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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: The Chicks, “Goodbye Earl,” and the Story of Women in Country Music

The latest episode of ‘60 Songs’ explores the trio’s massive hit from their diamond-selling album ‘Fly’ with an assist from fiddle prodigy and acclaimed singer-songwriter Amanda Shires

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Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for 30 more episodes to try to answer those questions. Join Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free on Spotify. In Episode 76 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re exploring “Goodbye Earl” by the Chicks with the help of fiddle prodigy and acclaimed singer-songwriter Amanda Shires.

I have written at this point what feels like hundreds of cute little blogs complaining about how hostile modern country radio is to female artists. Women get like 10 percent of country radio plays, if that; it’s cartoon-supervillain shit, if cartoon supervillians owned country-radio stations, which apparently they do. And I’ve read what feels like thousands of impassioned and exasperated articles and books about this, and this He-Man Women-Haters vibe in country radio now is so entrenched that it’s a terrible cliché, so much so that complaining about or even mentioning the cliché is itself a cliché at this point. Plus the guy, that radio-expert knucklehead who said that women were the tomatoes in the country radio salad, men were the lettuce, and should thus be the majority of the salad and women should be sprinkled in sparingly like tomatoes—just a mystifying image—this is the debacle otherwise known as Tomatogate, he said that in 2015, I’ve read 8 billion articles about it, and I still haven’t processed the Men-as-Lettuce concept.

But nonetheless this moment, late ’90s country music, at least in imperfect retrospect, is held up now as a glorious and bountiful Garden of Eden–type paradise for female country superstars, such that two of those superstars could have a colossal hit with two different versions of the same song. So think Adam and Eve, before Adam got a backward baseball cap and hooked up with Nelly and bought a comically oversized pickup truck he couldn’t see over the hood of and started singing exclusively about his barefoot ripped-blue-jean beauty queen, while Eve got kicked off the radio and banished to the Much Tinier Garden of Americana.

Don’t let me fixate on this. I know you can’t stop me now, but maybe if you hit the “15 seconds back” button a whole bunch of times it will reverse the rotation of the earth and prevent me from ever having said any of that. Ugh. If we accept the imperfect notion of the late ’90s as this halcyon era for the LeAnns and Trishas and Faiths and Shanias and Deanas and Chelys and Rebas of the world, then “Goodbye Earl” is, if not the proverbial Apex Mountain of this era, then at least it’s tremendously important as a moment when the Chicks, to use a very 2022 phrase, chose violence. “Goodbye Earl” does not have an outrageous, inflated, Con Air–type double-digit body count, no. But a body count of one is a great start when Earl is the one.

The malevolent glee of this chorus, man. “Goodbye Earl” is a murder ballad all the more chilling for its not being a ballad and also its relentless and almost disturbing aura of silliness. It’s infectious. The full Chicks saga, spanning roughly 1990 to the present day—primarily the late-’90s-and-beyond superstar Chicks lineup of Natalie Maines on lead vocals, Emily Strayer (as she’s now known) on banjo and various other stringed instruments, and Emily’s sister Martie Maguire (as she’s now known) on fiddle and so forth—this saga exemplifies seven of the Eight Basic Plots, namely Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. Today we will mostly sidestep the Tragedy and Rebirth portions of this saga, and if you don’t have any idea what I might be referring to, awesome. Mostly we’ll stick with the Overcoming the Monster plot—in the early Chicks saga, of course, the monster is embodied by the stuffy, venal, unimaginative, chauvinist, artistically and emotionally bankrupt, timid, soulless, cheese-dicked nincompoops of Music Row. Can we listen to just a little more LeAnn Rimes first, though? You mind?

I didn’t think you’d mind. LeAnn Rimes, native of Jackson, Mississippi, was 13 years old when her blockbuster Curb Records debut album Blue catapulted her to invasive stardom in 1996. Her dad—generally her parents seemed pretty supportive—her dad threw her demo tape of the song “Blue” in the trash because he thought it sucked, but LeAnn fished it back out of the trash and added the yodel. Personally, I think a 13-year-old who can sing the word blue like that can handle the emotional complexities of Con Air. Dig the yodeling, man. This song’s called “Cattle Call.”

