Listen closer and you might recognize those voices as two-thirds of the Dixie Chicks. The virtuoso duo, along with a band of Texas musicians, has evolved from the mainstream country hooks and controversies that made them world famous. They're still making music, growing as artists, gracefully managing their past, raising their kids and connecting with audiences new and old.
I chatted with Robison and Maguire in advance of Court Yard Hounds' appearance at LouFest in Forest Park on Sunday, September 8.
Robin Wheeler: In listening to your new album, I can see how you're fitting into the rock festivals like LouFest and Lollapalooza. Is that what you were aiming for? How do you feel fitting into a different genre that what so many how to write an essay people expect from you?
Emily Robison: I don't know that we really put festivals in different genres necessarily. I know Lollapalooza's mainly a rock crowd, but in general they seem to have opened it up to a bit more eclectic groups, and a lot more females, actually. For us it's always about exposure, and we're never afraid to get up there and try to prove ourselves to whatever crowd might be there. I think that's part of the nature of festivals is that you might get some cross-crowds changing stages, and they may not realize they're coming to see your show, but they do. That's attractive to us, as artists, to have that sheer number of people to play to, even if they don't really know that they're going to be coming to your show. We can't tour a ton because we have kids, so we try to tour hard.
Have you found audiences, especially festival audiences who might not know who their seeing, being surprised that they're seeing two-thirds of the Dixie Chicks?
Martie Maguire: Yeah. I don't think it's that widely known, for whatever reason. I think maybe, in the beginning, the label was a little hesitant to over-draw that connection, because we wanted to be credible on our own without that label. Every time they stick that label of "two-thirds of the Dixie Chicks," we kind of roll our eyes. Okay, whatever helps sell records [laughs]. We do see their faces change, and not just in front of a Lollapalooza crowd. We just finished opening a bunch of shows for Zac Brown, and Emily and I could see peoples' faces. They were taking steps closer and closer to the stage, like, "Is that you guys?" So many people came up to the table after the show and said, "I had no idea you were here." I don't know why the message isn't getting out, but people are kind of shocked and surprised.
Who's backing you, and how did you go about putting together your players?
Robison: We have a core guitarist, Martin Strayer, who's my husband now, actually, and tours with us. A lot of the songs are written around his style of guitar playing, so it's kind of a given that he's in the band at all times because so much of the music is written with him. We have the same the same bass player in the studio and on stage, George Reiff. He's been with us a long time; we met him in the recording process of the first album when we we were looking for a studio band. Most of the time we take the studio band on the road, but Sheryl Crow stole some of our guys [both laugh]. We had to go elsewhere, and lucky for us we found amazing other guys. It's always nice to have a stable full of talented men. Or women, for that matter. Out of Austin, we have Charlie Sexton. We're lucky enough to have him playing electric [guitar] right now. And Brannen Temple, our drummer, is another Austin cat who is amazing studio and touring guy. We've kicked around on keyboards a couple of different guys. We always feel lucky to surround ourselves with people who handle this level of playing.
You've always been based in Texas, right?
Maguire: Emily's always lived in Texas. [Dixie Chick] Natalie [Maines] and I moved to Nashville for a short time, but I moved to Texas. I missed it. I was there for about two years and really missed Texas, so I moved to Austin.
We've always been on Sony Records, since our "Wide Open Spaces" record. We're still on Columbia [owned by Sony]. I think we always felt a little bit like outsiders. I think the things that happened - the controversy - made it feel like that even more. Austin feels like a really comfortable place for me.
Since you brought up the Dixie Chicks, I saw a press release this week about some reunion shows in Canada. Was I imagining things, or is that happening?
Robison: We've been professing for a long time that we're not broken up. I think people stopped believing us. We always look at the opportunities as they come up. We did a short Canadian run earlier this summer as the Chicks, and it was really a lot of fun, getting back together and playing all the songs. We had to reschedule one of the dates because Calgary got flooded, so we thought we'd go back and honor that show and we might as well make a little tour out of it. I think it, on one hand it's appeased the Canadian fans, but on the other there are some American ones who are pissed at us [laughs]. You know, we kind of take it as it comes. Whatever seems to be fun for us ... that's what we're always going to do.
