By Chris Azzopardi

Photos; Sony Music

Sitting somewhere with an abstract-art background obscuring her precise location, (Dixie) Chicks frontwoman Natalie Maines erupts into an explosive maybe-I-shouldn’t cackle during our Zoom call as she talks about how she’s about to get in trouble for saying too much. This time, it’s regarding a controversial decision made by country trio Lady A, formerly known as Lady Antebellum. After the band changed their name in solidarity with the current Black Lives Matter movement, they sued a Black blues singer named Lady A for the trademark to the title. And yes, Maines has something to say about that.

After all, this is Natalie Maines, who directed pointed criticism at then-President George W. Bush in 2003 at a London concert, when the Lubbock, Texas native said The Chicks were “ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.”

Country music blackballed them. Conservatives torched their CDs. The promo poster for the 2006 documentary about the fallout, Shut Up and Sing, depicted The Chicks sitting on top of the U.S. Capitol building, their half-naked bodies graffitied with words and phrases like “Dixie Bimbos,” “Traitors” and “Big Mouth.” In the 2020 doc Miss Americana, about Taylor Swift’s evolution into a vocal anti-Trump liberal and LGBTQ-rights advocate, Swift said she had been pressured to refrain from being politically and socially free-spoken to avoid a Chicks-like career implosion.

Returning after a 14-year recording hiatus, Maines, fortunately, still refuses to shut up on Gaslighter, the trio’s most authentic and unflinchingly personal album yet. Joined by sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, Gaslighter does exactly what Maines couldn’t during our interview (a prenup preempts her from doing so): detail her divorce from her husband, actor Adrian Pasdar, of 17 years with scathing lyrical specificity, the kind of wig-snatching realness the queer community devours. An honest album about survival, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

During our Zoom session, Maines discussed the post-controversy era of their career as the moment she noticed a major show of support from the LGBTQ community, the queer creators who nurtured the new album’s vibe, and the gays she’d party with on her boat. Yes, that boat.

Let’s start with a different personal journey you’ve taken. It involves you watching Vanderpump Rules. Tell me what led you down that road – a road so many gay men themselves have gone down.

Ha! Well, let me say, it’s a part of my pandemic TV binging. In the past, when I was sick, I was in bed all day and, “Oh, hey, I’ve never watched The Kardashians. But there’s a whole marathon. I’m gonna watch The Kardashians.” So I think with COVID, I’ve binge-watched shows I never would’ve binge-watched before, and Vanderpump Rules is a really good one, actually. I will continue to be a fan even after this pandemic! Ha!

You get to live vicariously through someone else’s drama.

I like drama at a distance! A big distance.

ForGaslighter, you worked with queer pop songwriter Justin Tranter and trans-woman producer Teddy Geiger. How did working with LGBTQ collaborators help to shape the authenticity of the album’s narrative?

They kind of play different roles, but yeah, the first song that we wrote for the album was with Teddy and Justin, and it was “Sleep at Night.” That (track) was a very different sound for us and that really excited me. That was all Teddy. She went to these electronic drums and just started with that beat, and the way that Justin and Teddy can both phrase things very percussively and put them in the song was a real lesson for me that I try to do now and perfect and get better at. So, yes, as far as where we could go with the sound, they were very much there. And Justin is such a great lyricist. He was definitely there to help us say what we wanted to say and tell. Ha!

Your producer, Jack Antonoff, once told me he was a straight guy with “lesbian chemicals.

He’s very in touch with his feminine side! I think that’s why he works so well with females. I have never asked him this, and he works with males too, but I wonder if he does enjoy working with females better. Or a lot of males just look at him as the female producer so they don’t ask him. Ha!

When we chatted in 2013 you told me Rachel Maddow would be your “lesbian girl crush.” Maybe your lesbian chemicals and Jack’s lesbian chemicals are what really made this collaboration work.

Ha! I don’t know. Because we all three got along great with him! He just has a sensitivity. He just doesn’t have that macho, masculine, jerk kind of thing. He’s got a healthy ego. He doesn’t need to build himself up by putting other people down or by holding them back. And he’s a great communicator, which women love. A lot of straight men are not! Ha!

You consulted different activist groups for the “March March” video, which features images from a Pride parade alongside footage from current Black Lives Matter protests. For the video, who did you consult from the LGBTQ community?

My friend Michael Skolnik, an activist and an organizer and a liaison for a lot of people (and the founding partner of The Soze Agency, a creative agency focusing on authentic campaigns that uplift compassion and equity), we consulted him for the “March March” video. One of the things he said was, “Have more from gay Pride marches.” He mentioned the (Black) trans march in Brooklyn (in June). He was like, “That was a huge march, so you should put that one in.” I’ve known Michael for a long time; he’s a great guy; he organized March for Our Lives (in 2018 in D.C.) that we all went to as well.

Also, I’m on these calls as part of a group called Harness (founded by America Ferrera, Wilmer Valderrama and Ryan Piers Williams, the group connects communities through conversation to inspire action and power change). They’ve been having a lot more Zoom calls, and I’ve been on a lot of those.

Harness brings all different walks of life together and supports diversity and Black Lives Matter, and White People 4 Black Lives and different trans and LGBTQ causes or groups. It’s a great place as just somebody who wants to speak out and hear and know as much as I can, and those calls are a great way to listen and not talk, and learn. Learn directly from the source.

