"Nobody has one band anymore," laughs Martie Maguire. "They’ve got two and three and four!" By today's promiscuous musical standards, then, she and sister Emily Robison are actually playing it pretty conservative by keeping it to just a couple — one of which, Court Yard Hounds, has a sophomore album, Amelita, out this week.
Their other group, a little combo called the Dixie Chicks, is still officially together but has not darkened the doorstep of a recording studio in over seven years and isn't likely to any time soon. So one thing that's changed in a big way since Court Yard Hounds released their debut in early 2010 is the perception of which group represents their day gig, as it were. The sisters ain't just whistlin' Dixie when it comes to affirming which job counts as the "side project."
"The Chicks shows are definitely the moonlighting," says Robison, "and we feel like this is where most of our energy and focus goes. Because we live so close and we’re sisters, we’re together all the time and always talking, thinking, writing music. It’s a more natural extension of what’s on our minds musically, versus the Chicks, which is a little more difficult just logistically to get together and record... With the Chicks shows, it's a little bit easier to get out there and do ‘em and put together the set list that you know and love (than make records). But I think our passion right now is the Court Yard Hounds."
Robison and Maguire put their passion where their mouth is by settling into an Austin studio and performing an exclusive set for Yahoo! Music, including their new single, "Sunshine," along with two of their favorite album cuts, "Amelita" and "Divided."
If you have any fear of Pollyanna-ishness, rest assured that "Sunshine" is not a song that lives up to its name — except maybe musically. The leadoff track from Amelita has a barbed lyric to go with the blue-sky melody, directed at a certain someone who really tends to be a walking storm cloud. Robison enjoyed the trickiness of pairing "the light production and music with the sarcastic lyrics." And yes, tell-all fans, "everyone wants to know, who is 'Sunshine' about? I definitely have people in my mind as to who I’m talking to, but it’s not just one person but more of a conglomeration of a lot of different people. I think most people have a person in their world who’s just a total Debbie Downer, turd-in-the-punchbowl person that you just feel like, 'Aw, are they showing up and are just gonna bring everybody down?'"
The title song of Amelita has some of that same contrast between spirited music and a conflicted set of lyrics. Its Tex-Mex-inspired arrangement gives regional flavor to a tune about a young prostitute eking out an existence south of the border.
If you look up the girls' name "Amelita," you'll find it's a variant on "Emily." Which was strictly coincidental. "I just read that yesterday, and I did not know that!" laughs Robison. "So I’m not harkening to any big secret about myself."
The genesis of "Amelita" is in an experience the sisters had while filming the video for the Chicks' "Long Time Gone" in a Mexican district known as Boystown. The good news was, the girls hanging around on the periphery of their set were not hired extras who'd been brought in because the director decided at the last second to give the Chicks video a hookers theme. The bad news was, it was real life.
"We were down in Reynosa," recalls Robison, "and we come out of the trailer, and we notice that there’s this line of teenage girls, standing in the doorways of this motel..."
"We realized they were open for business," adds Maguire. "It just broke my heart. But it was such a weird thing to be doing this video in this little town and seeing that happen right next to you. It was just... two worlds collide. So that song is a story inspired by that."
Amelita as an album is not their first rodeo, and for that they're grateful. When it comes to what's changed since the debut came out more than three years ago, "I think confidence is the key word," Robison says, "just because the first album is us kind of tiptoeing around this idea of becoming a different band than we’ve been in the past. This time around, we just feel like we are a band. We’ve toured, we’ve traveled, we feel tight with the other guys in the group. And this album was a lot more sure-footed just as far as the material we wrote. We wrote a ton of material for this one and felt like we knew what we wanted. The more material you have, the more likely that you find that perfect song for your voice," says the woman who didn't attempt becoming a lead singer until she'd already been a well-known musician for 20 years.
"And I’m happy to say that Martie is singing more on this album as well. So I’m happy that she took the leap and did some more of that."
It wasn't always clear who would sing what. Maguire was the primary writer on "Divided," and tried singing it in the studio, but the fit didn't seem right, so Robison took it over, just as she sings most of the Hounds' lead vocals. "She chickened out," Robison says of her sis with a laugh. But Maguire did end up lending her lead vox to another tune, "Guy Like You," instead.
"We always kind of naturally know," says Maguire. "We don't fight over anything but clothes."
And there's not a lot of infighting between the sisters and the other third of the Dixie Chicks, Natalie Maines, from the sound of things. The first Court Yard Hounds album was largely borne out of the frustration that Maguire and Robison felt over their lead singer's reluctance to give up domesticity and return to record-making. By now, they're reconciled themselves to Maines not having a particularly careerist attitude or being very interested in a big comeback — although the Chicks still get back together for occasional concert dates (as they did for several Canadian festivals and a benefit this summer), and Maines finally got around to releasing her solo debut this spring.
"We haven’t felt like we’re betraying anything" by forming a different group, Maguire says, although "maybe it felt that way to the audience that didn’t understand that we weren't going to be working as the Dixie Chicks during that time period anyway. But personally I feel like other bands have already established that it’s okay for a lead singer to go do another album or other members of the band to go do another album." As for Maines' Mother project, "I was just glad to hear her making music again. I think the fans missed her voice, and I’m really happy she wanted to do that."
Court Yard Hounds won't be mistaken for the Chicks in style or lineup. There's plenty of country in the instrumentation, certainly, as the sound is still based largely around acoustic arrangements that make plenty of room for Maguire's familiar fiddle and Robison's beloved banjo. But you'd be hard-pressed to find the throughline between "Sin Wagon" and this stuff, even if it might be considered a continuation of the Chicks' swan song (?) project, Taking the Long Way. It's more geared toward the Americana side of country-rock than the Music Row tip, which guarantees it a better shot at a foothold at triple-A and college radio formats than mainstream country.
In other words, Court Yard Hounds' fan base is destined to be... a mongrel.
"I think we have carry-over fans who are just happy that two-thirds of their Dixie Chicks are playing together," Robison says. "And then I think we have new fans that are like, 'You know, I wasn’t a Dixie Chicks fan, but I love the way y’all sound.' Because we really do try to set ourselves apart from that. I think they come from all different places. And I’ll take all of them!"