Behind the Scenes of the Dixie Chicks' Prep for American Comeback Tour (That's Already Successful)
The trio's 2016 summer tour hits U.S. for first time in 10 years. "It's the Dixie Chicks. You know something's going to happen, somewhere."
The return of the Dixie Chicks for a full-blown tour of the U.S. -- the band's first stateside run in a decade -- marks the resumption of one of the wildest roller coast rides in live music history.
Whatever their history may be, when the Chicks hit the road in America in the summer of 2016 with the DCX MMXVI tour, houses will be packed. The verdict is in: "The ticket sales have been ridiculous," says Simon Renshaw, manager of the Dixie Chicks since 1994.
That's "ridiculous" as in "good." Good enough, in fact, that "we will extend the U.S. tour," Renshaw reveals.
Steve Herman, who is running point on the MMXVI tour, concurs. "Ticket sales are through the roof," Herman says. "I expect that this tour will be one of the top tours of 2016."
Billed as DCX MMXVI, the Live Nation-promoted tour begins on June 1 at Riverbend Music Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, and will play more than 40 dates in the U.S. and Canada. The North American run follows 13 U.K./European arena dates that begin April 16 at Lotto Arena in Antwerp, Belgium, and wrap May 4 in Dublin, and sales there are also reportedly strong.
But the focus is mostly on the U.S., where the band -- Natalie Maines and sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison -- have not mounted a coast-to-coast headlining outing since the Accidents & Accusations tour of 2006. Given the results of the 2006 run, a tour marked by sluggish ticket sales in many markets and a route that was reconfigured to focus more on Canadian and "blue state" markets, few would have predicted that thousands of U.S. music fans would be "ready to make nice" with the Chicks, even 10 years later.
The dicey 2006 run marked a change in fortune for the one-time mainstream country darlings. Dixie Chicks have sold 27.5 million albums in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music, the most albums among female groups in Nielsen Music history (1991-present). The group charted 26 entries on the Hot Country Songs chart, including 14 top 10s, though their last top 10 was in 2003: "Travelin' Soldier," which hit No. 1.
In the first years of the new millennium, Dixie Chicks were the hottest touring act in country music, outside of Garth Brooks. "We had all of that country airplay exposure," Renshaw recalls, "and we had a couple of huge touring years."
The 2000 Fly headlining tour, their first, grossed over $46 million and moved more than 1 million tickets, averaging 12,687 tickets per show. But before long, the Dixie Chicks' honeymoon with mainstream country music fans would most decidedly be over. Nerves were raw in a post-9-11 world and the run-up to the Iraq War, and the Chicks found themselves at the center of a storm of controversy when, while performing at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire, Maines remarked, in part, "we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas," pissing off a large portion of the largely conservative country music fan base in the process.
The group's Top of the World tour had already been on sale for some time, and the tour, though marked by death threats, metal detectors, boycotts and other nastiness, went on to gross $62.2 million and again top 1 million in attendance, with the average attendance of 14,390 even beating the previous run. The true damage to the Chicks' touring career, not only from the London comment but also from subsequent flare-ups, radio boycotts and polarizing media coverage, wasn't seen until Accidents & Accusations went on sale three years later. Even after the aforementioned re-jiggering, the tour went on to gross nearly $30 million and move 443,302 from 44 shows, still a respectable average of better than 10,000 tickets per show but well off the previous level. The Dixie Chicks touring career as arena-level country music artists seemed to be, in effect, over.
Or, at the least, vastly different from the bedrock of support mainstream country had previously provided. "There were some markets that were exceptionally great, the New Yorks and the L.A.s, the usual suspects," Renshaw recalls of the 2006 tour. "And there were other markets where, quite honestly, the attendance was down, and there was no support out of country radio for them any more."
But, in the rock and pop world (and, for sure, some in country, including Merle Haggard), the Chicks were regarded as heroes, winning five Grammy Awards in 2007, including Album of the Year for Taking the Long Way, and another for "Not Ready to Make Nice," a single from that album.
But the album-tour-album-tour cycle was over for Dixie Chicks. In the years since, amid marriages, babies, divorces and life, the group has undergone brief tours of the U.K. and Canada, and embarked on various side projects, including a solo effort for Maines that produced Mother in 2012, and the Courtyard Hounds for Maguire and Robison, who released Amelita in 2013. The Chicks supported The Eagles on a 2010 stadium tour but, outside "a few privates here and there," according to Renshaw, have largely left America untouched in terms of touring.
Apparently, demand was bubbling. A Canadian tour in 2013 was "really successful," Renshaw says, and when the 2016 European tour was announced, social media began to heat up around the possibility of a Chicks tour of the U.S. "With the run in Canada and then announcing Europe, it was like, 'OK, we really have to address the U.S.,' says Renshaw. "People on social media were like, 'enough already, we see you're touring Canada, we see you're touring Europe, what the fuck?'"
But, as Renshaw points out, a Canadian tour can run coast-to-coast in about three weeks, and a U.K./European tour can hit appropriate markets in a similar amount of time. "To do America properly, it's a three- to four-month proposition," he says. "It was always about not only when do we do the U.S., but how do we do the U.S.," says Renshaw. "We're talking about three women here, with nine children between them, and trying to get everyone's schedule planned and locked into place has been very complicated for us. It's always been about the kids, the school; if we're gonna do it, the only time that makes sense is during the summer vacations."
Even with the lack of a recent touring history in the U.S., the absence of radio support (especially mainstream country radio), and the uncertainty in gauging the Chicks' value on the live marketplace, Renshaw says promoter interest was high. "Live Nation came to the party, our old friends Concerts West came to the party, no one was shy about it, by any stretch," says Renshaw. "It was like, 'Dixie Chicks? yes, we're in.'"
