Holy Hell! Wide Open Spaces Turns 20

Holy Hell! Wide Open Spaces Turns 20

The feminism on display in Wide Open Spaces feels more than admirable, it’s even a little bit revolutionary.

Though it was technically the Dixie Chicks’ fourth album, the reality is that the 1998’s Wide Open Spaces was the debut album of the country trio as we know them, a fact which makes its success and longevity all the more impressive. Sisters Martie and Emily Erwin released three prior “Dixie Chicks” albums on the indie label Crystal Clear Sound with a different lead singer and a bluegrass sound. The addition of Natalie Maines gave the group the smooth, sassy sound they’re now famous for and also helped them to secure a deal with a major label, Monument Records.

While Maines’ voice is certainly the group’s most outwardly recognizable aspect, a contemporary listen to Wide Open Spaces reveals that the album’s most notable strength is the musical variety of the Erwin sisters, who, in addition to singing backing vocals, play guitar, accordion, sitar, papoose, five-string banjo, dobro, viola, mandolin and fiddle. This variety, as well as the group’s interesting harmonies, add complexity to many of the tracks.

In the mid-to-late ‘90s, a lot of country singers relied on technology for more of a pop sound, and, as a result, a lot of the country music from that era has aged poorly. With Wide Open Spaces, the Dixie Chicks stayed firmly country, and the album spawned five top 10 hits on the country charts – three of which hit number one. This is particularly interesting because the group’s later albums had even more critical and success but disappeared from the country music charts after the group publicly insulted then-president George W. Bush.

Though it was enormously commercially and critically successful, ranking as one of the fifty bestselling albums of the ‘90s and picking up multiple Grammys, Wide Open Spaces isn’t a perfect listen by any stretch. None of the album’s problems are caused by aging per se – the Dixie Chicks sound just as fresh and fun 20 years on – but the problems that the album did have are more notable now. The fact that the back half of the album is a snooze when compared to the hit-stacked front is particularly striking in today’s streaming-heavy industry. The decreasing value of the physical album has put extra weight on individual songs, and none of Wide Open Spaces’s later songs really stand on their own.

Luckily, the first half of the album includes excellent songs like the lightly subversive “I Can Love You Better,” in which the Chicks sing about stealing another woman’s man, the titular “Wide Open Spaces,” an ode to a young woman’s independence, “You Were Mine,” a deceptively simple retro gut punch lament of love gone wrong and “There’s Your Trouble,” a kiss-off of remarkable wisdom and weariness, particularly for a trio of musicians who were in their 20s at the time. All of these songs do more than hold up today; rather, they still feel fresh. These songs are uncommonly intelligent while remaining catchy enough to turn into earworms.

With women in the music industry, and particularly in mainstream country music, still given fewer opportunities and making so much less than their male counterparts, the feminism on display in Wide Open Spaces feels more than admirable, it’s even a little bit revolutionary. The level of feminism on display in their songs ranges from subtle to overt, but each song is from a true feminine perspective, regardless of whether that perspective is vulnerable or strong. In later albums, the Dixie Chicks take on subjects ranging from domestic abuse to women being attacked for their political beliefs. In Wide Open Spaces, they are less specific but just as powerful, refusing to sing about women standing by their men but rather singing about women standing on their own two feet.

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