Your relationship with the LGBTQ community goes way back, at least publicly. Have you always been a queer magnet?

I mean, I was always open to it. But growing up in Lubbock, Texas, I can think of people that I knew who were probably gay, but they weren’t out yet. I don’t even know if they knew that about themselves yet, necessarily. Lubbock was a very suppressive place.

But you would’ve guided them and held their hand through the coming out process.

I would’ve always been their friend, for sure. In Lubbock – I’m sure it’s different now, I’m an old lady, ha! – but back in the ’90s in high school, I can’t even think of somebody who was out-there gay. They might not have been trying to act straight but you just … you didn’t feel free like that. So I hope that’s changed in Lubbock. I have to assume it has. 

You know, I’ve asked some of our gay fans, “What is it that has drawn gay people to us?” Because I think after the controversy there was an extra kinship for just understanding what it feels like to be hated by a mass group of people. Ha! Then, them acting out on it. But then fighting for what you believe is right, and standing up for yourselves, and not letting them shush you. Before that, what my friends have told me was what gay fans liked was the over-the-top sort of Spice Girls fashion. Ha! We were the cliché for every fad! We wore every fad all at once!

You must’ve seen a lot of Chicks drag queens then, right?

Yes. “Chicks with Dicks” – there were a lot of those kinds of revues.

I think your divorce has maybe given some false hope to lesbians. On Twitter, I’m seeing queer women express that even though they love Gaslighter, they’ll always be sad that you’re not queer.

Ha! You know, sometimes I do think, “Would that have been easier? Darn it!” But I think I’m more of a gay guy on the inside. Is there a title for that?

For a straight woman who presents as a gay man?

Or just feels it on the inside!

Call Jack. I’m sure he has a good name for it.

Yeah, we probably meet right in the middle. I forgot the question!

It was about lesbians who are sad that you’re not queer.

Ha! I mean, we used to always joke that when I got the short hair, yeah, people liked to think that. But before that we always joked that lesbians seem to like Martie. Martie’s always dressed a little more gender-neutral. She likes pants. And listen, she’s got a great body, so (she attracts) all demographics. One time she flirted with Ellen on a red carpet.

Gay Twitter is obsessed with your boat, referenced on “Gaslighter” and then, of course, “Tights on My Boat.” And they want to party on that boat. If you could invite three famous LGBTQ folks to hang with you on your boat, who would they be?

Ha! I’m thinking of several. I’m gonna go with Andy Cohen, Howard Stern’s top gay. Goin’ with him. I also have the stress of: I’ll probably miss my favorite one because I’m just not thinking! I could go all news. I have to think in smaller categories.

You’re an Indigo Girls fan. How about Amy and Emily?

Yeah, there’d be some good music there. I could go, like, Anderson Cooper, Rachel Maddow and Don Lemon. There’s my three news people.

Wait. What about Fortune Feimster? I mean, you _did_ have a dance with her.

Love, love, love Fortune. See, that’s why I said you gotta go smaller categories! So if I had a comedy LGBTQ guest list it’d be: Fortune, Wanda Sykes … who else? Maybe Rosie or Ellen. Yeah. I could have a good time with either one of them!

Is Fortune a good dancer?

Fortune’s a good ice cream dancer. We did her first duo ice cream dance (in which they danced with ice cream in their hands). I had the honor of being the first person to do that. Ha!

The Chicks changed their name to meet the moment. The name change was subtle; there was no flashy press release. And you didn’t even have to sue a Black artist for the rights to the name. How do you think other bands have handled their approach to changing their name?

Listen, I think it’s unfortunate, yes. Bad move on the lawsuit. I think they should’ve rethought that. Just not a good look. And I say this with peace and love, but if they had called me for counsel – ha! – this is what I would’ve told them: I would’ve said, “Listen, by suing her, you’re doing the opposite of what you’re trying to do. And it’s not going to go well. And it’s just not the right thing to do. If you really want to meet this moment, if you’re changing your name for the right reasons or to really have a certain impact or outcome, then you are doing the opposite of that.”

And listen, we felt the pressure of, once you’ve had success, changing your name feels like a huge thing to overcome. We had had discussions about changing our name since 2003. But it seemed, just for whatever reason, too big a thing to do, and nobody was calling on us to do it. We just felt icky having Dixie in our name. Then, for us, we had to think of other names. We didn’t really want to have anything other than The Chicks, but we knew that that could legally be a really hard thing to get because it’s such a common word.

So we had lawyers, and we took our time. But even Lady Antebellum, or Lady A, they had that trademark for, like, six years. But I don’t know their situation. To me, if they were told nobody else had that name, they should fire that attorney. Ha! Because, basically, that was an easy thing to find. So I don’t know if (the attorney) knew and just thought, You’re bigger than them so you would win the trademark and you’ll be fine going forward. But it’s really not the right way to do it.

So, I think they should’ve just picked a brand-new name. That’s what I would’ve told them. Because they might’ve even had more fans, or made people recognize their name even more. I think the worry is, “Nobody’s gonna know who we are.” Like, maybe they missed the news story where you changed your name. Ha!

But I think that’s what they should’ve done. Brand new name. And they can still do it right now. That is my advice to them. And it feels amazing. I have to say, all of that discussion and overthinking and worry, like, “How do you change your name after so much success?” Oh my god, it was a gift. It was a weight that you didn’t even realize you were carrying.

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As editor of Q Syndicate, the LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.