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All About The Dixie Chicks
By Ace Collins
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Ace Collins
All rights reserved.
Texas Yankees with Bluegrass Roots
Though they're now considered one of the most celebrated groups in the long and storied history of Texas music, the foundation of the musical revolution that came to fruition in the Dixie Chicks first saw the light of day a long way from the Lone Star State. On October 12, 1969, schoolteachers Paul and Barbara Erwin welcomed their second child into the world in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. On that New England fall day, daughter Martie joined her older sister, Julie, as the focal point of the Erwin household. Almost three years later, on August 16, 1972, another sister, Emily, made the Erwin siblings a trio.
In the modern world of marketing, it is constantly said that timing and location are everything. There can be little doubt that if the Erwin girls had been born two decades earlier or had grown up in New England, the Dixie Chicks would never have surfaced, first on the streets of Dallas and later on stages around the world. The trio that in two short years has become the best-selling female country music group of all time would have never come together at all in Boston or New York. Yet fate, often the major player in elevating a performer from obscurity to stardom, played a hand in Martie and Emily's favor. Not only did they find themselves in the right atmosphere for creating a new sound, thanks to the hard work of another group of sisters and a band, when the girls had evolved to a place where they were ready for a shot at the big time, the world of country music was ready to give them their chance.
Not long after the arrival of their third child, the Erwins followed the example set by millions of other Yankees, by packing their bags, escaping the snow, and heading south. The family settled in Dallas, Texas. Famous worldwide as the home of television's Ewing family, the city, with its sprawling suburbs and rapid expansion, was morphing cowboys with businessmen and in a tax-friendly environment was showing America just how much Texas had changed since the days of Jim Bowie and Sam Houston. The Erwins would fall in love with the city, its people, and its culture.
Music had always been an important facet of Paul and Barbara Erwin's lives, and the couple was bound and determined to make sure it was a part of their daughters' lives as well. With the possible exceptions of Memphis and Nashville, the family couldn't have picked a better place to experience the full range of musical genres.
The Dallas–Fort Worth area had been a hotbed of rock, blues, gospel, and country for decades. In honky-tonks across the area, some of the best bands in the world pumped out a constant stream of music that echoed down dark alleys and up well-traveled streets. Influenced not only by the western culture of the region, but by the wide mix of ethnic groups who had first settled the state, DFW (Dallas–Fort Worth) music was part Buddy Holly, a taste of Stevie Ray Vaughan, a dose of V. O. Stamps, a portion of Bob Wills, a bit of Jim Reeves, and a pinch of Ernest Tubb. This was the area that had first embraced the likes of Elvis Presley, George Jones, and the Stamps Quartet. DFW turned out in droves for not only country and rock but blues and swing. Scores of big-band musicians and singers started here, as did the likes of Ray Price and Lefty Frizzell. No matter where you were from, no matter what your taste, on any given night you could easily find your musical niche in the metroplex.
Yet the music that would first come to shape the lives of Martie and Emily Erwin was not the eclectic mix found in clubs, or the country and rock played on the radio; rather, it was the grand strains of the classics played by the local highbrow community. It was in large concert halls that Paul and Barbara first exposed their daughters to the beauty of a symphony. From this early indoctrination, the two educators then eased their girls into learning at least one of the instruments that made up the orchestra.
The violin came first. Taught the Suzuki method, a musical training regimen first developed in Japan for very young children, the girls were given the opportunity to sport their talents on songs such as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." Perhaps because it's not a part of the public-school curriculum in most areas, the lack of passion for classical music in the United States has always put American music teachers behind their European and Asian counterparts. While the Suzuki system remains one of the best and most popular teaching platforms in the world, in truth most children last only a few months or years before dropping out to devote their time to soccer, T-ball, or dance. In Texas, where a majority of the population looks at a violin and thinks fiddle, it was especially difficult to keep children focused on the instrument.
Yet with the Erwin girls, the Suzuki method took root and grew. Barbara Erwin was not going to pay for the expensive lessons without making sure the girls devoted daily time to practice. Every day, aided by an old egg timer, she forced Martie and Emily to practice hard until they were finally saved by the timer's bell. Over the course of a few months, the forced practice sessions became a musical celebration of life as the girls began to thrive on the training. It would be Suzuki that first uncovered the girls deep passion for music. Almost before learning to read, the younger two Erwin girls were hooked on playing.
