There will never be anything quite like sitting in the back of my mom’s car at six years old, listening to the Chicks as I looked out the window at the flat Texas landscape on our family road trips. To this day, when I hear the opening lines of “Wide Open Spaces,” I can’t help but picture the shimmering golden corn crops alongside I-35 or a half-finished lemonade in my cup holder from the last gas station pit stop. 

In many ways, the Chicks’ music defined my childhood, not only because I associate them with those happy road trip days, but also because their music so poignantly captured the intense emotions of being a young woman learning to navigate the world. From joyous songs like “Somedays You Gotta Dance” to grief-stricken tracks like “You Were Mine,” their lyrics always have a way of putting words to emotions that had previously felt indescribable.

Courtesy of Monument Records.

While the Chicks acted as an essential musical backdrop for my childhood, I didn’t begin independently exploring my connection with their music until my second semester of college, when I made the drive up to Georgia from Texas for the first time. That day, the opening lyrics, “Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about/ Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out/ To find a dream and a life of their own,” resonated in a way they never had before. As the song goes, I had “traveled this road as a child,” but now it was time for “Wide open spaces/ Room to make her big mistakes.” For the first time, I was faced with the fact that the time in my life of counting cows outside my mom’s car window and playing license plate bingo had come to pass; it was time to take the wheel.

In 2020, the Chicks released new music for the first time in 10 years. Their album “Gaslighter” signified a new pop direction for the band, who had fallen out of public approval in 2003 when their lead singer, Natalie Maines, publicly stated they were “ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas” because of former President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. They lost major brand sponsorships, and radio stations refused to play their songs. In their 2006 song “Not Ready to Make Nice” responding to the fallout, Maines sang that the band could forgive but not forget the backlash they endured and asked how the group’s opinion could “Send somebody so over the edge/ That they’d write me a letter/ Saying that I better/ Shut up and sing/ Or my life will be over?”

The Chicks’ refusal to “shut up and sing” and determination to use their platform to further political causes has set them apart from other mainstream country artists. Since their 1989 beginning in Dallas, Texas, they have been known for their “feisty songs” and “provocative style.” “Gaslighter” was no exception. A response to Maines’ 2017 divorce from her husband due to his infidelity, the album is emotionally raw and constantly toes the line between dark humor and genuine anger. On “Sleep at Night,” Maines recounts the hilarity of her “husband’s girlfriend’s husband” calling her up to tell her about the affair before singing, “But then I think about our two boys trying to become men/ There’s nothing funny about that.” Their music is never straightforward and has a truthful way of capturing the complicated emotions of falling out of love.

The band is known for always sneaking in a slightly edgy but comical track to each of their albums — the best example is their 1999 song “Goodbye Earl.” On “Gaslighter,” “Tights on My Boat” fits the bill. The jolting opening, “I hope you die peacefully in your sleep/ Just kidding, I hope it hurts like you hurt me,” is a gut punch, but it brings an element of humor to the album. Additionally, “Texas Man” brings a light flirtiness to the album that’s otherwise characterized by its angry title track and sad ballads like “Everybody Loves You” and “Young Man.” 

While I can’t relate to Maines’ heartbreak after her 17-year marriage ended, the themes of betrayal, grief and a slightly naive sense of hope in “Gaslighter” have helped me to move forward as I’ve struck out on a new path over the past two years. But, of course, tracks like “Wide Open Spaces” will always bring me home.

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Sarah Davis (she/her) (22Ox, 24C) is from Austin, Texas. Previously, she interned with The Covington News and Austin Monthly Magazine. This summer, she will intern with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In her free time, you can find her mapping new running routes and exploring the Atlanta coffee scene.