72. Dixie Chicks - Not Ready to Make Nice

The process for picking which songs I was going to put on this list is a strange one, even to me sometimes. Unlike Rolling Stone's list, I didn't want any single artist to dominate my list so if some band or some artist was going to have more than one entry, they better well have deserved it in my mind. For this entry, I hemmed and hawed over this song and another one off of their Taking the Long Way album, "The Long Way Around." Even though I'm a fan of the Dixie Chicks, they weren't a more than one selection kind of band, so I had to choose one. I was talking to my wife about it and she wondered if I was picking this song more because of the subject matter than for the song itself.

I thought about it and reminded myself of putting the Ramones where I did. I wasn't going to put a song where it didn't belong just because of the circumstances surrounding it or the influence it may have had on future generations of musicians. So I listened to both songs a few times each and came to this conclusion: "Taking the Long Way Around" is the kind of pop (and in this case, country-pop) song with a great hook that I'm a sucker for. "Not Ready to Make Nice" doesn't have nearly as much pop sensibility to it, but it's just a perfectly crafted song. I'll probably listen to "Taking the Long Way Around" more in my lifetime, but I came to the realization that "Not Ready to Make Nice" is just a better overall song, and one that deserves its place.

It starts with a simple acoustic guitar, which is augmented with some extra bass to give it an ominous tone. This is going to be a serious song and they want you to know it from the first note played. The Dixie Chicks have done serious songs before, but this song, according to violinist (and much more if you check the credits) Martie Maguire, is "the most emotional song on the record, for me. It took about 100 listens before I didn't get choked up."

Even if you're not a Dixie Chicks fan or even a country music fan, you've probably heard about the controversy that was the lyrical inspiration for the song. But to sum up, in 2003, while in the UK, lead singer Natalie Maines said that she was "ashamed that George W. Bush was from Texas," and that she didn't agree with the pretext for the war in Iraq. What followed was the shit storms of all shit storms. The country music world felt that what Natalie said was an act of treason that showed no support for the very popular W. or the troops that were in harm's way. Almost unilaterally, their songs were pulled from the play lists at country radio stations, and there were countless protests all over the country. There was even a death threat on Natalie that the FBI took extremely seriously (so seriously that at their concert in Dallas, every single person entering the arena was wanded for weapons). The response from the Dixie Chicks was clear: if you turned your back on us, we're done with you. If you supported us, then you are forever a friend.

The song starts sparsely, and ends the same way:

Forgive, sounds good
Forget, I’m not sure I could
They say time heals everything

But I’m still waiting

As Natalie reaches the end of the first verse, the anger that has been building and building inside just has to tear itself out and be heard:

It’s too late to make it right
I probably wouldn’t if I could

Cause I’m mad as hell

Can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I should

This is a woman, and a band, that have been forever changed. Before "the incident," they were your normal band with normal problems, but who loved what they did and loved their fans and their life. But the betrayal and hatred that were hurled at them were almost too much to handle. They closed ranks and realized that they could become the band that they wanted to be, rather than the one they were expected to be. That freedom gave them the opportunity to craft what ultimately became a Grammy winning album, with the help of producer, Rick Rubin. As scared as they were that Rubin could turn this into a rock album, they still took a chance and climbed out on another limb and gave it a shot. The result was a spectacular album that has a richness and emotional complexity that the Chicks couldn't have been capable of had they not gone through what they did.

That thought is even echoed in some more lyrics:

I know you said
Can’t you just get over it
It turned my whole world around

And I kind of like it

Kind of liked it. That line really hit home with me. Natalie realized that she now could do the kind of stuff, both musically and lyrically, that she and the band had never felt like they could do before, because they were the corporate entity known as the "Dixie Chicks." She wanted to care more about writing songs that they felt like writing, regardless of style or subject matter.

I've talked a lot about the lyrics and the situation surrounding the song, but haven't gotten too deep into the music behind this great song. Rubin and the Chicks fought the inclination to fill this song with loud instruments that echoed the loud lyrics. But Natalie's vocals build in anger, giving the words she sings have even more punch than if she had just been screaming from the start. So the music is restrained a bit. There's some nice violin work in the choruses and even some cello, giving certain sections a more symphonic feel, belying the intensity of the vocals and lyrics.

Once the last couple of choruses get started, the restraint is abandoned and Natalie can just belt it out. Even her bandmates, sisters Emily and Natalie, give their harmony background vocals all they've got. It's a cathartic release of all the pent up feelings that they have to get out. There's even a sense of urgency in the string playing that is missing earlier in the song. I'm not saying it's like they're thrashing on the cello, but you can definitely hear it.

It occurs to me that I've written more words about this song than probably any other thus far. But that's what great songs do. They make you want to talk to people about them about why they're great. And if they don't agree with you, even better, right? You get the chance to win them over to a song that they either didn't know or didn't even really like. That's what's great about music. It's so subjective, giving each of us a group of artists and songs that we're passionate about and want others to be passionate about. So give this song another (or fist) listen, and see if I've done my job.

(Fun Fact #41 - I swear I didn't do this on purpose. #73 was by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who's drummer is Chad Smith. Since the Dixie Chicks don't have a drummer "in the band," they use different drummers for different albums. The drummer they used for Taking the Long Way? Chad Smith.)

(Not so much a Fun Fact but a recommendation. There's a documentary that covers this entire chapter in the life of the Dixie Chicks, beginning with Natalie's statement in Britain, going through the whole controversy that followed, as well as the recording of Taking the Long Way. It's a phenomenal film called Shut Up and Sing. If you have any interest whatsoever, I heartily encourage you to watch it. Here's the trailer.)

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