Renshaw says both Live Nation and AEG touring division Concerts West (promoters of the Chicks' previous headlining tours) were "very aggressive" in their offers.
After much internal debate in the Chicks camp, Herman and Live Nation ended up with the "vast majority" of dates on the tour. "We second-guessed ourselves to death, but there still was a sense out there of 'summer, the sheds, a party,'" says Renshaw, who adds that the affordability of lawn seats, which makes up two-thirds of the capacity at most amphitheaters, was appealing and offered an opportunity to reach more -- and, potentially, new -- fans.
"I felt very confident in the tour, and that our core fans would be there early on and from the beginning," Renshaw explains. "But there's a whole new generation out there of what I would call 'casual fans and interested people.' And the thing about doing the sheds is, all of a sudden you've got several hundred thousand tickets priced at $35 and under, which makes it a very affordable evening out for people that maybe haven't seen the Dixie Chicks. Chicks shows have always been really powerful, great fun, they're one of the great live bands, and getting people to see that is really important, especially trying to reach a new audiences and a new generation out there. We felt that maybe by doing it in the amphitheaters we could make it more affordable. This is not just about going back and playing for the old fans, it's about reaching new fans and…I bet there's a couple of mums out there that would probably love to take their daughters to something like this."
For an act that has been out of the marketplace for a decade, with two-thirds of the house at GA in the sheds, risk is typically lower than at the all-reserved, higher-priced arena level. But Renshaw notes that, given today's deal structures, when shows do well enough to get into high percentages of the door for artist versus guarantees, the act can "make the same, or even more" than in an arena.
When tickets went on sale in November, any doubts to the Chicks' power in the market went away. "Ticket sales are phenomenal," Renshaw says. "After the first day of ticket sales, that night I got an email from [Live Nation CEO] Michael Rapino, all it says was, in capital letters 'HUGE!' Everyone is thrilled. That doesn't mean that every single venue is sold out, but we're six months away."
Some of the tour's hotspots extend into the heartland and perhaps some unexpected markets. "We put a show up in Minneapolis and demand was so high we added a second show, and that sold out in a couple of hours," Renshaw enthuses. "In Dallas, they sold like 20,000 tickets, and the girls were like, 'really, Dallas?' In Houston, it's like 16,000 tickets."
Now it seems that any lingering animosity in the Chicks' home state, the focal point of Maines' fateful comment and a hotbed of anti-Chicks sentiment more than a decade ago, is well outweighed by fans' eagerness to hear Dixie Chicks perform their songs live. "The three shows in Texas sold out immediately," says Herman.
The level of sales is gratifying, considering that, going in to the on-sale, "we had no idea what we were dealing with," Renshaw says, adding that sales in Canada, Europe and the U.K. made Team Chicks hopeful. "When we did Canada [in 2013] we put up 11 arenas and it went super fast and super clean. And in Europe, they're over 11,000 in London, 8,000 in Manchester, 8,000 in Birmingham, in Zurich we're at nearly 8,000. We've never been to Amsterdam, put a show up and it sold out in a day, we had to add another show."
In America, Live Nation's sales data supports Renshaw's goal to turn on a new generation of fans to the Chicks' power as live performers. Among ticket buyers, "there is a large percentage of women 25-34 [years old], but also a good percentage in the 18-24 year-old demo," Herman says. "A lot of kids grew up listening to their parents playing Dixie Chicks."
In a further perhaps not-so-fond farewell to their contemporary country past, the Dixie Chicks summer tour will not be part of Live Nation's Mega Ticket promotion, the hugely successful "season ticket" of sorts for mainstream country acts in the amphitheaters developed by Live Nation Country president Brian O'Connell. "Brian is doing amazing stuff out there, an incredible job for Live Nation," says Renshaw. "But we wanted this tour to be a stand-alone thing. We also wanted to get up and [on sale] early with this, get ahead of the pack in many ways."
Musicality notwithstanding, one would be hard pressed to consider Dixie Chicks a country band these days, by any stretch. "Dixie Chicks have recorded some of the biggest-selling records of all time," Herman says, "[but] their fan base has grown much broader than country."
And, in the absence of the country radio support that once helped drive Dixie Chicks to the top of the Boxscore chart, Team Chicks now has weapons at their disposal that were in their infancy when they first started headlining. "We worked closely with Simon to develop a comprehensive social media launch campaign," says Herman, "targeting the fans very directly."
The positive results have led Live Nation and Team Chicks to look at adding more dates. "There will be more shows on the tail end [of MMXVI]," Renshaw says. "Live Nation is figuring that out and will come back with some ideas."
Ironically, the Chicks will find themselves touring successfully in a country that is perhaps even more divided than the patriotic post 9-11 era. Perhaps time has been kind to the Chicks' outspoken stance. "The political climate has obviously changed in this country," says Renshaw, "and there's a lot of people now that kind of look back to all that brouhaha and go, 'hmm, OK, maybe they were on to something a little bit earlier than a lot of other people caught on to it.'"
Renshaw says that, as of now, there will be no new Chicks music to support -- or be supported by -- the tour. "It's all changed so much, the economics and what drives careers, and how it all works these days compared to 10 or 15 years ago," he muses. "I suppose at some point they'll want to make new music. But, the funny thing is, the only thing the fans want to hear are the fucking hits."
Asked if he worries that some offhand comment by a Chick might derail the tour in some way or steer attention away from the music, Renshaw just laughs. "I don't worry about that," he says. "It's the Dixie Chicks. You know something's going to happen, somewhere. They are themselves, they are honest and true, and they say what's on their mind."