AUSTIN, Texas - Natalie Maines is starting out nervous on stage, almost 10 years to the day that the Dixie Chicks spitfire slammed then-President George W. Bush and forever changed the fate and fortunes of the country superstars.
On this night she barely speaks between songs.
Her hair slicks up in a punkish pompadour. She looks slimmer than when the Dixie Chicks began a hiatus in 2007 that may never end. The crowd at the South by Southwest music festival to hear Maines perform her solo debut "Mother" for only the second time is a healthy size, but it is also far from a packed house.
"We missed you, Natalie!" one fan hollers.
Maines smiles but doesn't banter back.
"I ask myself, 'Why is that? What are you doing, girl?'" Maines told The Associated Press the next morning at a downtown Austin hotel. "I think right now I have so much to remember. This is the most guitar I've ever had to play."
Now 38 and a solo artist for the first time in her career, Maines is candid about the past and guarded about the future. Ask whether the Dixie Chicks will ever record new music again, she curls in her chair with tense energy and declines to predict.
"I think I thought time would heal and that I would come around. But just like the song says, I'm still waiting," said Maines, pulling a lyric from the band's defiant 2006 smash single "Not Ready to Make Nice."
Fellow Chicks Emily Erwin and Martie Maguire don't needle her to reunite in the studio, Maines said, but she acknowledges that choosing the solo project "Mother" as her first album since 2006 may not have been their first choice. "I'm pretty sure they would rather I be making a Dixie Chicks record, but they would never say that, thank God," Maines said.
Now rehash her takedown of then-President Bush in 2003 and - well, on second thought, don't bother.
Maines does that herself.
"Good thing I'm not a told ya so kind of person or I might point out that 10 years ago today I said GWB was full of bull and I was right," she tweeted on March 10, three days before her first South by Southwest performance.
When the Texas-born Maines told a London crowd at the start of the Iraq invasion she was ashamed to be from the same state as Bush, the Dixie Chicks became pariahs of the country music industry that vaulted them to stardom. Radio stations blackballed the Dixie Chicks from playlists and legions of fans turned their backs.