$26 in advance / $30 day of concert
Strictly speaking, it's only a few feet from stage left or stage right to the center spotlight. But it took Martie Maguire and Emily Robison a couple of decades to move those couple of yards. As the mainstays of the Dixie Chicks since they formed the group in 1989, the sisters have been familiar faces to many millions of fans, yet just a little mysterious in that familiarity, content as they were to cede the lead vocalist position to Natalie Maines and remain music's most recognizable "sidewomen." Chicks fans couldn't help but hear those ever-present harmonies and wonder if Emily and Martie might ever come out from hiding in plain sight.
That's just what they've done in their newly hatched incarnation as Court Yard Hounds
, with a gorgeously assured debut album that has the siblings sounding like they've been fearless frontwomen all their lives. Is this band a side project? They can live with that label. Or something permanent? Yes, that, too.
Robison and Maguire could no sooner take an indefinite vacation from music than they could from being related. So as the mother band's hiatus grew into a longer vacation than anyone originally anticipated, "dormant" began to equal "torment" for these two working musicians. The Dixie Chicks were last seen triumphing at the Grammys in early 2007, winning the exceedingly rare trifecta of album, record, and song of the year for Taking the Long Way
and its flagship single "Not Ready to Make Nice." Something else they weren't ready to do was make records or tour again, at least for a long while, as it turned out. All three Chicks enjoyed family time away from the media glare - but after a while Maguire and Robison felt refreshed and rarin' to go, which still left them one singer short of a quorum. The usually bold Maines' reticence to put herself through the grind again had the effect of pushing her slightly shyer bandmates out of the nest.
"When Natalie first wanted to take a break," says Maguire, "I remember this real fear in me, like: When are we getting back on the road? This is what I know! What will I do? I don't have a college degree!" she recalls, laughing. Happily, rather than take night classes, they decided to school themselves in how to launch a new band. The Chicks haven't disbanded, but Court Yard Hounds
is no mere time-marker of a project. "Sony's looking at this like an artist launch, and we're looking at it like a new chapter in music," Maguire avows. "We definitely are going to tour this and make another record. I know this isn't just a one-time, get-it-off-our-chests, get-these-songs-recorded-and-go-back-to-our-lives thing."
Although Maguire is the lead vocalist on her own solo composition, "Gracefully," the remainder of the tracks feature Robison singing material that arose out of a profoundly transitional period in her professional and personal life. "The first year of our hiatus, I was getting very restless and needed to be creative for my own sanity," says Robison. "And at the same time I was going through my divorce - from Texas singer/songwriter Charlie Robison - "so it was very fertile ground for writing."
The personal material that Robison was penning pretty well dictated what kind of album they would make. To the extent that anyone even knew the sisters were working on a new project, there were rumors that it might be a back-to-roots album, since they spent their teen years together in a bluegrass band and carried over a certain amount of that influence to the Chicks' country-rock. It's not such a preposterous notion; even Maguire thought it might be fun to revert back to the string-band music of their youth. "I remember one early conversation we had, where I said to Emily, 'Well, do you want to form a bluegrass band?' I was excited about that, because I'd been in my studio, recording a bunch of fiddle tunes from my past. And Emily said, 'No, not exactly. That's not where my head is.'" They both laugh at exactly how far away from that Court Yard Hounds
ended up being.
"Even though we played bluegrass," Maguire says, "we listened to way more rock, folk-rock, and alternative music, and of course singer/songwriter stuff. And now I hear a lot of Shawn Colvin in Emily's writing and voice. Because she is my sister and she was going through what she was going through, a lot of these songs brought me to tears. To hear her sing and express herself this way is very vulnerable, I think, and very brave."
Fans know how much Maguire and Robison are willing to reveal through songwriting with their other band, from "You Were Mine," a ballad about their parents' divorce that appeared on the 12-times-platinum Wide Open Spaces, to "So Hard," a song from Taking The Long Way that addressed the issues of infertility they both struggled with before having their respective children. But the frank emotions of the new album may still come as a surprise from a pair who were previously content to have someone else give voice to their deeper sentiments.
After Robison worked on a good chunk of the material with guitarist Martin Strayer, they settled in with co-producer Jim Scott at Maguire's studio in May 2009, coming back for a second and final round of recording in October. "It was amazingly quick compared to how long Chicks records usually take," laughs Maguire. "I loved every song Emily had written. You can't create a sound when you don't have the songs." There remained, though, a slight degree of uncertainty about whether this would be for public consumption: "We knew we would know if there was a record there. And if there wasn't, we had confidence that we would be honest enough with ourselves to say, "That was a great exercise, but that's not getting packaged.'"
After it was clear that self-veto power wouldn't be necessary, the last element to come into play was a band name. Court Yard Hounds
came from a novel Robison was reading called City of Thieves by David Benioff. There's a fictional book-within-the-book called The Courtyard Hound, but Emily points out that the specific impetus was "a quote in there about how inspiration comes and goes. The idea is that there are seasons of talent, and that at some point it's gonna leave you, so you have to make the most of it when you are inspired." It's not difficult to see why that thought took root, with Maguire and Robison not wanting to let their own gifts lay fallow for another year, or even month.
It was a deliberate decision to fly under the media and rumor-mill radar while the recording was in process. "One reason I felt like we needed to not let the cat out of the bag too soon," says Robison, "is that every time I would tell someone about the project, they'd say, 'Well, who are you going to get as the lead singer?' I would just kind of kick the dirt and go 'Well...we're gonna try our hand at it.' Until you have the music and you can play it for people, it was hard to explain what we were trying to do. It was important for us to get the music done first so that we had that confidence."
And not only was it worth the wait, this flowering simply had to wait. "I don't think I could have done this five or ten years ago with Martie," Emily affirms. "I would have been too timid, too shy, too 'Oh no, I can't do that.' Now, I think, if some people don't like it, that's fine." No lap dogs here: Court Yard Hounds
are ready to get out and work it. "Even if we have just 10 percent of the people who reacted to us before, or only new fans, whatever it is...we can make something of that."
Find more info at: www.courtyardhounds.com/us/home Amy Black opens the show!
Lowell's own Country/Americana songstress Amy Black opens the show.
Find more info at: www.amyblack.com