There’s a great, wacky scene in the 1998 book Dreaming Out Loud: Garth Brooks, Wynonna Judd, Wade Hayes, and the Changing Face of Nashville, by the reporter Bruce Feiler, where Bruce is in the back of a limo with 14-year-old LeAnn Rimes heading to the Country Music Association awards, the CMAs, with an Entertainment Tonight reporter in tow and LeAnn’s parents sometimes jogging alongside the limo like Secret Service agents. And LeAnn’s talking about how she’s modeling her career after Reba McEntire, and LeAnn’s mom (generally her parents seemed pretty supportive) is making benign but age-inappropriate remarks about her daughter’s attractiveness, and LeAnn argues with her mom about whether or not she can have a boyfriend, and LeAnn surprises Bruce the reporter by using hardcore music-industry jargon like “EPK” and “rack jobber”—rack jobbers help put CDs and shit in grocery stores etc., get ahold of yourself—and LeAnn just says, “I love to do this, but it’s basically like a job to me. I’m around adults all the time. That’s basically who all my friends are. I have no friends my age.”

Then LeAnn gets to the CMAs and loses something called the Horizon Award (it’s Best New Artist, basically) to a guy named Bryan White, though don’t worry, in ’97 she won the actual Best New Artist Grammy, and she’ll win the Horizon Award at next year’s CMAs, even if she loses Female Vocalist of the Year to Trisha Yearwood and Blue loses Album of the Year to George Strait. All of which gives you some idea of the delightful and terrifying personal and professional chaos a 14-year-old can unleash when she can yodel like this.

Talking to the rad journalist and author Marissa Moss in 2021 for Rolling Stone, LeAnn Rimes said, “There’s a way that country music places women on this pedestal—like I was this otherworldly angel child, the way people perceived me. And anything outside of that, any kind of humanity or sexuality or rowdiness or just being a woman, would never have been welcomed in country music.” “How Do I Live” made LeAnn Rimes even more bonkers famous, and she continued to put out great albums and do startling and fantastic work—she can sing the hell out of Patsy Cline, for one thing—but she also dealt with tabloid invasiveness, industry-type legal battles (including with her father), the usual proverbial bullshit Rumors That She Was Difficult to Work With, and finally a full-blown infidelity scandal in 2009. She had an affair with the married actor Eddie Cibrian after they met on the set of a Lifetime movie; LeAnn and Eddie both divorced their spouses and are still happily married, by the way, but they were both denounced by the tabloids at the time, and LeAnn especially, for violating her public oath to be an Otherworldly Angel Child forever.

In Marissa Moss’s great 2022 book Her Country: How the Women of Country Music Became the Success They Were Never Supposed to Be, Marissa talks about what a massive influence LeAnn Rimes, specifically, was on some of the biggest country stars today, namely Mickey Guyton, Maren Morris, and noted Texan teenage yodeling champion Kacey Musgraves. But Marissa also writes that after the affair, “The industry had also expelled LeAnn Rimes completely,” and, “She never quite recovered from it.” Never had another big country hit. Marissa observes that at least one massive bro-country dude had a very ugly public affair and kept right on racking up no. 1 hits. In that Rolling Stone interview, actually, LeAnn says, “I was talking to my therapist the other day and she went back and watched videos of me around 15, and we were talking about the fine line I was walking, playing the role that everyone expected of me, and didn’t want me to grow out of, but at the same time trying to find a way to express myself. It’s something that I am still challenged with, to fully step into my sexuality. To be honest, my affair and Eddie was my real torch to everything. It was unconscious, but unconsciously chosen for a reason.”

The Chicks formed in Dallas, Texas, in the late ’80s. Your first Chicks lineup consists of: Robin Lynn Macy, former math teacher, on guitar and most often lead vocals; Laura Lynch on bass; Martie or Martha Erwin on fiddle and so forth, and Martie’s younger sister Emily Erwin on banjo and so forth. Erwin is their maiden name, Martie and Emily are basically still teenagers at this point. The Chicks all sing-slash-yodel harmony quite well, don’t you agree? The first Chicks album is called Thank Heavens for Dale Evans, Dale Evans of course being the actress and singer who was part of a superstar duo with Singing Cowboy Roy Rogers, her husband of, like, 50 years. Dale Evans, the Queen of the West. Martie, talking to Dallas Life Magazine about the Chicks in 1992, says, “It’s an acoustic, nostalgic Western cowgirl sound. Not that every song has to be ‘Happy Trails.’ But as a way to categorize it: cowgirl music.”

