Behind The Song: Dixie Chicks, “Goodbye Earl”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Written by Dennis Linde

Dennis Linde had a knack of building entire worlds in his songs. The prolific songwriter was known to have pinned “a map of his own fictitious town, where the offbeat characters in his songs lived and worked, drank and died.” When you dig into his catalog, especially with a song like “Goodbye Earl,” famously recorded by the Dixie Chicks, you can peer into his genius.

He sketches his characters with great care and thought, pulling the listener into an immersive story. “Goodbye Earl,” originally recorded by the band Sons of the Desert for an unreleased second album on Epic Records, depicts domestic violence with a side-eyeing humor and wit. The character of “Earl” previously appeared in Sammy Kershaw’s “The Queen Of My Double Wide Trailer” (from his 1993 studio album, Haunted Heart), and wanting to kill off the character, Linde excavated “Earl” for a deserved send-off.

The four-minute, deceptively-chipper song tells the tale of two high school best friends, Mary Anne and Wanda, whose lives take drastically different turns. Once high school is over, Mary Anne leaves town “looking for a bright new world.” Meanwhile, Wanda stays put and falls in love with a guy named Earl. But, as the song reveals, the violence began almost immediately.

“Well it wasn’t two weeks after she got married / That Wanda started gettin’ abused,” reads verse two. “She put on dark glasses and long sleeved blouses / And makeup to cover a bruise.”

Wanda tries everything, even going to the police, but “Earl walked right through that restraining order / And put her in intensive care.”

The tragedy pulls Mary Anne back into town, and the two plot murderous revenge. “She held Wanda’s hand / And they worked out a plan / And it didn’t take ’em long to decideThat Earl had to die.”

“Goodbye, Earl / Those black-eyed peas / They tasted all right to me, Earl / You’re feeling weak / Why don’t you lay down and sleep, Earl? / Ain’t it dark / Wrapped up in that tarp, Earl?”

The music video, directed by Evan Bernard (Beastie Boys, Green Day), fashions literal interpretations of the lyrics with comic relief laced into the performances. The exaggerations further punctuate the satire lean. The cast contained a smorgasbord of talent, including Lauren Holly (Dumb and Dumber, Chicago Hope) as Mary Anne, Jane Krakowski (as Wanda) pre-30 Rock, and Dennis Franz (NYPD Blue) as Earl.

Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire, and Emily Strayer fuse the deliciously macabre story-song with their signature harmony work, bristling instrumentation, and raw intensity. Following the 2003 Grammy Awards, Maines told press backstage that the song was an “’ode to O.J. Simpson,’ and it’s totally fiction.”

Franz was also in attendance to take questions. “I love them, and they offered, and I said, ’I’ve never done a music video before.’ They said, ’He’s a pretty nasty fellow.’ I said, ’I’ve done that before. So let’s go for it.’ I’d have to say it was really a kick, really fun.”

Later, in an interview with TV Guide, Maines reportedly went on to explain their connection to the song. “I think initially when we heard it, we just thought it was so funny. We’re not saying kill your husband if he touches you. It was more [like], ‘This is a bad character, and these girls are going to do something really bad to him, but don’t take it too seriously.'”

Their version is found on 1999’s Fly, a diamond-selling record, and it more than ruffled a few feathers, as you might expect. Reportedly, many radio stations banned the song ─ Radio & Records country editor claimed 20 of 149 tracked country stations were not playing it.

For example, KRTY-FM (95.3) program director Julie Stevens initially pulled the song, citing her contrasting feelings. ”The program director side of me wants to play it because it’s a great song,” she said. ”Look what it’s created, a tremendous emotional response,” she said. “But the mother side of me goes: ‘I have two boys. Is this something I want them to hear?’ ”

Helton went on to say ─ as many also noted at the time ─ that “the audience knows that it’s kind of tongue-in-cheek and that the Chicks are having some fun. I think the public knows the Chicks have a great, edgy attitude. Programmers were nervous at first about offending parts of their audience, but I think they’ve gotten the message. The single is going up our [country airplay] charts as fast as any single the Chicks have put out.”

The album’s third single, released in 2000, “Goodbye Earl” ultimately climbed to No. 13 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles & Tracks (now known as Hot Country Songs).

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