There's Your Trouble
Considering the Dixie Chicks controversy, with hindsight 20/20
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It was early 2003. The Dixie Chicks were easily the biggest girl group in history — and also the biggest act in country music post-Garth Brooks. Fresh from guesting on Saturday Night Live, with the United States on the brink of sending troops to Iraq, the multiplatinum blondes flew to London to begin their Top of the World tour.
To say life was good for the Dixie Chicks at that time would be putting it mildly. Natalie Maines, Martie McGuire, and Emily Robison (the latter two sisters, maiden name Erwin) were on the top of the world. Fresh, brash, down-home, they were blindingly good musicians whose musical aggression swept a new sonic template into country. Their acoustic-driven sound — vocals way up in the mix, a brightness to their records — packed a wallop even on their ballads.
The trio’s recording of Americana ace Bruce Robison’s “Travelin’ Soldier” had just hit No. 1 on the country chart. The song was timely, though cast in the era of the Vietnam conflict. It followed the story of a small-town girl who would never see the soldier she loved again. It seemed the Texas-based trio could do no wrong as they took the stage for the tour’s first show at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Theater. And that’s when the Lubbock-born Maines uttered the 12 words that derailed everything.
“Just so you know,” Maines was quoted by the British daily The Guardian as saying, “we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.”
The reaction wasn’t immediate, but came in a matter of days. An off-handed comment — paraphrased, perhaps shaded to reflect the UK’s feelings toward the coming military action in Iraq — set off a flashfire that incinerated a trio whose first two albums, Wide Open Spaces and Fly, won Grammys and were diamond-certified for sales of 12- and 10-million copies, respectively.
Maines’ quote was never reported in full: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all,” Maines had begun, having spent several days watching the growing protests outside the band’s Hyde Park hotel. “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”
Some of their detractors say it was because they said it on foreign soil. Some suggested it was because they were disrespecting the president of the United States, at a time when the facts seemed to be on his side. Tim McGraw told Time in 2006, “You’ve got to remember this is a family skirmish, and it’s possible there’s more than one thing going on.”
McGraw’s comment hinted — without saying so explicitly — that these girls might’ve been too uppity, too hard to handle, too independent. If the hoedown “Sin Wagon” had suggested libertine-leanings (“That’s right, I said, mattress dancing,” Maines euphorically yowled) and the humorous if lethal “Goodbye Earl” stood up to spousal abuse, these weren’t good girls sitting quietly and looking pretty. Regardless, the white flash became a blaze that destroyed everything in its path. “Travelin’ Soldier,” which had just hit No. 1, took a swan dive into the abyss.
Frank Liddell, owner of Carnival Music and Robison’s publisher, still shakes his head. Marveling about it in 2016, he says, “Twenty years in the business, working with Jim Lauderdale, Decca Records, ‘Angry All the Time’ and ‘Anything But Mine’ ... I’ve never seen anything like it. One to 39 to gone — BAM! — just like that.”
Just like that was just how it happened, too. Once the Associated Press picked up The Guardian’s review, the story hit America’s daily papers and local radio stations like a tornado. The internet then was hardly what it is now; social media was only gestating. But once the story started to move, it kept going — and going.
“You looked at it and went, ‘An off-handed comment didn’t just derail a career, did it?’ And not just a little toy train running down the tracks, either, but a full-blown locomotive.” - Lon Helton
Suddenly, 12 words that a country singer said onstage at a concert had become a national news story. People were calling in, sounding off, staging protests. From steamrollers crushing the Dixie Chicks’ CDs to waste receptacles set up for the “trash,” it became a giant, hysterical media op.
“Previously, there were little pockets of outcry in country music,” says Country Aircheck Publisher Lon Helton, then Nashville bureau chief of Radio & Records. “Small interest groups complained about [Loretta Lynn’s] ‘The Pill,’ or Tim McGraw’s ‘Indian Outlaw.’ But generally, it’s unhappiness over a song. The only other act I’ve seen have career-ending impact was Tracy Lawrence [for beating his wife].
