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“We’re so happy to be making our debut here in Austin at Antone’s!” Emily Robison is addressing a packed crowd at the venerable blues club on the second night of the mobbed South by Southwest music festival. Robison and her sister Martie Maguire, two-thirds of the Dixie Chicks, are surrounded on the cramped stage by instruments galore – banjo, fiddle, mandolin, Dobro, and acoustic guitar – and backed by an ace band. Launching into a set featuring the twelve songs from their forthcoming eponymous album, the denim-clad siblings demonstrate not only the musical chops that made them stars, but exude the natural ease that comes from performing together since childhood. 

 

“Our mother keeps getting our new band name mixed up,” Emily says the following morning during an intimate performance in the lobby of Austin’s swanky Hilton Hotel. “She had finally gotten comfortable with the name the Chicks and now she keeps calling this one the Junkyard Dogs.”

The sisters formed Court Yard Hounds as a vehicle for Emily’s prolific songwriting following her divorce, after nine years of marriage, from fellow Texan singer-songwriter Charlie Robison. “I needed to be creative for my own sanity,” says Robison, adding that the breakup “was very fertile ground for writing.” She eventually penned 30 new songs. Restless to record and perform during the Chicks’ year-long hiatus, the sisters decided to cut some tunes at Maguire’s home studio in Austin. 

 

“It’s the girliest studio you’ve ever seen,” says Maguire about the cozy space that can be seen in the Hounds’ video for their catchy first single, “The Coast.” A perfect summer song, about a Gulf beach she and her ex frequented with their kids, came to Maguire in a flash. “I woke up one morning and I heard the melody in my head, and I went and wrote it in about an hour -- which is very not like me. It usually takes me a few weeks .... It was just so clear to me, it was more of painting a picture of this place. Everyone is familiar with the East Coast and the West Coast, but not so much the Texas Coast.”

Veering from bluegrass to folk, country to jangly rock (think Sheryl Crow meets Allison Krauss meets the Bangles), the new album sounds just as good at Antone’s as it does on disc – a sign of the spontaneous style in which it was recorded. Highlights both live and on CD include the lovely ballad “Skyline,” inspired by the view from Robison’s San Antonio loft. “See You in Spring” is a stirring duet with Jakob Dylan, who was “at the tippy top of our list to sing the song,” Robison says at Antone’s, as the porkpie-hat-sporting Dylan joins the sisters onstage. After a stunning “Spring,” he stays at the mic for an upbeat but ramshackle version of Rod Stewart’s “You Wear It Well.” When Dylan stumbles over the lyrics, he’s rescued during Maguire’s rollicking fiddle solo by a helpful fan who hands up a paper scrap with the lines scrawled in pen.

Maguire, sometimes switching mid-song from mandolin to fiddle, showcases at Antone’s not only her instrumental chops but her distinctive vibrato on the poignant “Gracefully,” her sole solo composition for the Hounds’ debut. Throughout the richly textured album, the sibling harmonies, ranging from Appalachian plaintive to girl-group perky to folky balladry, elevate each song, as do the personal, confessional lyrics. Barrelhouse piano propels “It Didn’t Make a Sound (“Go ahead and leave me darlin/ you won’t ever see me cryin’/ you won’t see my heart breakin’/ it didn’t make a sound”) into a raucous kiss-off. The lovelorn “I Miss You” features a weeping pedal steel, and “Fear of Wasted Time” delves into the dilemmas of motherhood (“I was raisin’ cain, now I’m raisin’ babies”).

The Hounds aren’t wasting time when it comes to the next few months. They’ll be touring the country as part of the Lilith Fair from late June into August. For the Summer Solstice, they’re taking the stage at the legendary Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which they first attended as fledgling pickers prior to forming the Dixie Chicks in Dallas in 1989 with Laura Lynch and Robin Macy. After Lynch and Macy’s departures, the group added the belting vocalist Natalie Maines, a Lubbock, Texas, native, and adopted a more polished country-pop rock sound. By 1998, the Dixie Chicks had reached the country stratosphere, eventually winning fourteen Grammys over the next decade. The Chicks were also the subject of Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple’s 2006 documentary “Shut Up and Sing,” which chronicled the career-threatening fallout surrounding Maines’ anti-Bush statements onstage in London in 2003.

 

Court Yard Hounds.

The Court Yard Hounds hearken back, though, to the sisters’ early, controversy-free days. “We’re really excited about playing Telluride and returning to our bluegrass roots,” says Maguire, who’s been recording an instrumental album of old-timey fiddle songs on her days off.

 

Maines, who divides her time between Hawaii and California, will be joining Maguire and Robison soon. In June, the Dixie Chicks will co-headline a high-profile stadium tour with the Eagles and Keith Urban, marking the trio’s first outing in four years. “When the opportunity arose, all three of us were really into it,” Robison told writer Steve Betts. “And the thought of being able to open up shows for the Eagles in stadiums, it's something we haven't been able to do yet -- to play venues that large in our own career.”

 Indeed, New Jersey’s Meadowlands is a far cry from tiny Antone’s. But size doesn’t matter when it comes to these veterans of the road. Up close and personal in a blues club or a speck on a stadium stage, Martie McGuire and Emily Robison will be doing what they clearly love most: playing music.  

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 112 - September 8689
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