How Little Feat Saved Their Career With ‘Dixie Chicken’
After their low-selling debut nearly cost them their record contract, Little Feat had to fight their way through to a second album, and they nearly fell apart before they could make their third — but all that struggle paid off on Jan. 25, 1973 with the end result, Dixie Chicken.
While they may have been on firmer footing with their label, Warner Bros., after posting improved sales with 1972's Sailin' Shoes, Little Feat remained unsettled behind the scenes — a situation highlighted by the departure of bassist Roy Estrada, who quit to join Captain Beefheart. Years later, Estrada would claim it was nothing personal — just a desire to get out of Southern California, where the air quality was bad for his asthma — it left the Feat lineup at temporary loose ends.
In the meantime, frontman Lowell George — creatively restless even in the happiest of times — seemingly contemplated the idea of putting Little Feat to the side, at least temporarily. After hooking up with former Lovin' Spoonful singer John Sebastian, George briefly toyed with the idea of putting together a three-part harmony project that would have also featured Phil Everly. While it's unclear just how serious the idea ever was, the trio played together at least once — an experience that clearly wasn't enough to lure George away from his group.
"We had one get-together which was really nice. Real great three-part harmony, with John on the bottom, Phil on the top and me in the middle," George said in Willin': The Story of Little Feat. "But it could never have come to fruition, not in a million years. ... I don’t think that Phil Everly and I could share a stage. I mean, I’m 20 pounds overweight and he’s 20 pounds, er, over the hill."
George was also invited to join up with Jackson Browne for a group project during this period, but ultimately drifted back to Little Feat, who moved beyond Estrada's departure by bulking out into an augmented lineup that not only included new bassist Kenny Gradney, but added percussionist Sam Clayton and guitarist Paul Barrere.
Listen to Little Feat Perform 'Dixie Chicken'
The new band members understandably altered the Little Feat sound, triggering an evolution away from the rawer approach captured on the first two albums. With Gradney and Clayton joining drummer Richie Hayward in the pocket, Bill Payne adding color with his distinctive keyboards, and George adding vocals and socket wrench slide guitar, the grooves they explored took on a much looser, more syncopated feel, adding a New Orleans-influenced flavor to the new material — and sending leftover pages from the group's stockpile of songs in new directions. One example that would prove particularly fateful was the song that ended up serving as the new album's title track, which George and songwriting partner Martin Kibbee had penned during the period that produced Sailin' Shoes.
"Lowell and I had been up all night trying to write a song. We had the Ace Screen Door factory down on Laurel Canyon. As I was leaving, there was a chicken place with a sign that said, 'Dixie chicken,'" Kibbee later recalled. "He'd been playing the damn thing all night, you know, [imitates riff], which was going through my brain. By the time I got home, I had written this song. When I came back the next morning to the rehearsal hall at the Warner Bros. soundstage, I went, 'I've got it! I've got it!' And they all looked at me like, 'Puh-leeze, you're kidding!'"
In the short term, Kibbee's version of the band's reaction might have seemed justified — "Dixie Chicken," like the album it led off and lent its name to, wasn't much of a hit. Yet there were signs that Little Feat's exceedingly hard-fought momentum was finally beginning to build: Long thought of as musicians' musicians and frequently hired to guest on other artists' projects, the band was edging into the mainstream just as its classic lineup really hit its stride.
Though turbulent times were far from over, Dixie Chicken has remained a persistent highlight in a discography with more than its share, with the title track proving a popular cover choice (and inspiring at least one other band's name). It'd be hard to argue that Little Feat were ever really given their due in terms of record sales, but they'd spend much of the ensuing decade as one of rock's more consistently acclaimed — and all-around exciting — acts.
"It got a lot better really fast," Hayward said while discussing pre-Dixie Chicken lineup changes in Willin': The Story of Little Feat. "There was much more input, more people to play off of. Groove-wise, there was a lot of psychic arm wrestling going on for the next bunch of years. We were all coming from different places, and to make it work there were a lot of compromises made, voluntarily and involuntarily."