“But the Dixie Chicks? They’d transcended country, and were a mainstream act. You looked at it and went, ‘An off-handed comment didn’t just derail a career, did it?’ And not just a little toy train running down the tracks, either, but a full-blown locomotive.”
Looking at the debacle through history’s lens, it’s hard to see the comment as even somewhat offensive. After all, we’re in a presidential nomination cycle in which former Speaker of the House John Boehner referred to primary candidate Ted Cruz as “Lucifer in the flesh.” Presidential hopeful Marco Rubio tried discrediting his opponent Donald Trump by making sarcastic comments about the eventual Republican nominee’s penis size. And Trump called both Cruz and Democratic nominee/former senator/former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “a liar.” Trump also suggested Fox News’ debate moderator Megyn Kelly has “Blood coming out of her eyes, out of her wherever.” At a time when we’re asked to believe all of those things pass for legitimate political discourse, it’s hard to imagine Natalie Maines’ off-handed comment — which she delivered in much more civil language — imploding such an until-then successful music career.
“When I heard it, I stopped for a second,” remembers guitarist David Grissom, the Chicks’ new-at-the-time bandleader who’d played his first full show in London. “Backstage after the show, I asked [people what they thought]. A couple of the more conservative guys sorta laughed; they said, ‘Aw, that’s nothing.’ It really wasn’t.”
“We thought it would blow over,” says CMT (Country Music Television) President Brian Philips, who’d had a hand in breaking the Chicks as the means for branding Texas music nationally on KPLX, 99.5 FM in Dallas. “CMT, in spite of the feedback, never pulled their videos. Our presumption was: This will pass and the Chicks will be right back in their glory.
“On principle, we at CMT would never be led by the nose, given some minor political dust-up or conflict,” he adds. “These women were at the top of their game; they were self-contained artists in a town where everything feels built and staged. That authenticity really connected to the pop consciousness, too. People could sense that, and you’d hear, ‘I don’t like country music, but I love the Dixie Chicks.’ That portends good things.”
While the Chicks were playing shows across Europe, then Australia, the anti-Chicks momentum in America was gaining traction. The touring musicians would call home to increasingly concerned families and friends.
Lipton Tea, who’d signed on to sponsor the Chicks’ Top of the World Tour, were lukewarm about the whole thing. Being aligned with this refreshing trio of world-class musicians, the brand got a little more than it bargained for when the tempest hit. Deluged with complaints, Lipton Director of Consumer Services Linnea Johnson responded to the angry emails in a message that was then posted on the internet by disgruntled consumers. Her thorough, empathic, but professional response read in part:
“Thank you for your recent note regarding remarks made by Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. It is important for us to hear from our consumers and listen to their concerns.
“As you can imagine, we did not expect a political controversy to arise when Lipton became a sponsor of the Dixie Chicks’ upcoming ‘Top of the World’ concert tour. In this time of national crisis, we believe it is important for Americans to come together behind the values of freedom, democracy, and tolerance that have made the United States of America into the country it is today.
“We have every reason to believe the Dixie Chicks sincerely regret the distress Ms. Maines’ comment has caused.”
Lipton’s statement went on to quote Maines’ subsequent apology as well as the myriad ways the Chicks had displayed their patriotism through the years. It was a long way to go in an attempt to calm angry country music fans and disgruntled tea drinkers.
Shut Up and Sing
As the fury grew, so did the Chicks’ unhappiness about what they perceived as their First Amendment rights being trampled. What might have been a dust-up grew into a hailstorm, as the Chicks started processing the news stories, protests, and character assassinations to which they were being subjected.
“In America, you fight back with more free speech,” says Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center and former USA Today editor in chief. “It’s the power of rebuttal — only this felt like something else. They were a perfect storm: on the eve of war, their dissent was mistaken as subversion ... and people who loved [the Dixie Chicks’] music didn’t like the way they thought.”
