Fishman Artist // Court Yard HoundsStrictly speaking, it’s only a few feet from stage left or stage right to the center spotlight. But it took Martie Maguire and Emily Robison a couple of decades to move those couple of yards. As the mainstays of the Dixie Chicks since they formed the group in 1989, the sisters have been familiar faces to many millions of fans, yet just a little mysterious in that familiarity, content as they were to cede the lead vocalist position and remain music’s most recognizable “sidewomen.” Chicks fans couldn’t help but hear those ever-present harmonies and wonder if Emily and Martie might ever come out from hiding in plain sight.
That’s just what they’ve done in their newly hatched incarnation as Court Yard Hounds, with a gorgeously assured debut album that has the siblings sounding like they’ve been fearless frontwomen all their lives. Is this band a side project? They can live with that label. Or something permanent? Yes, that, too.
Robison and Maguire could no sooner take an indefinite vacation from music than they could from being related. So as the mother band’s hiatus grew into a longer vacation than anyone originally anticipated, “dormant” began to equal “torment” for these two working musicians. The Dixie Chicks were last seen triumphing at the Grammys in early 2007, winning the exceedingly rare trifecta of album, record, and song of the year for Taking the Long Way and its flagship single “Not Ready to Make Nice.” Something else they weren’t ready to do was make records or tour again, at least for a long while, as it turned out. All three Chicks enjoyed family time away from the media glare—but after a while Maguire and Robison felt refreshed and rarin’ to go, which still left them one singer short of a quorum. The usually bold Maines’ reticence to put herself through the grind again had the effect of pushing her slightly shyer bandmates out of the nest.
“When Natalie first wanted to take a break,” says Maguire, “I remember this real fear in me, like: When are we getting back on the road? This is what I know! What will I do? I don’t have a college degree!” she recalls, laughing. Happily, rather than take night classes, they decided to school themselves in how to launch a new band. The Chicks haven’t disbanded, but Court Yard Hounds is no mere time-marker of a project. “Sony’s looking at this like an artist launch, and we’re looking at it like a new chapter in music,” Maguire avows. “We definitely are going to tour this and make another record. I know this isn’t just a one-time, get-it-off-our-chests, get-these-songs-recorded-and-go-back-to-our-lives thing.”
Although Maguire is the lead vocalist on her own solo composition, “Gracefully,” the remainder of the tracks feature Robison singing material that arose out of a profoundly transitional period in her professional and personal life. “The first year of our hiatus, I was getting very restless and needed to be creative for my own sanity,” says Robison. “And at the same time I was going through my divorce”—from Texas singer/songwriter Charlie Robison—“so it was very fertile ground for writing.”
The personal material that Robison was penning pretty well dictated what kind of album they would make. To the extent that anyone even knew the sisters were working on a new project, there were rumors that it might be a back-to-roots album, since they spent their teen years together in a bluegrass band and carried over a certain amount of that influence to the Chicks’ country-rock. It’s not such a preposterous notion; even Maguire thought it might be fun to revert back to the string-band music of their youth. “I remember one early conversation we had, where I said to Emily, ‘Well, do you want to form a bluegrass band?’ I was excited about that, because I’d been in my studio, recording a bunch of fiddle tunes from my past. And Emily said, ‘No, not exactly. That’s not where my head is.’” They both laugh at exactly how far away from that Court Yard Hounds ended up being.