Natalie Maines: A Dixie Chick Declares War on Nashville

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One morning last year, Maines called her manager, Simon Renshaw, and asked him to meet her at an address in Santa Monica. When he showed up, it turned out to be a studio owned by Ben Harper. "Sit down," Maines told Renshaw, a genial Brit who's been managing her and the Chicks since she joined. "I want to play you something." Until that moment, Renshaw had no idea that Maines was making music. "She just went and did it on her own, the way she wanted to do it," he says.

She did have to be coaxed a bit. Harper lives not far from Maines, and they became closer friends after their kids had started playing together – they also had a mutual friend in Eddie Vedder, who bonded with Maines through her activism for the now-freed West Memphis Three. A fan of her huge, emotive voice, Harper made a deceptively casual offer of studio time. They began recording, with Maines cutting sessions short to help her kids with homework. An album began to take shape, one that reveals her to be on par with the likes of Adele, Kelly Clarkson and Beyoncé as a pure singer. "I think she recognized my genuine enthusiasm, just to hear her voice soar again," says Harper. "I'm not a producer – I'm a songwriting steel-guitar player. There ain't but probably three people left alive I'm gonna stop my life for to produce with, and she's one of them."

Song Premiere: Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines, 'Golden State'

Maines wasn't feeling up for a lot of songwriting, so the album is mostly covers (though she did co-write the ocean­ic album closer, "Take It on Faith" and a couple of others). "I really just wanted this to be fun," she says, "and there were so many songs I've always wanted to sing. And that could go on forever. I could have a hundred covers albums." Songwriters range from Jeff Buckley (she successfully takes on his slippery vocal showpiece "Lover, You Should've Come Over") to Vedder.

On the title track, from Pink Floyd's The Wall, Maines mines new melodic, emotional and political depths from a familiar tune. "I think it's great," says Roger Waters, who wrote the song. "I get goosebumps just talking about it." He's pleased to hear that Maines was inspired to cover it after hearing his rendition on his current Wall tour – which Waters follows with a speech about the "slippery slope to tyranny." "How cool is that?" he says. "More power to her." Mother is proving to be a big hit in the rock-legend demographic: Maines has gotten word that Eric Clapton loves it and gave a copy to George Harrison's widow, Olivia.

Harper and Maines never discussed genre: "The words 'rock,' or 'country,' or 'soul' . . . none of that ever came up," says Harper. But as co-producer, Maines knew exactly what she wanted it all to sound like, even singing melodies for guitar solos and bass lines – and she was quite certain that she never wanted to make anything resembling a country album again. "I can't listen to our second album," she says, referring to the Chicks' 1999 breakthrough, Fly. "Because I was really, like, embracing country and really waving that country flag. My accent is so out of control on that album. I'm like, 'Who is that?'"

When the Bush controversy hit, Maines was stunned. "I always thought they accepted us in spite of the fact that we were different," she says. "It shocked me and kind of grossed me out that people thought I would be a conservative right-winger, that I'd be a redneck. But at that time, people didn't ask us things like, 'What do you think of gay marriage?' If they had, they would have learned how liberal I was. But I was so confused by who people thought I was and what I had been putting out there."

Afterward, she started acting out. "There was a part of me that was like, 'Oh, this isn't OK? Fuck that.' I didn't know the cat was in the bag, but it felt so good that the cat was out of the bag. Then I definitely just went, 'Oh, really? You don't like that? Well, how about this? Not only do I not like this president, I love gay people! And I'm pro-legalization of marijuana and all drugs! Yeah, let me blow your mind.'"

She's totally out of touch with her former genre – when Brad Paisley and LL Cool J's ill-conceived "Accidental Racist" comes up, she's unaware that Paisley had written pro-Obama and pro-immigration songs: She'd assumed he was a Toby Keith-style right-winger. Either way, she really hates the song. "It just sounds like an out-of-touch white guy making an observation that I feel like we all made in junior high or high school," Maines says. "And then for LL Cool J to go along with that? It's very bizarre."

That brings up a larger complaint. "I just didn't like how blatant country music was," she says, laughing again. "Nothing seemed poetic or subtle. Nothing could be interpreted two different ways! It's all very spelled out. James Taylor can write 'Fire and Rain' and tell you it's about a mental institution, this and that – and you listen to it, and you're trying to decipher it all. And, you know, a country song would be like [sings twangily], 'I'm in a mental institution!' "

Maines hasn't seen her two bandmates since last July, when they played a private charity show in Greenwich, Connecticut. They exchange texts regularly, but she hasn't met Robison's new baby. The Dixie Chicks' last public performance was a year earlier, at an Austin benefit for wildfire victims. Everyone around Maines says their brief performance at the show – which featured acts from Willie Nelson to George Strait to the Avett Brothers – was a triumph, but that's not how Maines remembers it. She's fixated on the fact that the tickets didn't quite sell out. "I feel like we are tainted," she says. "I don't know if we put a tour up, if people would come." (Renshaw says he's quite confident they would.) She's open to more tours, though not precisely enthusiastic about it. "It's not where my passion is," she says. "But I don't dislike it, either."

Maguire and Robison have long wanted to make another Dixie Chicks album, and Maines admits she may be breaking their hearts a little. "That was a lot of what I had to work out in therapy, too, because you do become this unit and you do feel an obligation," she says. "There's not being inspired, but there's also just not having the life to facilitate that right now. We have nine kids between the three of us. You know, Martie and Emily probably have more time to themselves – whereas I don't. And I can't go to Texas and make a rec­ord. I don't think they can uproot and come here to make a record." She's not sure they could agree on a musical direction either.

Still in her hiking outfit, Maines is sitting in the bright dining room of Farmshop, a farm-to-table restaurant in the faux-rustic Brentwood Country Mart, where her neighbors – Ben Affleck, Reese Witherspoon – are frequently spotted by paparazzi. The photographers usually leave her alone, and today she even has to wait a bit for a table. She's just glad that, unlike when she lived in Texas – which she and her family left for good eight years ago – she doesn't have to worry about someone spitting in her food. "I was afraid to go places, afraid of what people were thinking about me," she says. "In L.A., I just felt I was among my people."

When we finally get a table. Maines sips coffee and starts talking – about Taylor Swift's ability to walk the line between country and pop ("Let's see what they do to her – how she is in 10 years"), about Bruno Mars ("I love his voice – is he gay, straight?"), about turning down a crappy opening slot on a package tour she won't name ("It doesn't have to be about the money, but I want it to at least be fun"). Then she starts dissing music's biggest awards show: "When the Oscars are more edgy than the Grammys, it's pathetic. It's just a big commercial. No side boob? I mean, oh, my God." She almost stops herself. "I'll get myself banned from every genre of music," she says, offering a wicked smile. Then she keeps right on going.

This story is from the June 6th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

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