There was no way around it: The room was half-empty.
The 2013 edition of South by Southwest was just getting underway as Natalie Maines stood onstage at Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater, sporting a brunette faux-hawk and holding an acoustic guitar.
Whole sections of the 2,750-capacity space sat devoid of bodies. Those who were in attendance chattered incessantly, glued to smartphones or loudly ordering drinks from the bar. The venues emptiness carried an almost oppressive weight.
Despite winning more than a dozen Grammy awards and selling more than 30 million albums worldwide as a member of country trio the Dixie Chicks, the 38-year-old Lubbock native looked for all the world like an unknown about to make her public debut.
She seemed nervous, says Fort Worth musician Justin Pate, who was onstage that night, playing keyboards. I know shes nervous being the frontwoman. Its all her.
The music began gone were the breezy, poppy country songs, replaced by something darker and tougher and for the next hour, the audiences indifference to Maines and her bandmates did not subside. If Maines had been joined at any point by Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, ACL Live at the Moody Theater would have erupted, ecstatic to see the Dixie Chicks performing once more.
But the only high-profile guests this night were Ben Harper and Maines father, Lloyd, who gave his daughter a reassuring hug as the musicians filed offstage. Apart from thanking the audience for listening, she scarcely spoke a word.
This is the price you pay for starting over.
A month later, a friendly and candid Maines reflects on her solo debut.
I just had a lot on my mind, trying to remember all of my guitar chords, she says by phone from her Los Angeles home. I dont know if its post-traumatic stress disorder [from] my mouth getting me in trouble before, [but] I do feel like I have less to say. I was really trying to absorb and take in the situation. Not only were there not a lot of people, but the people that were there, I was bothering their conversation.
Maines laughs she laughs easily and often after making that last point.
Yet, she understands that that first audience in Austin wont be the last such experience.
On Tuesday, Maines will end her professional indolence with the release of Mother, her debut solo album. Produced with Harper, these 10 tracks are largely covers everything from Pink Floyd and Patty Griffin to Jeff Buckley and Eddie Vedder that are resolutely, irrefutably rock songs.
While you can still hear the Texas grit in her voice, nothing else about Mother resembles anything Maines recorded with the Dixie Chicks.
At times, it can be discombobulating to hear her sing Pink Floyds Mother and Jeff Buckleys Lover, You Shouldve Come Over. But then you realize what an astonishing relief it is to hear Maines again, after such a long period with nothing but old Dixie Chicks albums to revisit.
She hasnt lost any of her potency. And, while she may be a bit more wary to speak her mind these days, she doesnt hesitate when asked why shes rolling the dice and going it alone. Why is she not going back to playing packed houses, on a national tour with the Dixie Chicks?
Why did she decide to work on a record more or less in secret, with a band of virtual strangers?
I really liked it, and I wanted people to hear it, Maines says, waiting a beat.
Ego, she adds, laughing again.
Strange and new
According to Maines, she never set out to make a record, rock or otherwise. It just happened.
I just liked it, she says. I think thats what kept motivating the whole process, going in each week. It kept going good.
The journey to a full-length album began in one-off sessions with Harper last summer, first focusing on the Pink Floyd cover, which originally appeared on the soundtrack to last years documentary West of Memphis, about the West Memphis Three case, a cause Maines passionately supports.
One night, around that time, Ben wanted me to come sing on a couple of his songs, and my family [husband Adrian Pasdar and their two children] was out of town, so I didnt have my normal excuse of Im busy, so I went with him and sang, Maines says. That was our first musical experience. When he got a studio on the west side of town, it was just kind of perfect. He had a big chunk of time off where he wasnt touring and so did his band, and they were up for just going in and seeing what would happen.
You do an album with Ben, its going to be something super-cool, says Justin Pate. Hes not really concerned with what the masses are going to buy. He just wants to put out a really good, honest product, and I think thats what Natalie saw in Ben.
Nevertheless, Maines proceeded with an abundance of caution. For the first time in years, she was making music with people other than her Dixie Chicks bandmates, and Maines was wary of doing too much too soon.
For one thing, its just weird to put yourself out there musically with people who are basically strangers, so its hard to commit when I didnt even know what we would sound like together, what would we create together, what would this sound be, she says. Pretty soon, I knew that wasnt going to be the worry.
Maines clicked with Harpers assembled group effectively his Relentless7 bandmates, minus Crowley native Jordan Richardson, who parted ways with Harper as recording for Maines album got underway and momentum began to build.
