With the Dixie Chicks on a longer than expected hiatus, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire had a choice--wait to reunite in the studio with Natalie Maines (who was in no hurry to record), or take a batch of songs that had been accumulating, dust them off, and try them on as a duo. Choosing the latter, Emily and Martie invented Court Yard Hounds, a rootsy alter ego that gave the duo a much needed creative outlet. "I was getting very restless and needed to be creative for my own sanity," wrote Emily in a press release. "At the same time, I was going through my divorce, so it was a very fertile ground for writing."
That fertile ground takes on many locations, the first within a city where one can literally rise above it all. "I just look at the skyline--a million lights are looking back at me," the duo sings as they begin to map out Court Yeard Hounds' folky, rootsy territory. In "The Coast," we get another refuge of the heart defined as "Blue skies, green water, white birds in the air," another place where one can find relief in an almost Dave Edmunds rock-a-country setting.
These Hounds also bite, so not every song is sensitive. Some flirt with punch and a mission. "Delight (Something New Under The Sun)" rocks its "take a chance on me" all the way to the end section's time signature change which, yeah, shows the ladies admirably trying something new under the sun. And our first glimpse of scary backwoods (musically, in the toxic fiddle intro, then lyrically) comes in the nasty rocker "Ain't No Son" as in "you ain't no son of mine" whose story line gets washy in a very cool way. Is our hero a heroine? Gay? A freak? Doesn't matter, read into it what you will. This court yard is also yours to prance interpretively about.
The album's Americana highlight is "See You In Spring" featuring Jakob Dylan as the dude who's trying to keep his relationship on despite being told it's off... kind of: "Honey, your Summer is nothing but prison, it drives me away." Well, he can always visit San Antone where our lovely Hounds say they'll be riding out the emotional storm. "Fear Of Wasted Time" will get you where your insecurities are, it nailing the concept to which all fall victim. "April's Love" is the most personal recording on the album, its vocals, guitar, sudden violin, and eventual rhythm section breeze around with the kind of freedom that's yearned for in the lyrics.
The best song on the album could be "Fairytale" since it is achingly blunt about where our lead character is heading: "Every girl wants a fairytale, I guess I did too, we're restless, we're young with so much to prove." Of course, we know that happily-ever-after never comes, so don't look for a Brady Bunch ending here. Court Yard Hounds have written and recorded this piece so well that the small town girl with seemingly no choice is interchangeable with Carly Simon's not-so-liberated cosmopolitan in "That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be." And though Emily is the main writer on almost every song, "Gracefully" shows Martie scripting with the same dramatic pen: "You? You want to stay; baby, I wish you would go...we were no good together, we settle like oil and water."
Court Yard Hounds was produced with a smart eye on the console by Emily, Martie, and Jim Scott, and the mixes and production are so clean and under-wrought that you might recheck the credits to make sure T-Bone Burnett wasn't involved for real. The musicians are all pros too, with Martin Strayer on guitars and piano, J.J. Johnson on drums, George Reiff on bass, Audley Freed on even more guitars, Greg Leisz on steel, and Mike Finnigan on organ and additional piano. This whole filed trip just proves that even though Emily and Martie refer to themselves as kind of a "baby" band (see the below interview), these Hounds have traveled too many miles together making great records to suddenly get it wrong now. It would be nice to have a new Chicks album sooner than later, but Court Yard Hounds is an exceptionally fine possible one-off that strangely makes the case for two being every bit as equal to three.
Start Here: "Skyline," "See You In The Spring" with Jakob Dylan, "Ain't No Son," and "Fairytale"
2. The Coast
3. Delight (Something New Under The Sun)
4. See You In The Spring - duet with Jakob Dylan
5. Ain't No Son
7. I Miss You
9. April's Love
10. Then Again
11. It Didn't Make A Sound
12. Fear Of Wasted Time
A Conversation With Court Yard Hounds' Emily Robison & Martie Maguire
Mike Ragogna: I interviewed Jakob Dylan a few weeks back, and he talked enthusiastically about your new project. What started this new album?
