By Alanna Nash
Updated September 10, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

”The rooster crows, but the hen delivers.” That was the Dixie Chicks’ first slogan back in the early ’90s — and it turned out to be a prescient one.

Three albums and various personnel changes later, the Chicks — Natalie Maines and sisters Emily Robison and Martie Seidel — pecked their names into the history books with their first major-label release, Wide Open Spaces. The 6-million-seller brought a fresh sound and an invigorating new image to country, and hatched the Chicks as Nashville’s biggest breakout act.

Can their anticipated follow-up, Fly, soar as high?

Quite possibly. Wide Open Spaces, not an immediate hit, eventually won over listeners, for all the right reasons. Despite radio programmers’ fears that its sound was too bluegrass, it was the most organic amalgam of folk, country, pop, rock, and blues since Willie Nelson’s breakthrough records of the ’70s. It was also chockablock with infectious songs that showed the Chicks to be accomplished instrumentalists with soulful vocal harmonies rivaling those of Dolly, Linda, and Emmylou. And it was fun.

Fly isn’t as boldly playful or immediately seductive as its predecessor, even when it strains to be irreverent (”Goodbye Earl”). But the album takes a giant leap in establishing the three — who add five of their own songs to those by Matraca Berg, Jim Lauderdale, and Patty Griffin — as serious, fully developed writers and musicians.

As on Wide Open Spaces, the new tunes are a beguiling mix of deep-dish country-bluegrass, infused with progressive country, folk, and rock (and on Lauderdale and Buddy Miller’s ”Hole in My Head,” slash-and-burn country-punk). Simply produced, using only the slightest hint of synthesizer and reverb, the album has a clean sound that relies squarely on the Chicks’ own musicianship — Maines’ lead vocals, Seidel’s fiddle, mandolin, viola, and harmony vocals, and Robison’s banjo, Dobro, lap steel, acoustic guitar, and harmony vocals — with only a handful of additional instruments played by others.

Fly‘s traditional elements — especially Robison’s acoustic banjo and Dobro, framed within energetic, contemporary arrangements — should appeal to Ma and Pa down on the farm. And its sassy attitude targets preteens and Gen-Xers who’ve never found country cool (in concert, the trio even pass out buttons that proclaim, ”Chicks kick a– ”).

But it’s the latter audience that the Chicks primarily court with this collection of songs about personal independence, like ”Ready to Run,” a bluegrass and Celtic charmer from the soundtrack to Runaway Bride that Seidel cowrote. With Seidel happily married, Robison a newlywed (to country singer Charlie Robison), and Maines in the process of divorce after an 18-month union, the three also reflect their romantic lives in their choice of material. Maines, whose plaintive soprano possesses an affecting vulnerability, particularly shines as the scorned lover, stuck between nursing her wounds (Griffin’s ”Let Him Fly,” on which her vocal recalls both Rickie Lee Jones and Bonnie Raitt) and extracting her pound of flesh. The Chicks leave no doubt who’s in charge on ”Sin Wagon,” a high-spirited tale of sexual revenge, and on ”Don’t Waste Your Heart,” a melancholy ballad in which Maines warns a would-be suitor that she’s a wild thing who won’t settle down: ”It’s funny how the girls get burned,” she sings. ”And honey, as far as I’m concerned/The tables have turned.”

The theme of female empowerment isn’t new in country — Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn took up that cause long ago — but never has it been conveyed by such a body of well-turned music or in-your-face conviction. Chances are that the group’s latest slogan — ”Chicks rule” — will prove prophetic with Fly. Meanwhile, these Chicks are sitting pretty in the Nashville roost.