Natalie is an absolute nonconformist she is as punk-rock as anyone Ive ever known, Harper said in a statement. She has a uniquely gorgeous sense of melody, and she doesnt rest until she has brought out the best in herself and the people around her.
The pair began to accumulate material, and Maines, ever the free spirit, didnt even tell her record label, Columbia, she was working on something.
I like the freedom of making it about the music and not having anybody if the label knows or if a manager knows, you start getting the calls of, Oh, hows it going? she says. I just did not want any of that, so I kept it on the down-low.
It wasnt long before Mother was finished, and word began spreading that Maines was stepping back into the spotlight. There was a late-February performance at legendary Los Angeles club the Troubadour, and a pair of shows during South by Southwest, but at the moment, nothing is scheduled beyond the albums release. Maines says the peculiar inertia generally, album releases are accompanied by some manner of touring, however modest is due entirely to not knowing how this record will be received.
I think people just arent familiar with what the sound is and who I am on my own, she says. And I think a lot of people dont know my name they know the Dixie Chicks, but they dont know my name so I think theres going to be some months of really starting from scratch and trying to build an audience and a following, and learn who my audience is.
A humbling realization, and one that speaks to the scars left by Maines infamous 2003 comment during a London concert Just so you know, were on the good side with yall. We do not want this war, this violence, and were ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas. that permanently ruptured Maines and the Dixie Chicks relationship with country music fans.
Maguire and Robison have attempted artistic reconciliation of a sort, recording folk-tinged music and touring as Court Yard Hounds (the pairs 2010 debut has sold 500,000 copies to date, almost 2 million fewer copies than the Chicks Taking the Long Way). But Maines, who spent the ensuing years distancing herself from the country genre, has been mostly silent until now.
Its a topic that still engenders passionate discussion, particularly in the Dixie Chicks home state. Texas Monthly, in its April issue, explored the fallout Maines, her manager and her bandmates declined to comment for the magazine piece and arrived at the conclusion that the political and cultural imbroglio wasnt worth the loss of a forward-thinking country group.
Apart from a few spot festival dates in Canada and a KLRU benefit in Austin this month, the Dixie Chicks remain firmly on hiatus. (That said, Maguire and Robison are on Mother in spirit: The track Come Cryin to Me is left over from the Taking the Long Way sessions.)
The bands still together, were more just playing live, Maines says. Its hard with eight kids between the three of us and living in different cities. Musically, I do think its time for me to do this [ Mother]. Maybe in some way it will lead me back to being able to do country music again. Its not a genre of music that excites me at the moment, so its kind of hard to see us making a record.
Still, a decades passing hasnt entirely dulled the fury some fans felt. When asked about it, Maines offers a verbal shrug.
Its not that its not pleasant, and I know that its a reality I mean, please, its stuff that I would want people to ask about if I was on the outside, she says. So I totally get that, but I dont know that I have a whole lot new to say about it. I really dont give it any thought until I get asked about it.
Its amazing to me that its been 10 years. I cant believe its been 10 years.
Like starting over
A life can change dramatically in such a span of time, from being on top of the world to starting out all over at the bottom, from sold-out arenas to half-full clubs.
Natalie Maines doesnt know what awaits her as people outside her circle of friends and family start to hear the songs on Mother.
I still feel like the jury is out; I dont know if its going to connect with people, she says. Its going to be a surprise to me as well.
While such uncertainty must be thrilling on one level, it must be terrifying on another. If this attempt at a solo career falls flat, will she walk away from music altogether?
Maines is taking a calculated risk, and offering herself up as she says she truly is. Love her or hate her, Maines just wants you to hear her.
I feel like this time around [the music has] got to be a true representation of who I am, Maines says. I think the cats out of the bag anybody whos going to be there is definitely going to be there knowing what theyre in for as far as my personality and where I come from politically.
Others whove worked with Maines on Mother are cautiously optimistic: I think the song choices were awesome, says Pate, [and] to hear her singing some of those covers even though I didnt know her, I was proud.
Still, as Maines puts it, the whole enterprise just feels like starting over. Shes steeling herself for more half-empty rooms, and half-attentive audiences.
As she sang in Not Ready to Make Nice, Ive paid the price and Ill keep paying.
Being free is its own reward, and artistic freedom can sometimes cost more than going along with conventional wisdom. But Maines is through with concealing her true nature simply for the sake of expectations.
These are definitely all songs Im more naturally drawn to, Maines says of Mother. If I were to make a record all by myself, this is the record I would make. Now, definitely, Im hiding nothing.
Correction: Jordan Richardson left Ben Harper's band after recording Mother; his drumming does appear on the final album.