Court Yard Hounds play Britt

Martie Maguire and Emily Robison have stepped from stage left and right into the center spotlight with a new bluegrass and country rock project called Court Yard Hounds.

As longtime mainstays of the Dixie Chicks, fans know the two musicians for their harmonies and for their songwriting, such as "You Were Mine," a ballad that appeared on the Chicks' "Wide Open Spaces," and "So Hard" from "Taking the Long Way."

Though the Chicks haven't disbanded — they were last seen at the 2007 Grammy Award celebration winning a rare trifecta of album, record and song of the year for "Taking the Long Way" and its single "Not Ready to Make Nice" — sisters Maguire and Robison wanted to keep working after lead singer Natalie Maines extended her hiatus from the group.

Thus the Court Yard Hounds were newly hatched — with a debut album on Sony's Columbia label that has the two harmony singers sounding as if they've been frontwomen all of their lives.

Although Maguire is the lead vocalist on the new album's "Gracefully," the other tracks feature Robison singing.

The sisters spent their teen years playing strings in a bluegrass band and carried over an amount of that influence to the Chicks' country-rock, but the work on Court Yard Hounds is far away from the string-band music of their youth.

While Maguire was in her studio recording fiddle tunes, Robison worked on a big part of the album's material with guitarist Martin Strayer.

The sisters then settled into Maguire's studio in Austin, Texas, in May 2009 with record producer and recording engineer Jim Scott, who engineered the Chicks' last record, "Taking the Long Way." Scott tapped into other musicians based in Austin, and the group worked until they found a new sound.

Though the sisters had played bluegrass, they listened to a lot more rock, folk-rock and alternative music and were influenced by a range of songwriters.

The last element was to come up with a band name. Court Yard Hounds came from David Benioff's novel "City of Thieves." The Courtyard Hound is a story within the book and holds a quote about how inspiration comes and goes, with the point being that there are seasons of talent and that one must make of most of it.

It's not difficult to see why that thought took root, with Maguire and Robison wanting to fulfill themselves as an entity and yet not have to dismantle the Dixie Chicks.

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