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Dixie Chicks Side Project Court Yard Hounds Debut At SXSW

by Whitney Pastorek for Entertainment Weekly
“It was mellow until about 5 minutes ago,” said a man to my left, mid-jostle, as the wide floor of Antone’s became a no-moving zone late last night. The spectacular Americana Music Association SXSW showcase had been rolling since 8 p.m., with expert sets from Jim Lauderdale, Elizabeth Cook, and Hayes Carll, plus special guests Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller — all of whom deserve posts of their own. But when the clock struck 11, the walls began to split at their seams as half of Austin packed in to see the debut of the Court Yard Hounds, a.k.a. Emily Robison and Martie Maguire of the Dixie Chicks.

It’s the most anyone’s really seen of the sisters since Taking the Long Way swept the Grammys in 2007; the pair said they’ve embarked on the project after getting restless waiting for third Chick Natalie Maines to be ready to run again. Their self-titled debut doesn’t hit stores until May 4, but when Robison and Maguire took the stage in front of a five-piece band, flashed calm, confident smiles, and began the harmony-soaked “Delight (Something New Under the Sun)” without ceremony, their music already felt broken in, and the room swelled with attentive joy. “We only have an hour, so we’re going to try and get as much music in as we can,” said Robison. Besides a quick San Antonio joke later on, it was almost all the talking she’d do.

Robison handles most of the frontwoman duties in this new iteration, and her voice shares a frequency with Sheryl Crow circa Globe Sessions. The songs also share Crow’s laid-back California vibe, with a thick helping of Texas kick in crabby rocker “Ain’t No Son” (whose kiss-off lyrics led Robison to joke, “We’ll let y’all figure that one out later”), and road-trippin’ first single “The Coast” (not East or West: Texas Gulf). The sisters grew up as bluegrass prodigies, and can handle pretty much any stringed instrument with ease: Maguire has added viola to her repertoire, and its thick, mournful drone filled “Skyline” with sadness; Robison’s dobro appeared for set closer “It Didn’t Make a Sound.” Jakob Dylan joined the ladies on stage for “See You in the Spring,” the duet he sings with Robison on the record, then stuck around for a hilarious/awesome cover of Rod Stewart’s “You Wear It Well,” needing a gaff-taped scrap of crib sheet to make it through the third verse. But despite the Son of Bob’s behatted presence, the mesmerizing part of “See You in the Spring” was hearing Robison’s simple fingerpicked banjo at the top, then watching Maguire effortlessly toggle between violin and mandolin through the verses, the same placid smile she wore during Chicks shows never leaving her face.

Honestly, the word that kept coming to mind for the entire hour was “effortless”: if Robison and Maguire are nervous to leave their sidewoman safety, they barely betrayed it. Maguire takes lead vocals on a ballad called “Gracefully,” and there may have been a quiver in her voice until her sister came in behind her with the harmonies. Robison tends to close her eyes when she sings, but that seems more out of peace than fear. Despite years of playing sold-out arenas, the pair seemed thoroughly content to be on the tiny Antone’s stage, with amateur photographers at their feet snapping away for the entire hour, and drunks yapping through the quiet parts. The set finished with what looked to be a unison exhale, then a hug and a proud rub on the back from Maguire to Robison, who bid the crowd farewell with “Thanks. Y’all made us feel so welcome.” The happy room shouted back its thanks in return.

A deeper assessment of the void created by the hysterical ostracization of the Dixie Chicks can be tackled by someone on more than five hours of sleep; all I know is that Maguire and Robison are powerfully talented women, and what they do — to borrow an album title — feels like home to me. I’m pretty sure most of the folks squeezed around me at Antone’s last night would agree, but I’m just basing that on their sloppy smiles. When the AMA emcee reclaimed the mic, he repeated the evening’s catchphrase: “Writers who can write, singers who can sing, players who can play. That’s Americana.” Whatever it is, it felt necessary, like something that’s in short supply. And between this newly minted (lifetime-in-the-making) duo and the just-announced Chicks mini-tour, it’s nice to know the universe will soon be getting a bunch of whatever it is back.

SXSW Review: The Court Yard Hounds

Anticipation ran high leading up to the SXSW public debut of the Court Yard Hounds, the new project spearheaded by Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, the two sisters who co-founded the Dixie Chicks, lo these many years ago.

But the anticipation at Antone’s Thursday night was unaccompanied by expectations. The album wasn’t out, only a few snippets of music were available on the CYH Web site, the band had not played in public and, most importantly, for all their years onstage, neither Maguire nor Robison had ever set foot in the center stage spotlight. What to expect?

Those cynics who thought the Court Yard Hounds might be a vanity project designed to breathe some air into careers stuck on high center since their Grammy sweep in 2007 obviously don’t know the Dallas-born sisters. The duo has always been the backbone of the Chicks, which has had three lead singers (Robin Macy, Laura Lynch, Natalie Maines). They have the dogged work ethic of coal miners and the musical chops to enable them to strike out in any direction they choose.

So while the fiddle, Dobro and banjo in evidence at Antone’s on Thursday night might have sounded a familiar chord to Chicks fans, the music was more diverse, and the lyrics more personal than any the duo has essayed in the past. As has been noted, much of the new material, including (one surmises) “Miss You,” “Didn’t Make A Sound,” “Gracefully” and “Then Again” arose as a consequence of Emily Robison’s divorce from singer/songwriter Charlie Robison.

The bluegrass instrumentation notwithstanding, the Hounds’ sound was a full-throated affair, boasting martial rhythms, soul-laden organ riffs and (on “Miss You”) a lissome, sophisticated interplay of keyboards, lead guitar and fiddle. And while neither Robison nor Maguire boast the kind of afterburner pipes that Maines makes full use of, their harmonies are one of those organic wonders that only shared DNA can create.

Apart from the frisson of hearing the new material for the first time, fans got a couple of lagniappe treats: Jakob Dylan (who sang on the album) made a guest appearance for “See You In the Spring,” and the band — Dylan included — tore it up in a ragged-but-right cover of Rod Stewart’s “You Wear It Well.”

Which is, in fact, how Maguire and Robison wear their new roles. The Dixie Chicks are still a going concern — they will tour with the Eagles and Keith Urban this summer —but the Court Yard Hounds are clearly a dog that will hunt.

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