Dixie Chicks Not Whistling Dixie

The Trio Has Sold 17 Million CDs

If you want to see the future of country music, look no further than the women who call themselves "The Dixie Chicks."

In just three years, this Texas-bred trio sold 17-million CDs, collected four Grammy awards and won the entertainer of the year trophy at the Country Music Association awards. Just last week, they released their third album, titled "Home."

They've also generated well over a quarter of a billion dollars in business. But, as reported two years ago by 60 Minutes II Correspondent Dan Rather, that leaves the Dixie Chicks with much less than you'd expect. Truth is, their rise to the top shows just how hard it is for musicians to make money, making music.

By any standard, the rise of the Dixie Chicks is one of music's great success stories. Two are sisters: Martie Maguire, 32, and Emily Robison, 30. Along with 27-year-old Natalie Maines, they are turning the country scene on its head,

"When you see Martie and Emily play, I mean, that's what got me," Maines explains. "I was amazed by the way they pick. And so I think that's what it was. It was something different."

It was something different: three Texas women blessed with good looks, but also with extraordinary musical talent.

Sisters Maguire and Robison won bluegrass competitions as children, and they've been playing professionally since their teens. Maines, a Lubbock, Texas, native, was a scholarship student at the Berklee School of Music. Still, critics couldn't see past the blonde hair and catchy name.

"You have three girls, so automatically you get the roll-the-eyes, you know; it's the band that's been put together," Robison says. "And at the time we were all blonde. And, you know, it was just so - it was so packageable. You know, it was just so easy for people to say, 'Oh, this is something manufactured.'"

But no one could make up the Dixie Chicks or make the performers change their style, or even their name. In fact, when Sony worried that the name would offend Northerners, or women, the Dixie Chicks took a stand.

"When you get a record deal, you got to be pretty headstrong, know your direction," says Maguire. "And so, I think we were...going, to say, 'No, we're not going to do that. And no, we're not going to do that. And we want to dress like this, and we're going to play this music.'"

"I think that was the right thing to do to keep our integrity," she adds.

It's easy to keep your integrity when you have No. 1-selling singles and albums, right?

"Even when we didn't have that, we were of the mindset that if this doesn't work out,...we're going to still play music," says Maguire.

"And we were ready to say, 'Take it or leave it. You know, we'll go back to Texas,'" Robison says. "It was kind of a bluff," she admits, laughing.

The trio did need the powerful marketing muscle of Sony Records. And, as novice writers, they needed songs. But all it took was one song to turn the Dixie Chicks into a musical phenomenon.

"Wide Open Spaces" became the anthem of a new generation of music fans - and the title of the largest-selling debut album in country music history, 10 million copies so far.

Their second CD "Fly" has sold 7 million copies.

Their success, though, was hard-earned. Before Maines joined in 1996, the Dixie Chicks were known for playing campy cowgirl music at corporate conventions and on Dallas street corners.

"We'd drive down to the west end of Dallas and open our cases, and that was our job," Maguire recalls. "That's how we made money in high school."

Even though the trio has sold 17 million CDs, the Dixie Chicks have good reason to be careful counting the group's money.

Rather estimates that 17 million CDs sold at roughly $14 a throw comes to well over $200 million.

"You're depressing me, because we see so little of that," Robison says, laughing.

"Even before we got our deal, everyone said, 'Don't ever expect to make money with records. Records are a promotional tool that you use to be able to do live shows and make money elsewhere.'"

The hard truth of the music business is that selling a million records, or even 17 million, doesn't make you a millionaire. Distributors, record stores, lawyers, accountants, agents, managers - and, of course, the record company - all get a percentage.

Last spring, the Dixie Chicks changed the equation. After months of legal maneuvering with Sony Music they got their own record label. That puts them on track to put millions more in their pocketbooks. Still, the bulk of income for any music act is generated on tour.

For the group's first headlining tour in 2000, the Dixie Chicks sold out more than 50 of the country's biggest arenas - The production took more than 80 people to stage each night. Everything was transported cross country on 11 trucks and seven buses. The three women live in one of them.

"This is our brand new bus for the Fly tour and the nicest bus we've ever had. It was designed by Natalie, pretty much, from beginning to end," Maguire says.

Their ability to laugh at themselves is another part of the Dixie Chicks' appeal. But even their act, they'll tell you, is still just an act.

And even when the subject is no laughing matter, the Dixie Chicks have their own twist. Take the controversial song "Earl," about a battered woman killing her husband in revenge.

"Do I think the song is funny?" Maines asks. "Yes. Do I think the video's funny? Hysterical. Are we above it? Obviously not."

If a man had done this about killing a woman, would feminists all over the country be all over him?

"I don't think a guy can go, 'I'm gonna kill you. Hee-hee-hee-hee.' You know?" Maines says, laughing. "But we can do that. We can flash a big smile and seem really innocent. And we are innoncent. But a man, no. He couldn't have done it."

The Dixie Chicks are nothing if not honest.

There are some things a smile can't completely cover. The Dixie Chicks - in the great country and western tradition - know a thing or two about broken hearts. All three have been married. Two of them have been divorced; both admit their work played a part.

"I couldn't imagine that my career could have contributed to the demise of my marriage, but I do think neither of us realized that when you spend 60 to 70 days a year face-to-face, no marriage is going to survive. No relationship is going to survive," Maguire says.

"It does have something to do with the career. Because the career gave me the confidence to know that I deserved better," Maines adds. "The career helped me get out of something that I would've been very unhappy (about)."

She's now found happiness with actor Adrian Pasdar, Maines notes. They married in the summer of 2000 and had a baby the following spring.

Robison and her husband, musician Charlie Robison, are expecting their first child in November. Maguire married Irishman Garth Maguire last year and they are also planning to have a family. All three women agree, their music is second to family.

"I don't feel like fame or music, or any of this is something that's really going to matter to me when I'm gone. But if I raise good kids, they're - oh," Maines says with a sigh. "Or, if the people in my life that I care about know that I care about them, that's what's important."

After years of struggle, both personal and professional, the Dixie Chicks have reached the top. And they're enjoying the view.

For as long as it lasts.

"We've kind of made a pact that when the support hose don't quite hold it in any more..., (we'll) bow out gracefully," Robison says.

"But I want to have babies," she says, laughing. "I want to experience other things in life. You know, I don't feel like Dixie Chicks is the end-all to my life, you know."