Kalie Shorr, one of country music’s most acclaimed young singers, was only 5 when the Dixie Chicks’ blockbuster “Fly” album came out — a first musical love that eventually led to a Chicks show at Madison Square Garden being her first concert and the seminal moment in her wanting to become a performer. So it wasn’t a tough call that “Fly” would become one of three late ’90s albums that she would decide to salute this year with a series of “3×3” EPs paying tribute to crucial albums from her childhood: It’s the blockbuster that gave her wings.
Variety has the premiere of a music video for her version of “Cowboy Take Me Away,” a Martie Maguire-Marcus Hummon co-write that became one of the first No. 1 country hits of the 21st century and still stands as one of the young millennium’s best. Shorr’s version is very different from the Chicks’ original; its more somber tone lays bare that the lyrics are more aspirational than actually triumphant.
When she recorded it in 2020, “it was depressing personally to have my livelihood taken away and have to stop” just prior to kicking off her first headlining tour, “and it was this massive, worldwide depression we were all in. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing to see the entire world going through the exact same thing, of having their jobs taken away. It sounds so dramatic, but you could just feel this black cloud had enshrouded earth. And so when I was listening to ‘Cowboy Take Me Away,’ I was like, ‘Oh, that sounds so nice, to go somewhere.” And then I had the idea to do it in a minor key and change some of the chords. It was from a stance of: I wish anyone could take me away to anywhere else other than my bedroom where I’ve been isolated for six weeks now.” (Shorr did actually contract COVID-19, which she talked about in Variety’s “Corona Chronicles” series last spring.)
“So I really just wanted to make it reflective of the time, because this was a pandemic record,” she says. “I mean, you hear that reflected in a lot of different artists who made their pandemic records; ‘Sour’ by Olivia Rodrigo was completely made in 2020, and that’s not a happy album, and then both of Taylor’s projects, ‘Folklore’ and ‘Evermore’… There was this moodiness to feeling like you were grounded by your parents, but for an entire year. So it definitely is like ‘Cowboy Take Me Away: Pandemic Version.'”
Not that she claims to have found an undertone that wasn’t always there. “There is a wistful undertone to the song, but given how cheery it is musically, you kind of don’t hear that. The song doesn’t tell you whether she got what she wanted or not. She’s asking him to take her away, but you don’t get the happy ending. So I was like, ‘Let’s really play off the most depressing thing I could find about ‘Cowboy Take Me Away’,” she laughs.
For the video, “We did that pretty recently, in my manager’s neighbor’s backyard that had this cute little creek running through it. We just wanted to make it simple. The song is played entirely on electric guitar, with the exception of how, at the beginning chord of all the choruses. we put in this like little string thing that you might not even take out as a different thing other than the guitar. But obviously I had to be playing electric guitar on the video, and I really liked the aesthetic of being in a field with like an amp. That felt very representative of me as a whole.”
The other two songs from “Fly” on “3×3” are “Hole in My Head” and “Cold Day in July,” the latter of which has a poignant family association for her. “It was hard to pick between doing ‘Wide Open Spaces’ and ‘Fly,’ but ‘Fly’ was just such a transformative album for me, and I listened to ‘Wide Open Spaces’ retroactively. When ‘Fly’ came out, that was the first year I remember being cognizant of what was on the radio and listening to the lyrics, and the first year I became aware of the negative things that were happening around me, so when I heard lyrics that reminded me of those things, I was able to latch onto them, really hard. I remember hearing ‘Cold Day in July,’ and my grandpa had passed away that July. I didn’t really know it was about a relationship, because I was a child, so I heard that and totally attributed it to my grandfather.”
Furthering the family connection, “My dad’s favorite bands are the Chicks and Indigo Girls, which is like all you need to know about my father. He’s always questioning authority and the government, so when they spoke out against the president (Bush, in 2003), it wasn’t just that he agreed with them, it was that he was so happy to see somebody laying their career on the line to speak up for what they believe is right. That was like a lesson that I learned by watching them. The Entertainment Weekly magazine [that had the Chicks posing nude and branded with epithets on the cover] literally sat on our coffee table for years, because my dad loved them so much. So that was my first concert, when we went to Madison Square Garden after that, and it was the first moment that I was like, ‘I want to do this for the rest of my life.’ The Chicks have been a very instrumental part of my story.”
The second and third releases in her “3×3” series, yet to be announced, will salute late ’90s albums by a female rap trio and highly commercial alt-rock band. But before those come out, this summer she’ll be releasing an EP of original material produced by Butch Walker. “That was a very surreal recording experience because I still lcan’t really process the fact that we’re friends and send each other memes, because he’s been on this pedestal my entire life, as far as the music he’s produced. And he’s just the coolest dude.”
The Butch Walker-produced EP has already been preceded by a single, “Amy,” that couldn’t have been in a more different vein from “Cowboy Take Me Away,” showing the pop-punk influences that were also prominent in her 2019 debut album, “Open Book,” and taking them up a notch. There was little evidence on “Amy” of her being or having been a country artist, per se, and some new followers may not even be aware that that’s the world from which she emerged.
“It’s all about what the song wants,” she says. “I don’t want to bastardize the banjo by putting it on a song just for the sake of it. I really do have a reverence for country music and that’s why I don’t want to just like put out a pop song and then throw a mandolin on it just to say it’s country. That’s kind of fucked. So with this (Walker) project, I found that most of the songs weren’t asking for that sort of instrumentation. Lyrically, I think what I write is always gonna feel like a country song, minus the occasional F-bomb — and there are some real story songs on the (upcoming EP). But sonically, it definitely leans more into a pop-rock thing. I think that I personally identify with the term ‘genre-agnostic.’ I’m a millenial, and I grew up on playlists and Limewire, for better or worse, and also I grew up in a time where the Chicks were played on pop radio and Shania Twain was literally everywhere, before Taylor Swift. So I grew up with incredibly blurred lines as to what country and pop were, so occasionally crossing over the line more one side than the other doesn’t feel like a crime.”
She notes, “I got so many new fans from ‘Amy’ — I mean, I went from like 10,000 TikTok followers to a hundred thousand just because of that song. That’s a lot of new people who don’t know anything about me, and they only hear this really aggressive song. I’ve never been as angry with someone as I probably was in the situation that I wrote the song about. Even ‘F You Forever’ [from her debut album] kind of had a passive vibe to it, but ‘Amy’ isn’t very passive at all. It’s like, what the fuck are you doing? And so it was nice to remind people that I’m not angry all the time and release these really beautiful songs,” she says of her Chicks covers.