Onstage in front of 20,000 people at a New Jersey arena in 2011, Taylor Swift told the crowd, “You know, everybody who plays an instrument remembers the first song they ever learned on guitar.”
Swift added that the first tune she learned was a “beautiful, gorgeous” track by the Dixie Chicks called “Cowboy Take Me Away.” It turns out, band member Martie Maguire, who co-wrote the song, was in the audience that night. The crowd erupted into loud screams as Swift, guitar in hand, launched into an acoustic version of the group’s famed 1999 hit: “I said, I wanna touch the earth/ I wanna break it in my hands …”
More than eight years later, Swift has released a collaboration with the band that had such a critical influence on her career. “Soon You’ll Get Better,” the 12th track on her new album, “Lover,” features the Dixie Chicks (Maguire, Natalie Maines and Emily Robison) harmonizing on the ballad. In multiple ways, the song holds deep significance.
First, the subject matter: Although Swift doesn’t explicitly spell out the meaning, it’s clear that the lyrics — which reference a doctor’s office, nurses and pill bottles — are about Swift’s mother, Andrea, and her battle with cancer. “Desperate people find faith, so now I pray to Jesus, too,” Swift sings. She wrestles with her own guilt — “I hate to make this all about me/ But who am I supposed to talk to?/ What am I supposed to do/ If there’s no you?”— before desperation kicks in during the chorus: “Soon, you’ll get better … ’cause you have to.”
Even for Swift, known for writing about her life and relationships, the subject matter is extremely personal. Fans reported that when she played the track during her “secret sessions” album preview, she had to leave the room. During a YouTube live stream last week, Swift acknowledged that it was the most difficult song to write and that she wasn’t sure whether to include it on the record.
“We as a family decided to put this on the album. It’s something I’m so proud of,” she said, adding that she has trouble singing it. “It’s hard to emotionally deal with that song.”
That the Dixie Chicks are involved adds another layer of meaning. On one level, the connection is clear: Swift’s co-writer and producer on the track is Jack Antonoff, who is working with the Dixie Chicks on their first album in 13 years.
But Swift and the band are also linked as country music expats of sorts. Swift very publicly said goodbye to Nashville in 2014 when she embarked on her first pure pop project, “1989.” (She continues to write songs for other country artists.) The Dixie Chicks, of course, were more or less blacklisted from country after Maines criticized President George W. Bush in 2003 during a concert in London, saying, “We’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.”
The controversy that followed clearly made an impression on Swift over the years. In a recent interview with the Guardian, she recalled Nashville executives advising her to keep her political opinions to herself lest she end up like the Dixie Chicks, who were one of the most successful country acts in history.
“I watched country music snuff that candle out. The most amazing group we had, just because they talked about politics,” said Swift, who also has wrestled with whether to share her political beliefs. “They were made such an example that basically every country artist that came after that, every label tells you, ‘Just do not get involved, no matter what.’ ”
By including the Dixie Chicks on “Lover,” which has already sold more copies in its first week than any other album this year, Swift seems to be sending a message. Sure, she’s genuinely a longtime fan, but as she aligns herself with the trio — not to mention, speaking out about what happened to them in 2003 — she’s also letting Nashville’s gatekeepers know exactly what she thinks of the decision to ostracize them.
“Chicks stans never unstan,” Swift tweeted to the band in April, referencing a term meant to denote an obsessed fan and sending people into a frenzy about a possible collaboration. The Dixie Chicks still have a significant legion of loyal fans, but endorsements from fellow singers never hurt — especially when it’s from one of the biggest country-turned-pop stars on the planet.
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