The incident called to mind one that surrounded the Beatles, when John Lennon flippantly suggested that his band was more popular than Jesus. Protests followed then, too, and as Paulson recalls, “[Reaction to the Beatles] was an absolute earthquake! We had record crushing in both cases; it was as close to book burning as rock and roll can get.
“The other parallel,” he adds, “[was that] the Beatles stopped touring — and it put the Dixie Chicks out of business.”
"With years of perspective, I feel like the first time around, country radio blew it. They jumped on the bandwagon — and that’s not thoughtful." - R.J. Curtis/KZLA
In the award-winning 2006 documentary Shut Up & Sing — which began with the intention of documenting the group at the top of their career and turned into a chronicle of this debacle — we see the Chicks’ manager, Simon Renshaw, explaining to the band that they had received a credible threat against Maines’ life, and they had a picture of the believed assassin. In that moment, what should have been an inherent right to speak out became instead a bullseye on the brash singer. Something she believed in in principle became something else entirely when her life was on the line.
R.J. Curtis, then program director at Los Angeles country powerhouse KZLA, never stopped playing the Chicks’ records in spite of the furor. He recognized not just a lynch mob mentality, but an opportunistic tilt from the format that had benefitted from the three women’s aggressive musicality, sense of humor, and penetrating songs.
“With years of perspective, I feel like the first time around, country radio blew it. They jumped on the bandwagon — and that’s not thoughtful. [Stations] wanted to get on TV, so they stoked it with events like steamrolling or burning CDs, taking calls on the air. They wanted to seize the moment and get that exposure, only to be called ‘a local country station.’
“And the momentum and hate for those girls? Not only were my air staff and street teams abused for our playing them, I was deluged with emails and calls. But that’s also the point: I had someone say, ‘I’m never listening to you again if you don’t quit playing the Dixie Chicks.’ So I asked how much they listened now, and they admitted they didn’t ... ‘But NOW I won’t ever listen to you.’ Well, that’s not my customer.”
As country radio fanned the flames — or merely responded to local pressure — Curtis, now the country editor at music trade publication All Access, was at one of a handful of stations that stuck by the Chicks. Cumulus Media, on the other hand, temporarily pulled the Dixie Chicks’ songs from its country stations — and wound up in front a Senate subcommittee led by John McCain, who told CEO Lewis Dickie, “It’s a strong argument about what media concentration has the possibility of doing. If someone else offends you, and you decide to censor those people, my friend, the erosion of our First Amendment is in progress.”
Push and Pushback
The Dixie Chicks’ concerts had been important promotional vehicles for country radio as well as celebrations for the fans. The trio’s remarkable musicianship and showmanship allowed them to sell out arenas — something that remains a rare feat for women in country music.
But suddenly there were 50 television news crews standing by when the Chicks hit Greenville, South Carolina, for their first US concert. Nonetheless, the music reigned inside the building. When the women heard the first dissension of the evening, Maines invited the crowd, on the count of three, to get it all out and boo for 15 seconds. It didn’t take long for the jeers to turn to cheers. Suddenly, music trumped an awkward moment; the Chicks refused to feed the anger.
Looking into the crowd, there were placards expressing every opinion possible, but there was also a sea of faces singing along with everything they had.
It should’ve blown over. Kanye West was forgiven — and in many circles forgotten — after saying in 2005 that President Bush didn’t like black people. What was different in the case of the Dixie Chicks was the way the story didn’t seem to have an end.
“Nobody would shut up,” Country Aircheck publisher Helton says a little sadly. “I think the country’s emotions were still pretty raw, and so were the Chicks’. If one side pushed, the other side pushed harder. Then the other side pushed back even harder. The nude Entertainment Weekly cover shot? Natalie in the ‘Dare to Be Free’ T-shirt? Or the FUTK shirt? In ’03, [country] fans were a little older … and they certainly wore their patriotism a little more directly.”
