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 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 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.
The Dixie Chicks stayed firm during the backlash, and released "Taking the Long Way" in 2006 that won five Grammys and was a best-seller despite being largely ignored by country radio. Maines now refers to the group as "tainted" but is still open to performing live with the Dixie Chicks, and two shows are scheduled in Canada this summer.
Those concerts will be a different sound than "Mother." The album is Maines putting her take on covers that span from Pink Floyd (the album title borrows from "The Wall"), Eddie Vedder's "Without You" and Jeff Buckley's "Lover, You Should've Come Over."
Guitar virtuoso Ben Harper produced the album and performed with Maines at SXSW for a lively show that skewed far more on the side of rock and Americana than the bluegrass and country combination of the Dixie Chicks.
Maines first played at the 2,700-seat Moody Theater that is the home studio for Austin City Limits - a big and tough venue to fill at SXSW, given the 2,200 other artists all vying for attention.
Maines doesn't expect to win back fans that Dixie Chicks lost, and isn't sure who will embrace her different sound now.
"I like what the three of us had together," Maines said of the Dixie Chicks. "I did what was required. It felt like my job. I felt like a businesswoman in the industry I was in. I feel like I accepted that and waved that country flag but always felt like I was holding on to who I was, and we were still considered rebellious in the Top 40 country market. But it was news to me that people thought I was something I wasn't.
"The cat just feels out of the bag now," Maines said. "I'm not sure I can go back to that."