In Texas roots circles, the sisters had been well-known since they were pre-teen prodigies. Spurred on by their musically supportive parents, who would drive them from festival to festival, Martie joined her first band, the Blue Night Express, at 12, and a couple years later, Emily signed on, when she was 10. For all the instrumental training they had, though, there were no such formal lessons when it came to their sisterly harmonizing, which came from observing a lot of acts they saw on the bluegrass circuit, and, most probably, from something in the blood.
"There was always comfort in the power of numbers," Maguire says. "Emily and I have that kind of personality where were happy to support and happy to not be the center of attention. I remember my mom dragging us into the living room to play for company. Its a different story than you hear from a lot of lead singers, who say Oh, I used to get up on the table when I was 2 and belt out songs! We were very reluctant, at a young age. So with this album it was nice to discover that we had this other side to us that came pretty easily. Every day our confidence grew."
Adds Emily: "It can be intimidating when you sing with someone with the power that Natalie has. Martie and I have always been harmony singers, so you take your place in the mix. It was a huge learning curve for both of usbecause Martie sings lead on one song, tooto figure out what your voice is, after youve sung so long just trying to blend. It really takes a lot of work, and theres still a lot of work to be done, playing live, to find that voice. But I felt like I could interpret the songs because they meant something to me. It wasnt like I was just trying to just sing any song. It was something very personal."
After Emily worked on a good chunk of the material with guitarist Martin Strayer, they settled in with co-producer Jim Scott at Marties studio in May 2009, coming back for a second and final round of recording in October. "It was amazingly quick compared to how long Chicks records usually take," laughs Martie. "I loved every song Emily had written. You cant create a sound when you dont have the songs." There remained, though, a slight degree of uncertainty about whether this would be for public consumption: "We knew we would know if there was a record there. And if there wasnt, we had confidence that we would be honest enough with ourselves to say, "That was a great exercise, but thats not getting packaged."
After it was clear that self-veto power wouldnt be necessary, the last element to come into play was a band name. Court Yard Hounds came from a novel Emily was reading called City of Thieves, by David Benioff. Theres a fictional book-within-the-book called The Courtyard Hound, but Emily points out that the specific impetus was "a quote in there about how inspiration comes and goes. The idea is that there are seasons of talent, and that at some point its gonna leave you, so you have to make the most of it when you are inspired." Its not difficult to see why that thought took root, with Martie and Emily not wanting to let their own gifts lay fallow for another year, or even month.
It was a deliberate decision to fly under the media and rumor-mill radar while the recording was in process. "One reason I felt like we needed to not let the cat out of the bag too soon," says Emily, "is that every time I would tell someone about the project, theyd say, Well, who are you going to get as the lead singer? I would just kind of kick the dirt and go Well? were gonna try our hand at it. Until you have the music and you can play it for people, it was hard to explain what we were trying to do. It was important for us to get the music done first so that we had that confidence."
As Dixie Chicks, Martie and Emily have grown used to having their private lives and thoughts put up for public scrutiny. Some Court Yard Hounds listeners may be eager to put every lyric up to a magnifying glass? and its not necessarily a completely misguided impulse, given that the sisters have penned obviously deeply felt songs before, even when Natalie was singing them. Its no secret that Emilys divorce sparked a good part of the material, but the sisters do discourage anyone from reading the album as a diary. "Everyone from our manager to our publicist already thinks its completely autobiographical, that everythings so true and personal," says Emily. "And it IS personal. But not everything is my life, even though people are gonna think it is. Its better just to say that maybe 70% of its true, but Im not gonna tell you which parts." She laughs. "Keep em guessing!"