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If contemporary-country stars Faith Hill, Sherrie Austin, or, God forbid, Shania Twain were to attempt a tune like the Dixie Chicks’ new “Goodbye Earl,” wherein an abusive lout gets iced by his wife and her best friend, the preachy outcome would no doubt be soaked with synthetic thunder rolls, syrupy string sections, and an absurdly overwrought vocal. But the Dallas-based Dixie Chicks—singer Natalie Maines, fiddle and mandolin whiz Martie Seidel, and banjo and dobro picker Emily Robison—turn the twisted tale into an all-night party, with lifelong loser Earl as the proverbial pig on the spit. Maines has a blast kissing off the dead with tart lines such as “Ain’t it dark/Wrapped up in that tarp Earl” and “We’ll pack a lunch/And stuff you in the trunk Earl,” while Seidel and Robison cheer on the dark-humored doings with a tribalized chorus straight out of an all-female stage production of Lord of the Flies. There’s also a disclaimer printed at the end of the lyrics: “The Dixie Chicks do not advocate premeditated murder, but love getting even.” Hell, Earl never had a chance.

The follow-up to their 6-million-selling major-label debut, Wide Open Spaces, Fly is the Dixie Chicks’ 14-track salute to sisterly sinnin’, not to mention a serious upgrade of their fine, if a tad safe, breakthrough album. Superloose and having the time of their lives, Maines & Co. send-up the Spice Girls’ “Girl Power” with slogans of their own—”Chicks Rule” and “Chicks Kick Ass”—but when it comes to actual disregard for the male-molded status quo, there’s no comparison. While the Dixie Chicks manage to avoid crossing over into poppier climes by injecting Fly with an extra boost of twang—hell, there’s even a mouth harp boing-ing around in there somewhere—they also buck sacred Nashville trends by (1) leaving their lovely faces off the album cover, (2) writing many of their own songs, (3) playing their own instruments, and (4) coming damn close to earning a parental-advisory label. (Oh yeah, and although the album cover is devoid of Chicks, the liner notes are smattered with a bevy of racy snapshots, including one subtle portrait of the vamped-up Chicks bursting from the zipper on a pair of men’s jeans.)

Fly isn’t so much about guy-bashing as it is about wham-bam-thank-you-Sam. Twenty-four-year-old Maines, who managed to stay married to her first husband for all of 18 months, was going through a divorce during the writing and recording of this album, but never does she come off as bitter or burned by love. Instead, she’s itchin’ for naughty nights on the singles scene—and who’s gonna get in her way? The album’s most delicious cut, “Sin Wagon,” breaks the speed limit in praising the benefits of “twelve-ounce nutrition” and serves up a saucy slap to the chaste nature of pop-country radio: “On a mission to make something happen/Feel like Delilah lookin’ for Samson/Do a little mattress dancin’/That’s right I said mattress dancin’.” Unlike anything the band has ever attempted, “Sin Wagon” is a show-off spectacular: Seidel and Robison take unhinged solo flights on fiddle and banjo, respectively, and Maines’ chicken-fried soprano stops and starts and spits and shines over the down ‘n’ dirty lyrical landscape. In fact, the finest moments on the 48-minute Fly are the five seconds the lead singer takes to mock-yodel the line “Found my red dress and I’m gonna throw it on.” If she handles men the way she handles those 10 words, then you brave boys beware.

There are some beautiful weepers to be found on Fly, too—the daydreamy “Cowboy Take Me Away” and the tissue-tearer “Cold Day in July” prove that the Dixie Chicks have been heartbreak recipients as well—but for every vulnerable moment there’s a clever, confident rebuttal. First single “Ready to Run,” bolstered by a sweet Celtic intro, examines the pros and pros of avoiding the altar, and “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” is a Tom Petty-cynical take on free-falling into the warm ‘n’ fuzzies. Stealing a page from Dwight Yoakam’s country-punk songbook, the Chicks make their biggest musical sidetrip by getting nasty on Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale’s “Hole in My Head,” where a verbally mohawked Maines growls over a sleazy slide guitar: “I need a boy like you/Like a wild goose chase/You better find somebody to take my place.”

Released in 1998, Wide Open Spaces, buoyed by hits “I Can Love You Better” and “There’s Your Trouble,” is still bouncing around Billboard’s hot lists, but the country way is to encourage popular artists to crank out albums at the hurried pace of one a year. Of course, that’s about the only rule this trio isn’t breaking these days. In a short span of time—and in between tour dates with Tim McGraw and George Strait and the Lilith Fair (where they made a whole bunch of new, Jewel-encrusted friends)—the Dixie Chicks managed to squeeze into the studio and follow a still-fresh album with a fun, flippant encore. Of the 14 tracks, only a couple float away into Fillerland. For most of Fly, Maines, Seidel, and Robison do a damn good job singing, playing, and refusing to take any shit. If you don’t believe me, just ask Earl. CP