COWBOY, TAKE ME AWAY

Fierce Country Women in Charge of Their Destiny—Twenty Years of Dixie Chicks’ ‘Fly’

August 30, 2019

On August 31, 1999, the Dixie Chicks doubled down on their iconoclastic country stance with their second major-label album, Fly. The full-length won the trio—Natalie Maines, Emily Strayer, and Martie Maguire—a Grammy Award for Country Album of the Year and spawned eight country singles, including two No. 1 hits, “Cowboy Take Me Away” and “Without You.”

Unsurprisingly, Fly also became one of country music’s best-selling albums ever. In 2002, it was certified diamond by the Recording Industry Association of America® (RIAA) for 10 million copies shipped—a total surpassed only by the Dixie Chicks’ own 12-times-platinum previous album, 1998’s Wide Open Spaces. Streaming-wise, Fly also dominates, having been streamed over 132 million times.

Twenty years later, Fly feels even more radical and urgent than it did upon release. That’s largely due to the album’s lyrics, which star women in control of their lives and destinies who aren’t letting anything—or anyone—get in their way.

“Let Him Fly” is about knowing when to let a romantic partner go because a relationship has run its course. “Don’t Waste Your Heart” establishes that even starting a partnership is futile (“my heart can’t compromise”), while “Some Days You Gotta Dance” encourages women to shake off concerns (e.g., inappropriate bosses, commitment issues) with some stress-relieving body moving.

Of course, Fly’s protagonists aren’t immune to being knocked down by a failed relationship; the fiddle-heavy waltz “Hello Mr. Heartache” is self-explanatory, while “Without You” is a cry-in-your-whiskey ballad about heartbreak. However, Fly‘s characters also don’t suffer fools gladly: The album’s most notorious song is “Goodbye Earl,” a modern murder ballad that finds a pair of best friends conspiring to off an abusive husband using poisoned black-eyed peas.

Although the latter tune caused controversy at country radio, the Dixie Chicks revealed in interviews that their record label had far more issues with the feminist-leaning anthem “Sin Wagon.” The lively bluegrass tune concerns a newly single woman unabashedly sowing her oats—or, as the song goes, doing “a little mattress dancin’/That’s right, I said mattress dancin’.”

“Since we have sold so many records, one of the good things that comes out of that is we have lots of control,” Natalie Maines told USA Today in August 1999. “So we said, ‘There’s 13 songs on the record. You can like 12 of them, and we’ll like the other one.'”

Music-wise, Fly found the Dixie Chicks becoming more resolute about foregrounding their bluegrass and classic country roots—another bold move, given that the album emerged during a time when mainstream music was more welcoming than ever to pop-leaning country artists such as Shania Twain and Faith Hill.

Appropriately, however, Fly captures many moods. Kicky fiddle and twangy guitars dominate brisker songs, highlighted by the hip-shaking “Some Days You Gotta Dance” (featuring bluesy guitar from pre-superstardom Keith Urban), which is then balanced out by the keening pedal steel and melting multipart harmonies of “Cold Day in July” and “Ready to Run.” And on Fly, Natalie Maines’ Texas-bred holler sounds confident and versatile. It’s wild and untamed on “Hole in My Head” and “Sin Wagon” and tender on the string-swept “Without You” and wistful “Cowboy Take Me Away.”

Despite its straightforward classic country tones, time has proven Fly to be suitable for genre crossover covers. “Goodbye Earl” was once given a punk makeover by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, while boygenius, an indie-rock supergroup featuring Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker, and Phoebe Bridgers, redid the optimistic Cowboy Take Me Away as a longing love song.

Fly‘s DNA is also omnipresent in today’s country music. The all-women supergroup Highwomen exudes the ladies-first, us-against-the-world stance favored by the Dixie Chicks. Cam is making unabashedly feminist country music on her own terms, while Miranda Lambert—both solo and with her own straight-talking trio, Pistol Annies—is building an arsenal of songs cataloging life’s ebbs and flows from the perspective of a firebrand woman uninterested in conforming to stereotypes. Plus, the withering, take-no-prisoners attitude of “Goodbye Earl” shows up in spades in Kacey Musgraves‘ “High Horse,” a deceptively bubbly disco-pop song about deflating the ego of an overly confident man.

The Fly era of Dixie Chicks also made an impression on Taylor Swift, a longtime fan of the band, who recently told Entertainment Weekly she was inspired by Fly‘s overall “aesthetics” and appreciated how Dixie Chicks were creating music in “an unapologetically feminine, imaginative way”—a descriptor that just so happens to describe the pop superstar’s own catalog and shows how far Fly’s influence stretches. It wasn’t just the classic country fans who embraced the album: it was the rockers and pop stars and loads of inspired women in between.

Step into your boots and revisit the Dixie Chicks’ 1999 album Fly.