Like if you even want to read about this band’s prehistory, it’s mostly like an Angelfire-era early-internet situation, people typing up old newspaper articles on bright-blue website backgrounds, a lot of intense font decisions. I’m not complaining. I’m into it. It harmonizes excellently with the whole throwback Nostalgic Cowgirl Music vibe. It’s reductive to say that this version of the band doesn’t want to get famous; the Chicks are clearly “trying to make it in the music business”—I don’t even know why I added scare quotes to that phrase. But they’re also, in their earliest iteration, a bluegrass band. This is not a group gunning for Garth Brooks or Reba McEntire or Randy Travis or any of the other biggest Nashville hitmakers of the early 1990s. Furthermore, if you think I’m gonna get suckered into any kind of Real Country Music debate, no way, dude. I don’t know what you take me for. I have a good idea, actually, at this point, of what you take me for, and it’s my own fault, but nonetheless: forget it.

The second Chicks album, from 1992, is called Little Ol’ Cowgirl. Martie, in that Dallas Life Magazine article, says, “I hope our fans won’t be disappointed. It’s got drums on every track; it’s no longer bluegrass, but we have to make a living and you can’t do that playing bluegrass.” I am weirdly charmed by the notion that anybody could hear this record as a sellout move.

Alas, this will be Laura Lynch’s last album with the band. The Texas newspaper the Plainview Herald interviewed her in 2003—the Chicks were in the news—and Laura wouldn’t talk about why she left; she said everyone in the band agreed not to talk about it. But she fondly reminisced about her time with the pre-fame Chicks, wearing cowgirl skirts and touring in a busted pink Winnebago and charging $400 for a five-hour gig. She says, “We knew we would suffer if we played anything Top 40 country, so we played things from people 70 or 80 years old. We wanted to be radio-friendly, we just didn’t know how yet.” She also says, “We were plugging along, doing our thing, and boom, people were hiring us for bigger venues. We needed a bigger sound. So we hired Lloyd.”

She means Lloyd Maines. Steel guitar legend, songwriter, producer, and Austin, Texas, icon Lloyd Maines. Lloyd starts working with the Chicks on this bigger sound. But there’s also the matter of Lloyd’s daughter, Natalie Maines, a 21-year-old singer and songwriter and guitarist who’d gotten a full vocal scholarship to the Berklee College of Music but dropped out. Next thing you know, Natalie Maines is the new lead singer of the Chicks, and Laura Lynch is out. (Don’t feel too terrible for Laura, though: In 1997 she married an old family friend who’d recently won $26.8 million in the lottery. That’s a hell of an exit strategy. At $400 a pop, the early Chicks would’ve had to play 67,000 five-hour gigs to scrounge up that kinda cash. If they played two five-hour gigs a day they could get it done in just a touch over 90 years. If I did any of that math wrong, I don’t want to hear about it.)

The Chicks used to mail out a physical newsletter called ChickChat, to all their fans. The Angelfire-era internet person who retyped all these newsletters, I imagine that work was extra charming and gratifying. So here’s an excerpt from a 1996 edition of ChickChat.

Howdy y’all. I just wanted to say thank you to all the fans who have so graciously welcomed me as the new “Chick” in the coop. Since last fall I have been having a great time. Everything is so new and exciting, and I hope to meet all of you down the road. Until then, Natalie.

Natalie’s gunning for Garth Brooks.

Should we read anything into the fact that the first song on the first Chicks record with Natalie Maines is called “I Can Love You Better,” and mostly consists of Natalie cheerfully talking up her superiority to, y’know, the other girl? Nah. It’s a love song. A road is just a road, and a feeling’s just a feeling. And anyway, as the philosopher Kid Rock once observed, It ain’t bragging, motherfucker, if you back it up.

To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.