Emily Robison: I sent Martie songs because I trusted her opinion, and I just wanted to get some feedback. I thought, at the time, I was going to pitch these songs to other people. She just kept reacting so positively to them, being a great cheerleader for them, so that's kind of when the talks started about doing the project. You know, I think despite our nature of being brutally honest with each other, we overwrote, then were able to weed out songs that didn't necessarily make the cut. It's a luxury we don't always have as far as having too much material. But I think a sound and a direction, all of that, comes naturally as you're making the album.
MR: Why were some songs left off the project?
ER: If a song isn't making the cut, it presents itself that way, and you just have to say, "Okay, well let's work on this one." You find yourself wanting to work on the ones that excite you the most, and that kind of is the cream that rises to the top. It's very bizarre.
MR: Well, the "sound" you've embraced is more rootsy than your Dixie Chicks material.
Martie Maguire: I think that's from the nature of how we grew up, the kind of music we played, and the fact that Emily is a banjo player and a dobro player. You take a song like "Fear of Wasted Time" and that could sound like an Eric Clapton song until you put the dobro on it. Then, all of a sudden, your mind goes to Alison Kraus & Union Station, you know what I mean? It's just one color that you add to the song through one blue-grassy instrument, and all of a sudden it's the sisters, the early days of us playing together. So, I agree with you that because these were songs Emily wrote herself, for the most part, and we grew up in a certain place and time, we were around a certain kind of music, that's going to creep into that.
MR: Dixie Chicks music really isn't all that distant a cousin from CYH's brand, though the new album appropriately rocks a little less and has less country-pop.
MM: Natalie was the most country to start with, being from Lubbock. You know, she had more rock sensibility. I think she really wanted to play rock music but she paired up with these sisters who were from the Northeast but were playing bluegrass music in Texas. (laughs) It's kind of a strange phenomenon.
MR: But it was always the music you made that mattered and your unique blend.
MM: That was our compromise. That was where we met in the middle with kind of her sensibilities and our sensibilities, not that it's just us.
MR: It seems that in your production, your sonic values are so organic that you knew what you wanted when you went into the studio.
ER: It was very oddly easy. I think just by the nature of having one less person's opinion or input--and to put on top of that that we're sisters and we grew up basically in parallel lives--musically, I think the decisions were almost unconscious. There was never a lot of discussion about which way to go on some things. You know, we'd hash things out every once in awhile, but really it was very quick and easy decision making just because we were very much on the same page.
MR: You got to test the car out at South by Southwest. What did that experience give you?
MM: That new car smell. (laughs) That was awesome. I think your home turf is the hardest to play. We grew up in Dallas, she's now in San Antonio, I'm in Austin, so it was home turf. I remember during sound check, all these old blast from the past faces showed up. This mandolin player that used to play in the bluegrass band with our old lead singer and different co-writers we used to write with way back in the early Chicks days. I didn't know what to think seeing these people. They just kept saying the same thing, not knowing the others were saying it too, and that was, "We're so glad you're making music again. We really missed you." And that seemed to kind of be the overall quote of the day.
MR: Your fans got a scare because of the hiatus. It must have been very sweet for you to hear that.
MM: We just felt so much support and we've always kind of...I don't know, we like to think we've stayed very grounded. Even amidst the success the Dixie Chicks have had, we don't forget where we came from. And we don't forget all those horrible gigs.
MR: No way you played horrible gigs.
MM: Our manager actually carries around a picture in his wallet, and it's of us playing in a Tom Thumb grocery store in Dallas for a Pillsbury bakeoff. He says if we ever get too big for our britches, he'll pull out the Pillsbury bakeoff picture. He pulled it out the other day, not because we were being... (laughs)
MR: ...I have to see that picture!
MM: You know, we liked that we were a working band for so many years because you never forget where you started, when you really do kind of scratch your way up from the street corner literally.
MR: I think that comes with being honest with your music, your personalities, and your beliefs. I personally want to thank you as Dixie Chicks for being practically the only voices of reason out there when this country wasn't allowed to speak. Seriously, you were national heroes for giving a voice to what a very timid and bullied majority was feeling. You truly were patriots.
MM: Thanks, we liked that time in our careers. So many people, often times, felt sorry for us. But you know? That was like the best time because you felt so great, you just felt so full of fire. Number one, to just be standing by your best friend with something so innocuous that they said that was creating such a firestorm, it felt really good to support her. But also just sticking by what you believe in and watching all the craziness. You know, one day we're going to teach our kids, though our kids our pretty young still. I want them to watch the documentary, I want to teach them about what was going on in the world at that time. I think that's a big part of our history.
