Dixie Chicken (1977)

Little Feat

Written by Lowell George and Fred Martin
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Above all, Little Feat hit the top of their game performing onstage – forever hailed as one of the greatest live bands in rock-n-roll history. With that in mind, the version of “Dixie Chicken” on their live double album, Waiting for Columbus, is the definitive execution of the classic song. (It segues smoothly into another sun-flaring number, “Tripe Face Boogie.”)

This is not to say that the studio version is chopped chicken liver. The studio track is, however, compact and relatively restrained, not the stretching, soaring eagle of the live performance.

“Dixie Chicken” studio version

“Dixie Chicken” live from Waiting for Columbus

Dixie chick zappa georgeAt times during “Dixie Chicken,” the Lowell George-led band proudly channels its leader’s stint with Frank Zappa (both men at right) and the Mothers of Invention. Freeform blues, improv jazz, traditional Dixieland, New Orleans funk and swamp rock run down a country road holding hands before jumping in the river screaming and laughing. (George occasionally played with the Big Easy’s favorite sons, the Meters, and once with guitarist Robert “Addicted to Love” Palmer on his first solo album, 1974’s Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley.)

George plays slide-style guitar and is considered by many to post up second only to the legendary Duane Allman in that category. Paul Barrere is the other phenomenal guitarist in Little Feat, his versatility and virtuosity in any style being one of the keys to the group’s grand accomplishments. You could argue that Barrere’s live play was even more essential than George’s. And that’s certainly saying something.

The live rhythm section on Waiting for Columbus is as good as any ever assembled. Richard Haywood (drums) and Sam Clayton (conga) move effortlessly among calypso, a kind of updated zydeco, and straight-on rock drumming. They use empty beats as effectively as they use sound. Their deployment of hesitation is epic. Kenny Gradney on bass provides a charming sittin’-on-top-of-the-world bass line.

Dixie chick album coverThe plot of “Dixie Chicken” is what long-ago bluesmen called “a sad old story.” Little Feat, both through the lyrics themselves and George’s mirthful delivery, manage to make the point about a man being used by a beguiling, conniving woman while at the same time poking fun at the events come the climax.

The song transports us to an indefinable moment in history – an implied “once upon a time” winds through the tale. Memphis, the river town, is a big, important city on the way up and down the Mississippi, main artery of heartland America – and rock-n-roll.

I’ve seen the bright lights of Memphis
And the Commodore Hotel
And underneath a street lamp, I met a southern belle
Oh she took me to the river, where she cast her spell
And in that southern moonlight, she sang this song so well

If you’ll be my Dixie chicken I’ll be your Tennessee lamb
And we can walk together down in Dixieland
Down in Dixieland

Dixie Chick feat on stage

Little Feat performing “Chicken” on stage

The casting of a spell implies voodoo that must have ridden the riverboat up from N’Orleans. The southern moonlight, the sweet voice of a woman…

Like a fresh-shucked Gulf oyster – the stuttering, stammering funk aided by the Tower of Power horn section – slides down real easy.

Bill Payne’s piano solo interlude between the opening and second verses rambles around the history of American music. We hear ragtime, Aaron Copland, barrelhouse style, a saloonkeeper’s ivory-tickling riffs on jazz icon Art Tatum’s work. We hear silent movie scores, Gershwin – the whole American songbook – spark off Payne’s nimble fingers.

After his solo, the horns rejoin Payne to create one of the highest points in rock-n-roll music ever. The other instruments slide into the mix and with them comes a transition from the sublime to the near ridiculous.

“Dixie Chicken” is thrillingly cinematic. The marriage of music and sob story with a smirk allow impressions to unfold in the mind’s eye.

We made all the hotspots. My money flowed like wine
Then the low-down southern whiskey, yea, began to fog my mind
And I don’t remember church bells, or the money I put down
On the white picket fence and boardwalk
On the house at the edge of town
Oh but boy do I remember the strain of her refrain
And the nights we spent together
And the way she called my name

Dixie chick fenceThe lyrical stops are pulled out. Money, wine, whiskey, a rushed marriage, the perfect little house. No doubt a fogged mind. The story could have ended with a couple of kids, a successful business, high standing in the community and a happy old age. But…

The tempo speeds up. Wailing, wah-wahing dueling lead guitars intrude. The listener is treated to a euphoric, flawless axe duet. Time passes. The punch line to an elaborate shaggy dog story is delivered. 

Well it’s been a year since she ran away
Yes that guitar player sure could play
She always liked to sing along
She always handy with a song
But then one night at the lobby of the Commodore Hotel
I chanced to meet a bartender who said he knew her well
And as he handed me a drink he began to hum a song
And all the boys there, at the bar, began to sing along

If you’ll be my Dixie chicken I’ll be your Tennessee lamb
And we can walk together down in Dixieland
Down in Dixieland

Dixie chick group portraitWhat we celebrate in this song and why is a bit mysterious. The music is gleeful, the insouciance of the lyrics as they roll and growl out of Lowell George’s mouth are hilarious, but sad. The chorus of back-up singers is as robust as any belting out of the Village People’s “YMCA” you’ve ever heard.

“Dixie Chicken” is a Top-25 classic tour-de-force of rock. The live version on Waiting for Columbus rescues the late-1970s from musical mediocrity all by its sweet, silly, lamby self.

  • The cinematic tilt of Lowell George’s musical stories comes naturally. He was born and raised in Hollywood.
  • Many members of what would become Little Feat appeared as fictional group The Bed Bugs in a 1967 episode of the TV comedy farce, F Troop. They played Camptown Races and untitled instrumentals.