Sisters find new voice with Court Yard Hounds
NEW YORK ñ After a triumphant comeback that included another best-selling album, a Grammy sweep and a worldwide tour, the Dixie Chicks went on hiatus ó a break welcomed by the trio, who were approaching burnout.
“I needed that year,” Martie Maguire, the group’s fiddle player, recalls of their decision to step away from the limelight in 2006. “We were exhausted.”
For sisters Maguire and Emily Robison, they had personal matters to attend to: Maguire was trying to have another baby through in-vitro fertilization (she had a third child in 2008 after enduring a miscarriage), while Robison and her singer-songwriter husband, Charles Robison, decided to end their marriage after nine years and three children.
It was enough upheaval to distract them from music, but after awhile, both started getting antsy and were ready to make music.
Except lead singer Natalie Maines wasn’t ready. And her reluctance made the sisters worry about the future of the Dixie Chicks ó and their own musical careers.
“After a year I started getting scared. I started feeling, ‘Wow. I’m not really in control of my future,'” says the 40-year-old Maguire. “Because no matter what anybody says ó what we should have done or we could have really pushed Natalie to do ó we always felt like it had to be an organic want to go do music.”
In the end, they found the solution: a new duo, the Court Yard Hounds, using songs Robison recorded after her breakup as foundation for their new material. Their self-titled debut is out this week, and even though Maines is rejoining the fold for a Dixie Chicks tour this summer, the sisters’ heart is with their new endeavor.
“There’s new ground we can find as to where we’ve been and what we have yet to feel and experience,” says Robison, sitting on a couch in a hotel suite as Maguire listens in agreement. “I can kind of enjoy and experience the music all new right now, and we’re pushing ourselves in ways that we’ve never pushed ourselves.”
For Robison, 37, that includes taking most of the lead vocal duties on the album, though Maguire makes her voice heard on “Gracefully.” Robison wasn’t eager to sing lead; she wasn’t eager really to sing at all. When she first started writing songs, she had Maines in mind, and tried to use the material as something that might lure Maines back into the studio.
The group’s last album was 2006’s “Taking the Long Way,” which won the Grammy for best album, marking their return after being disowned by the country music establishment for making critical statements about President George W. Bush while overseas.
“I spent a good year and a half trying to get Natalie to do what my vision was. We even went in to cut a song that was supposed to be for a movie and it didn’t work out,” she said. “(I was) just trying to inspire her and then I realized, ‘You know what, you can’t force it … ultimately we have to respect each other’s wishes to do that,’ so there really wasn’t another choice for me but to look elsewhere.”
She called Maguire for suggestions on another singer. But Maguire didn’t want Robinson to let someone else sing her story.
“I felt really uncomfortable hearing the honesty in the songs and then having someone else claim it as theirs and try to own it,” she explains. “I guess I just kind of felt like she was the only one who could sing those songs.”
Maguire, who had been recording an album of fiddle tunes for children, acknowledges she saw an opportunity for herself.
“I figured I’d at least get a shot to audition for the band,” she says, as the pair dissolve into laughter (as they often did during the interview).
That sisterly camaraderie is the gel that bonds the group; the pair finish each other’s thoughts and are on the same page, which was apparent when they went into the studio to record, says Jim Scott, who produced the Court Yard Hounds’ debut.
“Because they’re family, they can talk about just about anything,” says Scott, who has worked with Sting, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Dixie Chicks. “It was never a battle about a choice of a part or a harmony or a performance. … The dynamic was easy.”
It’s somewhat of a different musical dynamic from the Dixie Chicks; though there are hints of the best-selling trio. The Court Yard Hounds’ music is more subdued, with Robison delivering a performance that relies more on emotion than sheer vocal strength. Scott says initially, there was concern whether Robison could pull it off.
“I don’t think she really fully believed it, and she may not really fully believe it now, but she’s an incredible singer. … The only fear that we had, and that she had, was, ‘Am I going to be able to pull it off, and be compared with Natalie?'” he said. “With a little practice, she got great, fast.”
Now that they have their own sound together, they’ll also have to start recalling their sound as part of the Chicks: The band starts a summer tour June 8 with the Eagles (and Keith Urban on some dates). They’ll also spend part of the summer touring as the Court Yard Hounds, including dates at Lillith Fair.
The pair say they are looking forward to working with Maines.
“It feels like a class reunion in a way. I do miss Natalie and I do miss the camaraderie of that dynamic as well,” Robison says. “I think it’s allowing us to enjoy when we are together more, because the pressure’s off.”
“I saw some glimpses of the old energy and excitement in her, and I was happy,” adds Maguire.
That might even lead to another Chicks album. But even if that happens, the sisters don’t consider the Court Yard Hounds a hiatus project, but their group outside the Chicks.
“I think as we make more and more records, (we’ll) just find our own identity,” says Maguire of the new duo. “It takes time.”
Sisters find new voice with Court Yard Hounds