After the June release of the twelve-track Playlist collection, fans were left wondering if a more complete Dixie Chicks anthology would be issued. That question is answered in the affirmative with this thirty-track 2-CD set that includes all six of the group's Country chart toppers, and fourteen (of seventeen) top-ten hits spanning all four of their studio albums on Sony imprints. That's nine years compressed into two hours over which the trio proves themselves consistently original interpreters of unerringly picked material, occasional contributors of original songs, and by the time of Taking the Long Way, writers with their own voice. The group's sound has often been imitated, but none of their followers have balanced the vocal blend, material, instrumental chops and attitude that makes this group one-of-a-kind.
Earlier female acts like Shania Twain tilted the Nashville axis towards pop, but the Dixie Chicks re-energized the Country empowerment handed down by Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn. The trio wasn't shy of being feminine, but they always led with their music. They didn't smooth out their twang, instead highlighting their fiddle and banjo, and arraying their voices in three-party harmonies. Better yet, the more famous they became, the more they indulged their Texas roots. Rather than taking every crossover opportunity, they let the quality of their music draw more people into the tent. Their songs were liberated, bawdy, touching, emotionally complex and down-to-Earth, paralleling the tumult in their marriages and the growth they experienced as they ascended, sometimes against resistance, to stardom.
Among the most gratifying aspects of the group's success is their conquering of the mainstream while simultaneously promoting the works of superb, non-mainstream songwriters like Darrell Scott, Patti Griffin, Gary Louris and Bruce Robison. It's no surprise that their records sounded different than their Nashville peers, as much of the material was created by outsiders whose thoughtful songs weren't written by appointment. Sonically, the band also leaned on talent from beyond Music Row, with ace steel player (and Natalie Maines' dad) Lloyd Maines and studio svengali Rick Rubin each taking a turn in the producer's chair. Oddly, this double-CD set portrays the group in reverse chronological order, opening with eight tracks from the Rubin-produced Taking the Long Way, adding seven cuts from the stripped-down work of Home, eight tracks from Fly, six from the Sony debut Wide Open Spaces, and closing with "I Believe in Love" from Home.
It plays well, but for those just meeting the Dixie Chicks, it's a strange choice to replay the group's history backwards. Fans are likely to own the four original albums, and without any new or previously unreleased material (or tracks drawn from outside the four core albums), this collection is really targeted at those who didn't take the ride the first time. Love it or hate it, summing up an artist's core material is the Essential collection's mission - they're not bonus-laden box sets for fans. That said, the absence of three top-ten hits ("Cold Day in July," "If I Fall You're Going Down With Me," and "Some Days You Gotta Dance" from 2000 and 2001) and several other fan-favorite chart singles leaves this as "most of the essential" rather than an authoritative rendering. Bang for the buck, though, it's still a great introduction to the band; for the new initiates, a quick reprogramming of the track list is recommended. 4-1/2 stars, if allowed fractional ratings.