Back in the early 2000s, the Dixie Chicks seemed unstoppable. A near unprecedented run of widely acclaimed platinum-selling albums made them the belles of every Nashville ball; their sassy demeanor and sly singles like ”Goodbye Earl” brought them to a whole new pop audience. Then came frontwoman Natalie Maines’ infamous onstage takedown of then President George W. Bush, spawning a monster backlash from the country establishment. Their album-length response to that, 2006’s Taking the Long Way, earned them five Grammys. Then, essentially, they disappeared.
In the years that followed, the Dixie Incident seemed to have a chilling effect on country music’s would-be lady rebels. But the rise of outspoken artists like Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert appears to signal a welcome — and long overdue — pushback. On her own, Lambert’s a superstar, wholly unafraid of unleashing her sonic gunpowder. With her sideline trio, Pistol Annies, it’s whiskey and vengeance times three: The group’s 2011 debut, Hell on Heels, dipped a perfectly manicured toe into burning-down-the-trailer-park revenge fantasies and sling-backed empowerment, but their second release, Annie Up, is a more fully formed take on Southern sisterhood. ”Hush Hush” spins a twisty yarn about getting high at a dysfunctional family party over a bluesy two-step, while the strummy ”Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” laments cosmetic oppression (”You spend all your money/Just to wipe it all off”). There’s plenty of hell-raising — see: the dump-that-cowboy anthem ”Don’t Talk About Him, Tina” — but there’s also self-reflection, as on the darkly pragmatic ”Dear Sobriety.” In Pistol Annies, the Dixies’ spirit is alive and kicking.
Not that the chief Chick is done exploring wide open spaces. On her first solo disc, Mother — full of muscular blues riffs and slide guitar, with nary a banjo breakdown — Natalie Maines is still going to bat for underdogs. Which may be why it contains so many shaggy castoffs: She rescues ”Free Life” from a barely known 2007 solo album by her ”Not Ready to Make Nice” co-writer Dan Wilson; resurrects ”Silver Bell” from pal Patty Griffin’s tabled album of the same name; and dusts off ”Come Cryin’ to Me,” a rejected Chicks tune. The covers here (Pink Floyd, Jeff Buckley) would be karaoke in other hands, but Maines’ voice carries it all with a maternal world-weariness: heavy, yeah, but also optimistic. There’s not a lot of bile left over from her days as Toby Keith’s whipping post, though the Ben Harper-penned ”Trained” packs some acidic snarl. She hasn’t entirely left the Chicks behind (they’ve got some festival dates booked this summer), but Maines has grown into something newly dynamic, and entirely her own. Like the Annies, she knows how much it hurts to get burned — but also, still, how much fun playing with fire can be. Annie Up: A- Mother: B+