The Central Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas (USA) turns into a concert hall during the annual South By Southwest Music festival, and on a Friday afternoon in mid-March, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks was doing her sound-check for a midnight show. It was an early steppingstone for her new solo career, a preview of songs from her debut album, “Mother” (Columbia), which is due for release this week.
With “Mother,” Maines puts a clear distance between herself and the buoyant, bluegrassy songs that made the Dixie Chicks far and away the best-selling female group in country music. As a member of the Dixie Chicks since she joined the group’s founding members — Martie Maguire and Emily Robison — in 1995, Maines has sold some 30 million albums in the United States alone.
But after lying low in recent years, Maines, makes her own statement with “Mother.” She recorded it with the band led by Ben Harper, a bluesy, socially conscious songwriter and slide guitarist, and it’s darker and more pensive than her sassy public image would have foretold.
Her bandmates — Maguire and Robison — who play the fiddle and the banjo, have remained close to country music. But with “Mother,” Maines has decisively left the genre behind.
Maines was in no hurry to make her album. “I caught up on a lot of just domestic normal everyday stuff,” she said, “and grew up a lot, and went to therapy, and did a lot of contemplating and figuring things out. I needed to just strip everything away and figure out who I am and get to know myself, as cheesy as that sounds.”
“Mother” grew into an album of largely moody, midtempo rockers; its title track is an anxiety-laden Pink Floyd song from “The Wall.” Maines also chose songs from Eddie Vedder and Patty Griffin, as well as “Come Cryin’ to Me,” which the Dixie Chicks wrote together in 2006. Through the album, the lyrics are filled with loneliness and the knowledge that loyalties can be sorely tested.
The centerpiece is Jeff Buckley’s “Lover, You Should Have Come Over,” nearly seven minutes of repeatedly cresting longing and regret. Although Maines didn’t write most of the album, her own lyrics are heard in the closing song, “Take It on Faith.” She sings, “I can be on fire, yeah I can hold my own/But inside I’m just a girl who’s scared to be alone.”
It’s an album of polished but rootsy rock, built on a band playing together in real time, that is getting its first exposure on a radio format.