At the Academy of Country Music Awards, the Chicks beamed in remotely. Maines — in her FUTK shirt — caused a sensation as the media and backstage buzz questioned whether her shirt might be saying “Fuck You Toby Keith.” While official word from the Chicks’ camp was that FUTK stood for “Freedom, Unity, Together in Kindness,” there was no denying that Keith had taken shots at Maines and projected her next to Saddam Hussein during a song at his concerts. In response, Keith’s always rabid supporters kicked over another hornet’s nest.
Jack Sussman, executive vice president of Specials, Music & Live Events at CBS, wasn’t concerned about Maines expressing her opinion during the awards show. “It didn’t bother me from a controversial point of view,” he recalls. “It was an internal squabble amongst country artists, but the FCC has rules about profanity.”
Sussman, who oversees the ACM Awards and Grammys, knew the Chicks were a lightning rod, but still respected their artistry. “There were people who were concerned about [them performing] ‘Goodbye Earl’ on the Grammys,” he says. “But why would I think for a minute it’s a bad idea to perform a great piece of music that’s popular and really delivers? Because it suggests it’s a bad idea to beat your wife?
“And with [the Bush comment], they were very vocal about what a lot of people were thinking. … [Other people] thought, ‘It’s not going to make any difference. I’m only one voice.’ Then this massive group says it, and you think, ‘I’m not alone, because I don’t agree with the war and what the president’s done with our troops.’”
“I think some of the people surrounding the Chicks didn’t do them well in terms of putting fuel on the fire. Maybe they thought the controversy would help.” - Lon Helton
Who Left Whom?
The Top of the World Tour, which sold out in a day, soldiered on. The seeming animosity faded. But somehow, it never quite died out. The Chicks were not silenced, but the cool-down never happened, either.
Rather than make another record in Nashville with the team that helped them sell over 30 million albums, the group went to Los Angeles to record 2006’s Taking the Long Way with producer Rick Rubin. A gorgeous work that eschewed more overt mainstream country forms, the album still relied on fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and Dobro. Again, they tapped the same existential universality of Wide Open Spaces, only this time, the songs’ themes were more about reckoning, self-determination, and standing up for oneself.
They did the cover of Time, returned to 60 Minutes, saw the release of the Shut Up & Sing documentary, and shared an Oprah episode on controversy with Madonna. They also hit the road for the Accidents & Accusations Tour, their first on sale since the controversy began.
While seven dates were cancelled due to slow out-of-the-box sales — and Houston never went on sale because local radio wouldn’t take their advertising money — the Chicks sold out major arenas across Canada and in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Denver, Tacoma, and Washington, DC. They gave a more somber show, but the band’s musicianship drove the 23-song set that drew heavily from Taking the Long Way.
Still, the conflict wasn’t over. Columbia Records played the new album for programmers at the 2006 Country Radio Seminar, then gave the stations copies of the album. Several country radio stations — most notably in Los Angeles; Portland, Oregon; and Miami — began playing the new music.
When the tour came through L.A., Curtis remembers finding himself in “The Twilight Zone.” Country radio had asked Columbia to release anything except the obvious rebuke “Not Ready to Make Nice,” but that song became the clear single — and KZLA was playing it. But listening to another station on his way to work as the Chicks’ Staples Center show approached, Curtis saw how literally they meant its lyrics.
“It was surreal,” he says. “I’d been asking to get one of the girls on the air to promote the show, and [had] been given this runaround — even though I never pulled their songs, was playing ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’ and an album cut in light rotation. Sitting in traffic, I hear Natalie on Hot 97’s morning show, saying how country radio won’t play the Chicks, that nobody else in L.A. is playing their music.’”
Curtis’ frustration is palpable a decade later. “Here she is playing this ‘poor us’ card, saying no one will play their music. But it wasn’t true. It just didn’t make a very good story.”
A few days later, the Chicks’ manager, Simon Renshaw, called from London, informing Curtis that country radio wasn’t a part of their plan — only then did Curtis realize that “no one [had] informed country radio.”
