SISTERS MARTIE SEIDEL and Emily Erwin began pickin' and grinnin' on a Dallas street corner eight and a half years ago. They were about to get summer jobs but after making $375 in the first hour of sharing their roots music stylings with passers by, they figured this professional musician thing might not be a bad idea.
Today, with the addition of vocalist Natalie Maines, the Dixie Chicks are breaking records with their debut Monument release, Wide Open Spaces. The trio's album has become the fastest country music entry into the Top 10 since the inception of SoundScan. It has also distinguished them as the highest debuting country group since 1991.
Though Seidel and Erwin didn't expect to take things this far when they took to the street corner at ages 19 and 16, respectively, they began to think like professionals from the get-go. "They used sort of a business sense even to playing on the street corner," Maines told POLLSTAR. They'd find out when the big conventions were coming to town and strategically place themselves in the right place at the right time as to get the attention of businessmen walking by.
Back then, the Chicks wore cowgirl getups and played western swing and bluegrass. As they built a fan base around Dallas, they began to get a reputation as the "sweethearts of Texas" and that got them some corporate attention. "When everyone would have their conventions in town with the head honchos from New York, they'd want to show them what Texas is all about," Maines said. Since the Dixie Chicks offered a big dose of Lonestar State style, they were a shoo-in for the job.
With Seidel on the fiddle and Erwin on the banjo, dobro and guitar, the sisters, along with various other women who have called themselves Dixie Chicks in the past, recorded three CDs on their own label. After selling about 60,000 independent CDs, it was time to get serious about shopping for a record deal. That meant it was time to find a permanent frontwoman for the group.
Seidel and Erwin met Maines when her dad, Lloyd Maines, played steel guitar on two of their independent albums. They happened to have a copy of the audition tape Miss Maines used to get into the Berkelee School of Music. "They were both listening to this tape in their car and they didn't know the other one was thinking the same thing until finally, one of them said, 'Hey what about Natalie?'" Maines said. "And they just called me up one day and I dropped out of college. I had a test the next day and said, 'Sure I'll join your band.'"
About six months later, the Dixie Chicks landed a deal with Sony Nashville's Monument label. "Sony was really the only label we looked at because they got us," Maines said. "They knew that we already had established a following and grown musically to know who we were and where we were. We needed their help as far as developing that but we knew where we wanted to go."
Though the Chicks needed help from the establishment to take their music to a higher level, by this time, they were adept at running their career. "We had the luxury of starting an entire business. I was the accountant and Emily was the tax girl and Martie was the road manager," Maines said. So when they entered the corporate music machine, they weren't about to give up all control of their career.
"Because we were already established and strong women, we were in a position to be able to call some shots," she said. For starters, that meant Seidel and Erwin would play all their instruments on the album rather than hire studio musicians. "We knew what we would compromise on and what we wouldn't."
Though the Chicks had a decent fan base, a record deal and were already working with Buddy Lee Attractions for booking well before that, they weren't home free quite yet. There was still a lot to do before reaping the rewards of their hard work. "We were playing dives and scraping the bottom of the barrel financially just to stay alive," Maines said. "The first, probably, year and half was a real hard time."
That was before they discovered the miracle of radio. Having a big hit single with "I Can Love You Better" has made all the difference. "We have quadrupled the people at our shows," Maines said. While the Chicks can appreciate playing in a nice, intimate setting, they've been there, done that. "We're ready to have the big screaming crowds." And huge amounts of screaming fans they have had, opening for the likes of Alan Jackson, Deana Carter and George Jones. "It's awesome," Maines said. "The more people [we] perform in front of, the better show we have. You get an adrenaline rush up there."
With that bit of success, the girls have reached a turning point in their career; as sad as it may be, it's time to retire the pink RV they've been tooling around in for about six years. "We call it the box kite," Maines said giggling. "You're just traveling down the road hearing all of the rattles and seeing the world shake, just wondering when everything was gonna crumble down."
The world may look a little different now through the window of their new tour bus as the Dixie Chicks roll through the U.S. playing a slew of dates throughout the year, from clubs to fairs and festivals.