Let’s talk The Chicks. Better yet, let’s talk The Chicks in 1999. 23 years ago, Fly burst onto the country music scene, forever altering its landscape for female country groups. The hill I’m willing to die on is that there would be no Pistol Annies, no Highwomen, no Chapel Hart successes without the trail The Chicks first blazed in country music in the 90s and early 2000s.
Now, The Chicks are singing about divorce, mental health, and betrayal. But, in 1999, they compiled a singularly iconic album that put them on the map. Here, we celebrate The Chicks’ groundbreaking album with some memories, some thoughts, and not a small amount of gushing over the masterpiece that is “Goodbye Earl.”
The Chicks Release ‘Fly’ in 1999: Thoughts on the Album as a Fan
As a whole, Fly is a cohesive, polished work for only their second album on a major label. Before Fly, there was Wide Open Spaces, which gave us the unforgettable titular song “Wide Open Spaces.” But, before The Chicks signed to Monument, they released three other albums. So, it’s safe to say they knew a little something about putting together a collection of songs by 1999.
There are similarities sonically and thematically throughout the album, which deals with letting go and loss, but also with feminine power and reclaiming your autonomy. There are so many contrasting themes on Fly. But, they somehow work together to create a complicated, nuanced collection of human emotions and experiences.
Specifically, I want to bring attention to “Goodbye Earl.” This song has had such a singular influence on female country music. I like to think it stems from songs like Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin'” and Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” But, unlike the subtleties of Lynn and Wells, The Chicks went whole-hog on the scumbag husband trope and created Earl.
I can link the influence of “Goodbye Earl” to so many songs, primarily by revenge song queens Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert: “Two Black Cadillacs” and “Before He Cheats” from Underwood, “Gunpowder and Lead” and “Kerosene” from Lambert, and “Somethin’ Bad,” which was a collab from both. Additionally, there’s “DONE.” by the Band Perry, and even the recent “no body, no crime” from Taylor Swift.
‘Cold Day In July,’ ‘Sin Wagon,’ and ‘Cowboy Take Me Away’
“Cold Day In July” is a masterpiece of a sad country song. It evokes a visceral emotional response of loneliness and loss, and it does it with rich images and melancholy melodies. “Cold Day In July” is a quintessential early 2000s sad girl anthem. “Guess we said everything with ‘goodbye’,” sings lead vocalist Natalie Maines. It’s a wrecking ball of a line, combined with lines like “Head in my hands, here I am standing in my bare feet / Watching you drive away” from the chorus. This song immediately conjures up the hollow void some of us have felt when someone we love leaves us.
“Sin Wagon,” on the other hand, creates a parallel where the female speaker isn’t so heartbroken by her relationship falling apart. “He lived his life now I’m gonna go live mine / I’m sick of wasting my time,” sings Maines. She’s stepping out of her comfort zone and throwing caution to the wind. She’s going to get a little loose, a little nasty, a little crazy after being cooped up in a stifling relationship for so long. Also, she hopes God can forgive her for what she’s about to do. It’s in total contrast to “Cold Day In July.” This is a bad bitch anthem as opposed to a sad bitch anthem.
Lastly, “Cowboy Take Me Away” is in opposition to both “Cold Day In July” and “Sin Wagon.” This is a song that celebrates being in love, wanting to be with someone who brings you “closer to Heaven above and closer to you,” as The Chicks say. It’s a simple and pure look at love, especially what I’m calling “country love.” This imagined cowboy probably works on a ranch all day, and he’s tired, but he’s still going to drive his partner out to a field and stare up at the stars all night. Essentially, it’s just sweet, young love with an air of something bigger: it’s a self-aware love, connected to things around it, not so self-centered.
Memories of ‘Fly,’ and What it Means to Me
Imagine this: you’re a 4th-grade girl and you just discovered Fly. You play this CD over and over again on your sticker-covered boombox, and you learn all the words to “Cowboy Take Me Away,” “Ready to Run,” and, unfortunately for your mom, “Sin Wagon.” You jump around your bedroom and sing “Goodbye Earl,” rocking an air guitar, images of performing on stage under bright lights filling your head.
Fly was basically the soundtrack of my early 2000s life. I’ll probably play “Goodbye Earl” at my husband’s funeral as an extra shot of irony. At the very least I’ll sing it at karaoke night. This is all to say that I’m a fan of The Chicks, and I probably will be forever. Happy birthday Fly, and thanks for the memories.