The Dixie Chicks, Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

The Dixie Chicks are the good-time girls the country establishment loves to hate. Too direct, too old-fashioned, too modern ... you name it, it's been slung at the Texan trio. The old vanguard liked their women fiesty but second-class, preferably wearing cowgirl outfits and a smile. But the Dixie Chicks were renegade ladies of country who sung gleefully about killing abusive spouses and dressed like an older Britney Spears. Add the success they have had selling a progressive bluegrass sound to fans ignorant of banjos and whistles and you have an emasculating threat.

And they don't know when to stop. "Just so you know," says singer Natalie Maines, "we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." It gets the audience cheering - at a time when country stars are rushing to release pro-war anthems, this is practically punk rock.

Aside from courting controversy, the band has sold 25m LPs since their debut album, Wide Open Spaces, was released in 1998 and made the fiddle sexy. Featuring two sisters, Martie Maguire and Emily Robinson, along with the effervescent Maines, their passion for tradition and love for pop made the country genre a contender again. Their latest album, Home, won three Grammys.

Although their outfits are more New York than Nashville, the music is proud of its roots. Long Time Gone adopts the chatty style of Loretta Lynn and the poignancy of Hank Williams, Robinson's nifty banjo flowing beneath Maguire's sparky fiddle. Tortured, Tangled Hearts is similarly quick and quaint, Maines recalling Dolly Parton before she became Country Barbie.

Bluegrass's charm lies in its rawness, but the Dixie Chicks have polished the mountain sound and made it palatable for a new audience. This does mean that Truth No.2 creeps into Celine Dion territory, Maines grabbing each phrase and shaking her head like a puppy with a toy. But it's in the giddy Sin Wagon, which turns religious worship into a hymn for sex, that the Dixie Chicks hit their stride, shrieking, shouting, unrepentant.


Betty Clarke

The GuardianTramp

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