ONLY NOISE: The Long Way Around

ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, Katie Wojciechowski finds footing in unfamiliar territory thanks to the late discovery of an infamous hometown favorite.

On March 10, 2003, Dixie Chicks’ front woman Natalie Maines told a London audience she was sorry about what our president was doing to the world, and she was ashamed to share her home state Texas with him. What happened after was entirely outside the scope of my fifth-grade awareness—but thankfully for my 2019 curiosity, Google’s first answer box aggregates the question apparently still on the Internet’s mind: “What did the Dixie Chicks say that got them in trouble?”

I’m a late-bloomer Dixie Chicks fan. It took much longer than it should have—plucky woman-fronted country is right up my alley. When I dove right into Spotify’s “This Is…” compilation a few months ago, it was love at first listen: friendship, fiddles, rebellion, and leaving home.

When I was 24, I became the first in four generations of my family to move out of Texas. There’s a reason people stay in Texas, particularly in Austin, “in the same ZIP codes where their parents live”: it’s a great place. But there had always been something calling me to the West Coast, and after college, I left. As Maines and her gals sing, “Said she could hear me singin’ in the choir / Me, I heard another song / I caught wind and hit the road runnin’ / And Lord, I’ve been a long time gone.”

I’m sure my Portland pals think I came by my Dixie Chicks love naturally. But really, I’ve taken the long way around. The Chicks were yet another casualty of my stubborn teenage refusal to listen to anything “uncool,” an affliction that lingered through my mid-twenties. Life is so much more melodic now that I’ve embraced my love for pop, boy bands, and yes, even country.

I wish I’d had the Dixie Chicks when I drove to Portland three years ago. I felt so aimless; the adventure of a lifetime was sitting right on my Prius’ dashboard, so why did I feel empty and scared? My new husband and I cycled through all our favorite playlists by about day two (Boulder, CO). What lay ahead of us? A Northwest city we’d never been to. Perhaps an apartment, but who could say. Perhaps jobs, but nothing was guaranteed. I wish I’d had “Wide Open Spaces” to pave my way Westward. I wish I’d had “The Long Way Around” to say what I couldn’t: “I could never follow.”

Moving got me in trouble in a million little ways. Finding a job was horrific. Portland? Not always what I thought it’d be. Each soggy, rainy day had me questioning everything. I hit the road looking for belonging and, three years later, I’ve never felt more adrift. As I began to devour the Dixie Chicks compilation a couple months ago, I quickly realized that they could relate.

Natalie Maines’ 2003 comment at the London concert got them blacklisted from country radio for years. The Chicks certainly weren’t the first women in country to dissent from conservative norms (see: Dolly, Emmylou, Shania, Reba, etc.), but in the Bush era, they became Undesirables #1-3. In a moment of staunch, gun-slinging patriotism, for which country radio tended to be an echo chamber, Maines and company diverged. The adventure and the running wild and the Wide Open Spaces led them somewhere they, perhaps, never intended to go, but for them, remained the only way that felt true.

In “Long Time Gone,” they sing, “Now they sound tired but they don’t sound Haggard, they’ve got money but they don’t have Cash” and if there’s anywhere that rings true, it’s Portland. The lack of charm, of soul, of personality here is jarring to me. I guess it’s something I always took for granted in Texas. As much as I wanted to get away from the Bible Belt, there are notes in Texas, in Austin, that simply ring clearer for me. I guess I had to leave to find that out.

But what if I’d stayed? It wouldn’t have felt true. I’ve always had a wild streak, a curiosity that tends to take the wheel. So I left in search of myself. Just like the Dixie Chicks, it’s the only road I know.

I still don’t really know I was looking for. But I did find this: there’s no particular city or coast or even open road that’s going to fill the home-shaped hole in your heart. Portland included. Texas included. Learning this doesn’t make the world any softer. But I hear my rocky journey westward sung back to me by my three new friends:

Well, I never seem to do it like anybody else
Maybe someday, someday I’m gonna settle down
If you ever want to find me, I can still be found
Taking the long way around

Maines has recently hinted that a new Dixie Chicks album (what would be their fifth studio release) is in the works. For now you can catch them live in New York on 12/12 at The Town Hall to benefit queer and trans youth, and in Austin at The Moody Theater with Gary Clark Jr. to benefit Voices for Justice.

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