’ll always love that because the fans love it. The fans love “Ready to Run,” too, but I don’t know what to do with myself anymore on “Ready to Run.” All my moves are repeats; I got nothin’ new. I don’t play on that song so I’m just … phoning that one in at this point.

Hardest song you’ve ever written

NM: I usually give up before they get hard. These two will plow, they wanna write that last word no matter what, and I’m like, “Nah, this is goin’ nowhere.”

MM: What’s the one on this record, though? We began it a hundred times.

NM: “March.”

MM: Well, “March” was hard, but also …

NM: “March!”

MM: The other one!

NM: “Best Friend’s Wedding.” That was hard, but it wasn’t hard to write. It was production, right?

ES: I have to say it’s “March, March,” but I’m glad we stuck with that one because it totally changed. I wish … I would never share what it used to be because it’s so bizarre. If it’s going nowhere, we’ll just put it on the back burner.

NM: With this album we had a few that were sort of outstanding for a while. You just had to go away for a minute to get perspective, so we would leave it and work on other things. A couple of times we knew the whole structure of the song, we just had some lyric troubles or snafus and we would call [Gaslighter songwriter] Justin Tranter in and knew that we would have it figured out in a session.

Song you wrote the fastest

NM: I remember “Sin Wagon” came really fast. But I think a lot of our best songs do come kind of fast. “Gaslighter” came pretty quickly. Martie, didn’t “Ready to Run” and “Cowboy”?

MM: I think once we had the little lick for “Ready to Run” … Marcus Hummon was just such an easy person to write with. He just had idea after idea. Kind of like Jack [Antonoff, Gaslighter producer] does.

Proudest moment

NM: My most fun was our week with Beyoncé and the CMA performance, but I don’t know if it’s my proudest. No, my proudest is being onstage with James Taylor and my dad at the same time. That was awesome.

ES: I’d say the [2007] Grammys that we swept. Not because of the awards but because it was the culmination of a really hard time for us. I was proud that we made the album [Taking the Long Way] that we made in response to that and it was getting recognized.

MM: I agree. I hate saying “awards shows” because we don’t live and breathe by awards shows, but that was pretty special. People kept asking us if we felt “vindicated.” I remember thinking that was a weird term to use, but it did feel a little bit like that.

Most unexpected hit

NM: Anything off Taking the Long Way was a surprise. I think we only had one hit off that … no, no “Easy Silence” charted as well. We had no idea how we were going to be received with that record. It sounded so different from the first three records. It really didn’t fit a radio format. I was surprised by that one and extra proud because I think the song was just good enough to go beyond the boundaries of radio format and also people’s dislike of us.

ES: I’d have to say “Travelin’ Soldier.” Even though I believed in it as a song, it was off kind of a bluegrass-y record. This was before the controversy, but radio took to it really well. I kinda felt like that was gonna be a deep track, more than a single.

Most embarrassing moment

MM: Go, Nat.

[Everyone laughs.]

NM: I’ve only fallen onstage one time. I was in, like, four-inch Louboutin heels, like an idiot, and just misstepped while playing a guitar. I went back and caught myself with one hand and bounced back pretty quickly, but I was in a haze for the rest of that show. It was so embarrassing. Thank God it was a very little crowd. It was a …

MM: Transcendental Meditation …

NM: A Transcendental Meditation honor ceremony to Rick Rubin.

And you wore four-inch heels? 

NM: It seemed appropriate. We only had to do like six songs, and I was like, “I’ll look extra tall. Extra skinny. We only have to do six songs.”

ES: And down she went. Mine would definitely be … I don’t think I’ve ever really discussed this.

NM: I was just about to say, “What is this going to be?”

ES: The [2004] Vote for Change shows. We were with the most amazing artists — you know, Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M. — and at the end everybody comes out and does the big last song we’re all playing. Everyone just kind of grabs whatever guitars are around, and because I’m a banjo picker, I play guitar with a thumb pick. But I had forgotten to bring a thumb pick, so I just grabbed like a pick pick. I don’t know how to hold a pick. I think his name is Steve Van Zandt. The guy who wears the … he’s in Bruce Springsteen’s band. He’s standing next to me, and I keep dropping the pick, trying to pick it up and keep playing, and then dropping the pick again. I keep grabbing the pick. He looked at me like, What the fuck is wrong with you? And I was so embarrassed. I was just like [talks through gritted teeth], Hold the friggin’ pick in your hand.

NM: That is weird that you couldn’t.

ES: I know. I was nervous. I was probably sweating.

MM: Mine had to be on Rock & Roll Jeopardy!.

ES: Oh, yes!

MM: Should I tell this story?

NM: You brought it up.

MM: The question was “What …

NM: “Kind of person got no …”

MM: Who wrote the song?

NM: What’s his name? It’s on the tip of my tongue.

MM: “What blah, blah, blah person wrote the song that says these people have ‘no reason to live.’” And I energetically and passionately hit my buzzer to answer, and I said, “Who are fat people.”

NM: Randy Newman!

MM: [The answer is] “Who are short people.” And I said, “Fat people.”

NM: She slammed it. “FAT PEOPLE!”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

*A version of this article appears in the July 20, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Best and Worst of the Chicks, According to the Band