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FEATURE | summer 2003


Pickin' on the Chicks

Ms. Summer 2003

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"We're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas," she said.

That was it. That was the off-the-cuff sentence uttered by the Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines during a London concert which set off a furor so bizarre and over-the-top that right-thinking people—any thinking people for that matter—were pretty much left scratching their heads.

The sentence was neither a diatribe nor a foreign policy white paper, but that didn’t stop some country fans, fueled by the country-music corporate establishment some say, from exploding in rage.

Radio stations led the anti-Chicks jihad. Several came up with crowd-pleasing stunts, like the station in Bossier City, La., near Barksdale Air Force base, that hired a 33,000-pound tractor to smash Chicks CDs. Or another in Wichita, Kan., that set up a bin where listeners could dump thier Chicks CDs.

Those station mangers who decided to keep playing the Chicks felt the heat. When Dale Carter of KFKF in Kansas City posted a statement on the station's website saying that he was "having visions of censorship and McCarthyism," he got more than a thousand angry, name-calling e-mails. Dick Harlow, vice president and market manager at Clear Channel Radio Wichita, also got negative reaction when he publicly said he was lifting a short-lived ban on the Chicks due to free-speech considerations. One listener sent a copy of a local newspaper with Harlowe's words circled in red. "You are evidently not an American," the listener wrote. "I am... and I will never listen to your station again."

Natalie Maines
Natalie Maines (of the Dixie Chicks) on stage, post brouhaha. Photo by Rick DIamond of Wireimage.com

On the other hand, some of the outrage may have been driven by folks who were never fans in the first place. Veteran music-industry executive Irving Azoff, whose company is promoting several Chicks concerts, says he's heard from station directors that when some anti-Chicks callers were asked about their favorite Chicks song, they couldn't name one.

Still, the anger went straight to the bottom line. Within a couple of weeks, the Chicks were not being played on about half ofthe 148 country-radio stations that Billboard magazine tracks around the country. Ironically, their hit, "Travelin' Soldier"--meant as an homage tothe troops-- fell from number-one on Billboard's Hot Country Singles & Tracks to off the chart entirely.

The "Home" album, released last August, had been selling steadily before the controversy, with a strong post-Grammy spike: The week before Maines made her controversial remark, it sold 123,436 units. The following week it dropped to 70,026; the week after to 45,350.

Country singer Travis Tritt popped up on Fox News calling the Chicks “cowardly” and used his website to call for a Chicks boycott. Al Gore weighed in before a college audience. “They were made to feel un-American and risked economic retaliation because of what was said,” Gore declared. “Our democracy has taken a hit.”

Amidst death threats and vandalism to their homes, the Chicks tried to clarify their position. “I feel the president is ignoring the opinions of many in the United States and alienating the rest of the world. My comments were made in frustration, and one of the privileges of being an American is you are free to voice your own point of view,” said Maines.

The good news today is that the Dixie Chicks are back on top. Their tour has been sold out in nearly every city and the protestors have been few. Their record sales have shot up again.

Aside from garnerying rave reviews, the tour has given the group the opportunity to speak their minds, and they continue to courageously do so. In Kansas City, their clothes said it all. Maines had the slogan "Fight War Not Wars; Destroy Power Not People" inscribed along the bottom of her torn T-shirt. Martie Maguire wore a "Free Natalie" T-shirt, combat boots and military pants. During the song "Truth No. 2," a video featured documentary footage from the civil rights, gay rights and women's suffrage movements and footage of teens destroying Beatles' (and then Dixie Chicks') music as the word "Tolerance" appeared on a screen.

Our take on the controversy? Get thee to the concerts! The few remaining tickets for the tour, which over the summer will reach Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, New York, Washington, D.C., and Denver, are available at http//www.dixiechicks.com.