MR: Yeah, it's a big part of this country's history. Now, on the new project, the songs' topics do seem to be more about challenged relationships than on any of your previous albums. Still, there's a subtext or alternate interpretation to many of the compositions, especially when you look at a song like "Skyline." That also seems to reinforce just how NOT alone any of us really are.
ER: You're very right. And it's kind of like I wasn't the only one to ever go through a divorce, it does kind of represent this. I don't know, it's just that other people have done the same thing. That gave me peace. It helped me not feel so sorry for myself.
MR: I'm sorry you had to go through that. The Jakob Dylan duet, how did that come about?
ER: You know it was just a song that, as I was writing it, I wanted as a duet. I just heard this particular melody, and my co-writer, Mark Strayer, had this guitar part. For some reason, I always in the "back and forth," and I didn't know whether it would be me and Martie, or whether it would be male/female. I didn't know what it would be. When it did end up being a male/female song, we made a short list and Jakob was at the top of that list, and he happened to say yes. It's nice to be able to call up someone who's that busy--he's got five kids--and who's as famous in his own right as he is, and the answer is just, "Yeah, I'll come over." And two weeks later he's in the studio, once again, one of the perks of coming off a successful band. (laughs) If he didn't know who we were, he probably would have said no. We don't feel like we're a baby, baby band.
MR: And Court Yard Hounds has much in common with Jakob's album in that you just let the music breathe.
ER: We love his new album. We've been listening to it while we're getting ready for things--like doing hair or makeup. It's really our own like quiet time of the day, and it's just so wonderful. Every song is growing on me more and more. I have all these new favorites every time I listen to it. I think it's great.
MR: That's the problem with a good album. Kind of like yours. My personal favorites shift from day to day, and right now, I'm lovin' "The Coast" a lot. By the way, which coast are you talking about?
ER: The Texas coast.
MR: Right. Clearly, it was my L.A. snobbery assuming it was ours.
MM: (laughs) But it can be whatever coast you want!
MR: Thank you on behalf of the attention-span challenged. You mentioned you had some leftover songs when you recorded. What happens to the tracks now?
ER: Well some just became extra tracks, they will be out there. Other ones, we're not necessarily giving up on, they just need to either go back to the drawing board a little bit or they just weren't recorded right. There's one I love, but we just tracked it too slow. I think if we sped it up and added some new life to it, I think it would be a killer song. And we might try them out live, work them into the set and see what people are reacting to and what stands the test of time.
MR: Can your leftover songs be pitched to other acts?
ER: It's really hard to write personal songs. I'm not good at writing ditties because as far as writing hit songs that you pitch to the national artist. I just don't write that way.
MR: Yeah, sometimes the marketing of songs can make a creative artist feel like he or she is on an assembly line. What do you see as Court Yard Hounds' future?
MM: Goodness. I think, when we're ready, to make another (album). It's such a positive experience. I remember some of the guys that we played with before were in this band and they just said, "You guys just seem so happy." I think we were just smiling and laughing a lot and really were happy! I don't know whether it was the four years off and finally getting back to what you're doing. So, for right now, I feel like this is all I want to do. I'm excited to play the Chicks dates in June, and that's going to be really fun. But I just can't wait to write some more and get in the studio again and get out on Lillith Fair. It's hard to take more than a few months at a time to know what you're going to do next. But I definitely feel like we've got lots of albums to make.
ER: We talked about touring after Summer and promoting overseas, so that takes up a lot of the Fall, and maybe we're coming back and doing more dates in the fourth quarter in the States. Then come 2011, I could see either going back into the studio or continuing to play dates and write. We're taking a whole year to promote this, but I think simultaneously, we would enjoy going back in and taking some of these other songs and finishing them or writing some new ones. We're mixing it up. We're trying to rethink the way that we do stuff 'cause it doesn't have to be "Okay, we plant ourselves in one place and we write a whole new album and record a whole album and that takes nine months." I think we can do it in pieces to where we can really enjoy all of it at the same time.
Follow Mike Ragogna on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ragz2008