While watching her daughters perform with a symphony orchestra might have been a deeply held dream for Barbara, the culture that surrounded the girls in DFW quickly quashed that vision. Yet it took a little help from their dad, too. It might have been classical music Martie and Emily heard at the symphony and in the Suzuki practice halls, but it was the bluegrass music that they were exposed to when their father took them to several country music shows that took root in their souls. Slowly the girls began to add a touch of "Faded Love" and "Turkey in the Straw" to the Suzuki course structure. Before long they were playing as much fiddle as violin. Yet even this move to country music would have probably proved useless if country music hadn't just begun to open the door to women.
In the coming 1980s, at about the time the Erwins had settled into Texas and the girls had begun school, another group of Texas sisters was storming the national airwaves, playing every musical instrument that they could lay their hands on. Like Martie and Emily, Barbara Mandrell, born on Christmas Day 1948, was a child prodigy who came from a musical family. Already performing at shows at the age of six in her family band, by her teens Barbara had not only toured much of the West Coast and played Las Vegas with Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash, but was now often joined by her younger sisters on USO tours in Europe and Vietnam. Long before she obtained her driver's license, the incredibly beautiful blonde was a seasoned professional.
When she arrived in Nashville — Music City — at the age of twenty in 1968, Mandrell didn't look much like the revolutionary leader who would fire the first shot in a war that would open a huge musical door for female country acts. Yet as she began to make the rounds and meet music-business movers and shakers, her spirit and vision started to appear. She was not just a singer, like the other females of her day; she was a complete musician and entertainer. She played a dozen instruments, several of them well enough to earn a spot in major bands; carried a dynamic and forceful presence on stage; and, like the Erwin girls, had a background in all types of musical genres. As Nashville quickly discovered, Mandrell's talents may have been wrapped in a diminutive five-foot package, but this Texan was one of the most explosive forces to ever migrate to the Tennessee music scene.
Within a year of landing a record contract, Mandrell was bent on not only making hits, but redefining women's roles in country music. She would be the person to finally set the women's movement on fire in Nashville and push the industry past just considering women as "girl singers." To accomplish this lofty goal, Barbara constantly pushed the envelope. She sang cheating songs where the woman, not the man, cheated! That was unheard of then. No one did that! She used rhythm-and-blues numbers in both the recording studio and in live shows — another concept frowned upon in Nashville. Today, with Shania Twain, Dena Carter, and Faith Hill oozing sex appeal and on-the-edge lyrics, listening to Barbara's songs would hardly be startling, but in the 1970s, when even Dolly Parton didn't show cleavage, what Barbara did and sang about were indeed groundbreaking.
Maybe even more important than her musical selection, subject, and style was Mandrell's determination to not be judged just against other female acts. Particularly during her live shows, Barbara declared her right to go it against the men. Mandrell did not want to be the opening act for a male singer; she wanted to headline. No country-music woman had ever dared even ask to be the closer. Not even Patsy Cline was given that right. Yet through hard work and determination, Mandrell would not just headline, but win back-to-back Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year Awards in 1980 and 1981 and nine annual People's Choice Awards. In other words, she was deemed the best entertainer regardless of gender in country music and recognized as the nation's top female act in any category or genre. So Mandrell was becoming not just a star in Nashville; she was emerging as a dominant force in all of popular music. Yet what made her all these things was not as much country music as it was family ties and television.
NBC television's chief operating officer, Fred Silverman, caught Barbara and her sisters, Louise and Irlene, on The Mike Douglas Show. Their spontaneous musical combustion had won them a standing ovation from Douglas and his audiences. The sisters had also frozen Silverman in his seat. Silverman ordered a videotape of the program and watched it several more times, then called Barbara's father and manager, Irby Mandrell. At Barbara's Hendersonville, Tennessee, home, he met with Irby and the sisters and hammered out a deal for a new network variety show. Within months of that initial meeting, Barbara, Louise, and Irlene were the "Sweethearts of Saturday Night." In a very real sense, the Mandrells gave the Erwins a helping hand even before the Dallas kids knew they needed one. They did it by making country music the music of all of America.