Lon Helton — whose weekly syndicated countdown show skipped playing a Chicks song due to requests from the stations who carried it — is quick to mourn the loss of the Dixie Chicks in the realm of country music; but he’s also unsure of how much blame to put on country radio. “Who left whom?” he asks. “Did we leave them? Or did they leave us? You can tell [the Chicks] were disappointed by the [lack of] support of the country community. ... But the incredible polarization, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
He then adds, “I think some of the people surrounding the Chicks didn’t do them well in terms of putting fuel on the fire. Maybe they thought the controversy would help.”
Not Ready to Make Nice
Taking the Long Way went on to win Album of the Year and Best Country Album of the Year at the 2007 Grammy Awards, while “Not Ready to Make Nice” took both Record of the Year and Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group. Drawing a line in the sand, the Dixie Chicks held their ground — and delivered an emotionally charged performance of the song on the show.
“One of the nice things about the Grammy organization is they’re color- and politically-blind,” says Grammy Awards producer Ken Ehrlich. “They’re not ignorant. They know their role and understand supporting artistic freedom and encouraging artistic voices, from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis to Elton John and Eminem.
“We were certainly aware of country radio’s feelings, but I will tell you: I can’t remember one moment when there was a question about whether we’d book them or not.”
CMT President Brian Philips, who at the height of the controversy reached out to do major programming and offered to beam the Chicks in from Holmdel, New Jersey, to open the 2016 CMT Video Music Awards show, feels their pain. But he also marvels at their willingness to cut off the fans who grew up loving their music.
"They write perfectly from a female point of view. Since they left, people have bitched endlessly, ‘Where have the country women gone?’ To paraphrase the Chicks, ‘They're a long time gone, and they ain't coming back again.'" - Brian Phillips/CMT
“You know how many things get papered over in this town?” he asks. “A lot of us were working to salvage the situation [in spite of everything]. The hate mail we got for continuing to play the videos ... the [mainstream] media made famous the objections and objectors who portrayed country in the worst light. ... But what about the millions of people who agreed with [the Dixie Chicks]?
“I feel bad when they said they got death threats,” he continues. “But so did I! They traced one threat down to someone 280 miles from my front door — and I had people ask me, ‘Is it worth it?’
“[But CMT] stood with them because we believed they were important contributors to the soundtrack of our times. They write perfectly from a female point of view. Since they left, people have bitched endlessly, ‘Where have the country women gone?’ To paraphrase the Chicks, ‘They're a long time gone, and they ain't coming back again.’ ”
Thus, a decade after Taking the Long Way, this bit of American music history remains complicated. Were the Dixie Chicks silenced? Did they walk? How did this happen? And could the tangled mess ever unravel? Just as importantly, in this year’s hyper-strident election cycle, could a simple statement of conscience that’s as tame as “I’m ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas” destroy this type of momentum for someone else?
For Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of touring industry trade publication Pollstar, the numbers the Dixie Chicks are doing this year — with no help from radio, little promotion, not even a new album — suggest letting their music do the talking may be the answer. On Pollstar’s Top 100 Midyear North American Tours list, the Chicks are No. 31, with an audience averaging 14,413 people each night, — outdrawing mainstream country stalwarts like Carrie Underwood, Jason Aldean, and the Zac Brown Band.
“They’re back without apology, and in hindsight, they weren’t wrong,” Bongiovanni says. “You speak out, you always take a chance — and the country was in such a polarized place at the time. They’re not selling out everywhere, but the truth is almost nobody sells out like that. They’re playing arenas and large amphitheaters, big places and doing big numbers. Being able to do that without a new record says a lot about their audience and their music.”
As for the Dixie Chicks (my attempts to contact their publicist and management went unanswered), Natalie Maines offered her direct insight in The New York Times. Before their tour kickoff in Cincinnati this summer, she told music writer Alan Light, “I’m really proud of what went down. I spoke up for what I believe — that’s what art is about and musicians should be about. And if I’d known anybody was listening, I would have said something to really make a mark.”
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016/Speak Up! issue of No Depression in print. It's been digitized as a special feature during our month-long subscription drive. Subscribe to No Depression in print today and receive every upcoming edition of our quarterly journal for just $6 per month (cancel anytime).