Maguire: The fact that Natalie has a solo album out right now and we have the second Court Yard Hounds album out, it keeps things interesting. As a musician, to have multiple things going on, it really takes the pressure off one when you're doing the other. I think it's fun to mix it up, but Court Yard Hounds is definitely our focus right now, since the Chicks don't have any new music. It really is our love at the moment.
With these Canadian shows, are you incorporating your Court Yard Hounds music and Natalie's solo album with the Chicks stuff? I can't see you guys going into it as a best-of/greatest hits when you have fresh new stuff that you care about.
Maguire: Well, we thought about doing a song our two from each of our projects, but it felt like we didn't have time in the set. The people have waited so long to hear those Dixie Chicks songs and might be wanting to hear the hits. It's already hard to make a setlist. That's what we found out in July. It's hard to squeeze in all the songs we thought they wanted to hear, because we have a lot of albums.
Robison: There's songs that we know the fans love, like "Let Him Fly," the Patty Griffin song. We would like to go deeper into the Chicks albums for some of the fan favorites, even if they weren't hits. It would be difficult to cover all of it.
I came across a quote from you, Martie, from 2006, about how you would like to have a smaller following of really cool people who get it and will grow with you, instead of being in the CD changer with Toby Keith and Reba.
Maguire: Putting my foot in my mouth. Do we have to bring that up again? [Laughs]
Seven years after the fact, do you feel like you've gotten that? How is it, having a smaller following that's more concentrated? Are you where you want to be?
Maguire: It's nice. It's nice. What's nice about Court Yard Hounds right now is that we can play small theaters, and we can see the people and feel like we're having a conversation and reaching them individually, and then we can do the big festivals, or open for somebody who has the large crowd and reach the masses. Emily and I come from that touring model of, you go out and pound the pavement. There's something about that I think we were missing when Dixie Chicks got to a certain level that we're loving now. A little bit of getting your hands dirty and getting into all aspects of it.
The Chicks were set to a point where it was such an ordeal to just go out and do a show because there was so much expectation. Now, we can kind of do whatever we want and there's no pressure, preconceived notions or expectations from long-time fans. I like that things are a little smaller scale right now and we can do what we want to do.
Are you seeing fans who have grown with you from the beginning, who have evolved along with you musically?
Maguire: Oh yeah. We hear from all those people on Twitter. And we're so thankful for those people who got the tattoos when we got the tattoos, or remember us from the street corner days in Dallas. There's lots of blasts from the bast who show up at our shows, and we recognize their faces, and sometimes we know their names. You know, that's nice. We're still Martie and Emily. We're still the people they fell in love with early Dixie Chicks days, mainstream Dixie Chicks days with Natalie. They feel like they've grown up with us in a way, and that feels good.
In listening to your new album and Natalie's album, my response has been, "Wow. You've tracked right along where I am in my life." I appreciate that growth as musicians. It shows a lot of respect for your fan base and yourselves.
Maguire: You can't be stifled by who your audience thinks you are. You've got to keep growing, and forcing them to bend with you, instead of regurgitating the same old thing that they loved in the first place.
Knowing your background and how early you got your musical starts, are you doing the same with your children? Are they musically inclined? Where do you see them going?
Maguire: I have twin girls that are nine, and a five-year-old girl, and they already have made up a girl band that they call The Peace Signs. They write songs for the band, and they have another friend - Grace- who's in the group. I really see the twins modeling after myself and Emily. They'll go into my closet and put on all my clothes and high-heeled shoes, and outfit themselves in stage wear, what they would want to wear onstage. They took a mock press shot the other day. I think because they've just lived it. They really love it. I don't have to push them. Emily and I - our mom and dad forced us. [laughs] It wasn't really an option not to. I'm on the fence on how much to push, but at this point they just do it on their own.
Robison: They all take piano. I feel like that's a great first step. Some have tried drums and guitar. There was one violin lesson, and I don't blame my son for never, ever wanting to go back. That woman was so scary. Really, at this point their real passions lie elsewhere, mainly in sports, so I'm just trying to sneak the music in there as I can, and keep it fun for them so that, if some point they do want to go forward at least they'll have a basis of knowledge with it. They couldn't really care less what I do as a job. They don't make it into a fairy tale kind of job.
Court Yard Hounds perform at LouFest on Sunday, September 8. KDHX is a media partner of LouFest 2013.