Country music variety had been tried many times before by network television. Jimmy Dean's and Johnny Cash's shows had been successful in the fifties, sixties, and early seventies. Yet while the ratings were solid, neither of them had brought many new converts to country music. Record and concert sales had not jumped all over the board. Other country giants, like Dolly Parton, had tried and flopped on television. Yet Barbara was different from all the other country acts in both her ability to sustain an audience and the demographics of those thirty million weekly viewers who watched her.
Mandrell's show was an instant hit. Not only would Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters earn great ratings in 1980–82, but it would pull those ratings from all age groups. Teens and preteens who had never heard of Roy Acuff or Charlie Pride were tuning in each week to watch Barbara, Louise, and Irlene and their special guests. In the process these kids were meeting the era's hottest new country stars and being inspired to pick up instruments and try to take country music another step forward.
Martie and Emily Erwin, like millions of others, often caught the Mandrells' television show. The sisters, just beginning their first ginger-steps into the musical world, couldn't have known that Barbara, Louise, and Irlene were opening doors for them. Of course, no one else in Nashville or Los Angeles realized the long-term effects the show was having, either. Even the millions who went to record stores to buy their first country LPs had not come to a full realization as to why they were tuning in and turning on to country music. Barbara, Louise, and Irlene didn't look like refugees from Hee Haw — they were too cool — and the music they performed didn't seem like generic country. For the first time even teens outside the South could listen to country music without being teased or ridiculed by their peers. The Mandrells' television show was an important step in bringing new fans to country music. Yet they themselves would never fully benefit from this new way of thinking, unlike Martie and Emily when they were finally recognized by Nashville.
While the Mandrells opened the door for country girl groups and exposed the nation to a new sound, it was a male act that grabbed country's new popularity and turned things upside down. Just like the Dixie Chicks would struggle in the early and mid-1990s, two decades earlier Young Country, a unique band with a new sound, would gain local acceptance but struggle to gain any kind of national acclaim. But after a name change it was Young Country that would complete what Barbara Mandrell and her sisters started, bringing country music to a younger audience and presenting it on a national level.
When Randy Owen, Jeff Cook, Teddy Gentry, and Mark Herndon, the southern band that began life as Young Country, made their national television network debut on Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters, they created a major sensation. Though no one fully appreciated their impact at the time, the group would radically alter the way country music sounded and the money the industry generated. Almost by themselves, Alabama — their new moniker — took country music to the big time at the box office.
Alabama would not only become the first successful commercial country music band since Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, but would also revolutionize the genre. As they scored chart-topping hit after hit, teenagers and college kids began to flock to their concerts and buy their records. As Alabama began to churn out gold records and rack up unheard-of sales and awards, teens and young adults were buying country music albums and singles by the millions. Maybe most importantly for the Erwin girls, even though they didn't know it then, with Mandrell and Alabama Nashville was being forced to realize the full potential of women and the fact that being in a band didn't automatically make you a rocker or a relic from the past.
It would be years before the impact of Mandrell and Alabama was fully realized. For the moment, Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters just made life a great deal easier for parents trying to get their children to practice music, and Alabama opened the door to making country more fun. Yet with role models who could play, sing, dance, and headline their own shows, girls finally had a reason to dream of playing country music and being stars on the same level as men. And some might even have thought about joining a band and playing guitar.
With the new country-rock sounds of Alabama and all the musical influences that pumped up and down the streets of Dallas, it may seem odd that the Erwin girls chose to embrace a style of playing rarely heard in Texas. Bluegrass was the music of Kentucky and Tennessee; it was played by old-timers such as Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs; it received its limited exposure at small music festivals, on Grand Ole Opry, or in reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies. Yet moving from classical fiddle to songs such as "Cripple Creek" seemed natural to the Erwin kids. The girls loved bluegrass's enthusiasm. They cared little that it hardly seemed cool. Besides, their parents loved this unique American music form as well.
Though she played in a youth orchestra and was learning classical music well, Emily not only embraced the fiddle, but by the time she was ten was taking banjo lessons. Soon it appeared she had her eyes set on being the next Barbara Mandrell as she added dobro, mandolin, and any other acoustic instrument she could find. Encouraged by her parents, who not only bought the instruments but paid for the lessons, Emily entered weekend fiddle contests and began to gain notice away from school and home.
Excerpted from All About The Dixie Chicks by Ace Collins. Copyright © 1999 Ace Collins. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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