The Dixie Chicks have a definite aura these days - a mix of elation, wariness and fatigue that comes with newfound fame.
Their spunky first single, “I Can Love You Better,” is in the Top 20 of country music charts, and the group has been besieged by requests for performances and interviews. They’re doing their best to accommodate everyone, while trying to guard against being overwhelmed.
It’s too early to tell if the blond Texas trio named for a Little Feat song, “Dixie Chicken,” are at the beginning of a long string of hits or having their one shot of glory.
“The shows are a lot better and bigger,” said Emily Erwin, 25. “Our crowds have quadrupled. And a lot of it is fans our age that we feel like we want to relate to and can relate to.”
The Dixie Chicks are not overnight sensations. Erwin and her sister, Martie Seidel, 28, played everything from street corners to clubs to David Letterman’s lobby for nine years, trying to get noticed. Their fortunes changed when lead singer Natalie Maines quit college and agreed to join the group in 1995.
Erwin and Seidel formed the Dixie Chicks with vocalists Robin Macy and Laura Lynch in 1989. They started out wearing Western outfits and singing campy cowboy music. Their first album was titled “Thank Heavens for Dale Evans.”
Once, they drove from Dallas to New York City, determined to catch Letterman’s attention.
“We played on the street all day to get enough money to pay for the hotel room that night,” Seidel said. “Then we took our instruments and played in David Letterman’s lobby, because we wanted to be on the David Letterman show. That’s how we thought you did it.
“Little did we know we’d get thrown out,” she said, as the other Chicks laughed. “It’s that way of doing things that I think has gotten us where we are. It made us stick with it. It’s an adventure. It’s not a job to us.”
They recorded two more albums before asking Maines to replace Macy and Lynch.
Maines is the daughter of noted Texas steel guitarist and producer Lloyd Maines, who had an unsuccessful foray into the Nashville music business in the 1980s with The Maines Brothers Band.
“My dad played on their second two albums,” said Maines, 23, “so I heard their albums.
“I’d go to their shows. The most interesting thing to watch was these two girls (Erwin and Seidel) tearing up their instruments like any man out there, you know?”
After Maines arrived, the band decided to try for the big time in Nashville.
“We’d visited Nashville before, but it was never really an active dream,” Seidel said. “When Natalie joined the group, it was very obvious to us that it could really be a commercial success.”
Maines was the charismatic lead singer Seidel and Erwin needed to complement their prowess as harmony vocalists and musicians. Seidel plays fiddle and mandolin, while Erwin specializes in banjo and dobro guitar.
The Dixie Chicks have put their cowboy music and bluegrass roots on the back burner and shifted toward mainstream country. Sony signed the band last year as the first act on the revived Monument Records. In its heyday the label put out records by Kris Kristofferson, Roy Orbison and Dolly Parton.
“Because we already could make a living on our own, there were certain things that we were able to be adamant about,” Maines said. Foremost was that Seidel and Erwin not be replaced on their album by Nashville musicians.
“We came in thinking, ‘They’re not going to let us, we’re going to fight them the whole way,”’ Maines said. “It wasn’t like that. We were pleasantly surprised.”
Nashville producers Paul Worley and Blake Chancey did get the Chicks to try more sophisticated harmony arrangements, and convinced them that they didn’t have to crowd lots of hot instrumental licks into every song.
The resulting album was titled “Wide Open Spaces,” in honor of the new approach and how the Chicks see their future.