Let’s get this out of the way right up front. The Court Yard Hounds, composed of sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, will always be linked to another group they’re a part of — the Dixie Chicks. Formed in 1989 with Laura Lynch and Robin Lynn Macy, they pared down to a trio with lead singer Natalie Maines. In this configuration, they won 10 CMA Awards and dominated Country Music from the late 1990s until 2006, when their ongoing recording hiatus began.
The story behind this hiatus is the stuff of Country Music history. In 2003, Maines uttered now-famous words at a concert in London to express displeasure over the impending second Gulf War: “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”
The furor over that comment ultimately forced the Dixie Chicks to close shop, mostly at the insistence of Maines. Though she officially apologized to the target of her ire, then-President George Bush, she received a death threat, among other negative responses. “Natalie said, ‘I need a break — and a long break,’” Maguire recalled.
After a few years off the road and away from recording cycles, the sisters declared it was time to continue the musical journey they had begun together in their youth. “We didn’t want to put pressure on Natalie,” Maguire said. “We just decided to shift gears.”
Robison and Maguire, who forged their family harmonies and instrumental virtuosity at an early age, released their self-titled Court Yard Hounds> in 2010. Their second album, Amelita, followed in July.
Jim Scott, who engineered the most recent Dixie Chicks album, Taking the Long Way, and produced both Court Yard Hounds albums, sees similarities between the two groups. “At no time with either the Dixie Chicks or the Court Yard Hounds did anyone talk about making a hit record, ever,” he said. “They want to be successful. They want to be in the game. They want to sell records for a living. They want to tour for a living. But these aren’t calculating people. These are humble, normal people that want to make great music.”
Of course, there is at least one significant difference. The Dixie Chicks featured Maines on lead vocals, and the sisters share the lead in the Court Yard Hounds. “Natalie has been a lead singer all her life,” Scott observed. “Martie and Emily have not been lead singers all their lives. They’ve been harmony singers. They’ve made only two records as lead singers. They’re still learning how to do that. If you would ask them what their Achilles heel is, they would say that’s it.”
Where their first album was in many ways influenced by Robison’s divorce from singer/songwriter Charlie Robison, Amelita touches on a variety of topics. Like a Lifetime movie, the title cut is inspired by a real-life incident. While shooting the Dixie Chicks video for “Long Time Gone” in the Mexican border town of Reynosa, the sisters noticed that there was a brothel across the street.
“We were naïve,” Maguire admitted. “Someone had to tell us what was going on. It was such a weird thing to be doing this video in this little town and to see that happen right next to you. We realized they were open for business. It just broke my heart.”
Ever hopeful, the sisters wrote the song imagining that the lead character could be rescued from her situation.
Other highlights of Amelita include “Phoebe” (Maguire, Robison and Martin Strayer), an eerie, fiddle-haunted rocker with a suicide theme, and the sarcastically titled single “Sunshine” (Strayer, Robison, Maguire, Jonatha Brooke and Alex Dezen), a portrait of a narcissist. Robison sings lead on most songs, but Maguire takes the spotlight on “A Guy Like You” (Strayer and Maguire). Deciding who will sing lead is easy, according to Maguire. “We always kind of naturally know,” she said. “We don’t fight over anything but clothes.”
Producer Scott says that whether Amelita is a Country record or not depends on the ears of each listener. “We talked about just making the best record that we could and coming up with the best songs,” he said. “We didn’t try to make a Country record. We certainly didn’t make a pop record. But it does kind of rock.”
Scott, whose credits include sessions with Tom Petty, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Wilco, among others, notes that working with moms Maguire and Robison is very different from working with rockers. “You’ve got to work around a mom’s schedule,” he said, with a laugh. “These aren’t rock star dudes that stumble in at noon and can work until 1 a.m. and drink Jack Daniel’s. They have responsibilities. They have to go to soccer games. They have to do drop-off and pick-up. They have work to do — real work.”
The sisters bristle at the suggestion that the Court Yard Hounds are a side project. Even so, they are back onstage with Maines for a series of Canadian dates throughout the remainder of 2013, with another North Country headline tour following in 2014.
By Ken Tucker
Used by Permission © 2013 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.