AUSTIN, Texas — Central Presbyterian Church turns into a concert hall during the annual South by Southwest music festival, and on a Friday afternoon in mid-March, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks was doing her soundcheck there for a midnight show. It was an early stepping stone for her new solo career, a preview of songs from her debut album, Mother.
With Mother, out this week, Maines puts a clear distance between herself and the buoyant, bluegrassy songs that made the Dixie Chicks the best-selling female group in country music. As a member of the Dixie Chicks since 1995, when she joined the group's founding members, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, Maines has sold some 30 million albums in the United States alone.
But after lying low in recent years, Maines, 38, makes her own statement with Mother. She recorded it with a band led by Ben Harper, a bluesy, socially conscious songwriter and slide guitarist, and it's darker and more pensive than her sassy public image would have foretold.
At the church, Maines' parents and a handful of onlookers watched as Harper and the band set up on an altar crowded with instruments and amps. One musician pointed toward the pulpit and joshingly asked Maines, "Wouldn't you be more comfortable there?"
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"You've already done that," Natalie's mother, Tina Maines, immediately chimed in.
Maines flashed a rueful grin and agreed. "I've already done that," she said.
The image of Maines preaching from a pulpit seemed to flash back to the remark that changed her life. On March 10, 2003, shortly before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Dixie Chicks were performing in London when Maines spoke against the impending war and added, "Just so you know, we're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas."
Within days, conservative media outlets branded the Chicks as treasonous, and fearful country radio stations took their music off the air. Although the Dixie Chicks continued to tour, threats and protests met their concerts. The group eventually responded with its 2006 album, Taking the Long Way, which included the defiant Top 10 single, Not Ready to Make Nice, and was showered with Grammy Awards.
The Dixie Chicks have continued to tour on and off and will be appearing at Canadian festivals this summer. Maines has said she was reluctant to do this year's shows but was "outvoted" by the rest of the band and its management. Yet the Dixie Chicks have not made a new studio album since 2006, and Maguire and Robison now write songs for their own duo, the Courtyard Hounds. Relations are amicable; on Thursday, the Courtyard Hounds, Maines and the Dixie Chicks are all performing at a benefit concert for the Austin public television station KLRU.
Since Maguire plays fiddle and Robison plays banjo, the Courtyard Hounds have stayed close to country music. But with Mother, Maines has decisively left country behind.
"There's a pressure of wanting to please other people and not let Martie and Emily down in particular," Maines said during an interview. "But there's a point of feeling like I'm almost 40 and I'm just not going to do anything I don't want to do any more."
She was dressed in chicly understated graphite gray and has let her hair return from the blond of the Dixie Chicks' heyday to its natural light brown; her short and upswept haircut, she said with a chuckle, is a lot like Justin Bieber's. She laughed easily, but her blue eyes flashed as she recalled decade-old wounds.
"There's just no trust as far as the industry we were in, the country music industry," she said. "To do country music right now would feel like too big a compromise — I just can't do it. It took a lot of years for me to admit that to myself and definitely to admit it to them."
Between Dixie Chicks tours, Maines became a homebody, gardening and raising her two sons (with her husband, actor Adrian Pasdar). Her public presence was limited largely to studio duets (with Tony Bennett and Neil Diamond); appearances on satellite radio and the television show of her friend Howard Stern; and her unvarnished personal Twitter feed, @1NatalieMaines, where she wisecracks, offers stray daily details and sometimes snaps back at the political hostility she still receives.
That Twitter account, she said, "is going to get me in trouble." She deliberately hasn't had Twitter verify it as hers: "I can say, 'That's not me. I don't know who that crazy girl is saying those horrible things.'" She laughed and added: "It really probably is people getting to see the truest part, the part that usually only people close really hear or see. I feel free to spit it out there."
On March 10, she tweeted, "Good thing I'm not a told ya so kind of person or I might point out that 10 years ago today I said GWB was full of bull and I was right." Clearly, she is unrepentant.
"I would never take it back," she said. "I'm so glad it happened. I feel like it sort of freed me in a lot of ways. I didn't know people were misinterpreting who I was as a person or making all of these assumptions because of the kind of music I played. I have no problem being a pro-gay, pro-choice, pro-woman, pro-free speech kind of a person, and I have no shame in that or apology or embarrassment. I think I just felt very rebellious about it all. Yeah, this is me. Like it or hate it, I'm not doing anything wrong."
Onstage in Austin, Maines wasn't saying much between songs, letting their arcs of ache and resolve speak through the music. "Maybe it's post-traumatic stress disorder from the controversy, but I know I'm quieter up there, a little bit shyer," she said. "I'm still finding my legs, performance-wise, being up there by myself. I think I have a bit of proving myself ahead of me."
Her smile returned. "I'm up for it," she said.