What The Dixie Chicks Threw Away

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(Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

(Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

Charlie Mitchell Charlie Mitchell
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Last month at an industry event, CMT’s Katie Cook made the mistake of asking former Dixie Chicks frontwoman Natalie Maines about a possible return to Country Music.

Natalie’s response:You know what? It’s kind of like going back to your abusive husband. I’m just not feeling it. I’m sorry.

Once the remark was posted to our Facebook page…the response was immediate – and mostly vitriolic. Aside from the usual “censorship” and “you banned the Dixie Chicks” charges – which I will address in a bit – the responses looked like it was 2003 all over again.

Until I saw a number of comments inquiring…”Who are the Dixie Chicks?” Who is Natalie Maines?”

I share this with you today as March 2013 marks ten years after what is arguably the most spectacular implosion of a superstar career in the history of Country Music – if not the entire music industry, period.

Let’s begin back in 1998. Monica Lewinsky. Titanic. Faith Hill‘s “Kiss“! And of course, Shania Twain.

Country Music was heading in a decidedly Pop direction. The Dixie Chicks not only brought balance but a sexy sass that somehow made Shania seem, well, plastic by comparison.

The awards and accolades came immediately…as follow-up hits like “Wide Open Spaces“, “You Were Mine” and “Tonight The Heartache’s On Me” propelled Natalie, Martie and Emily into the forefront of Pop Culture.

The follow-up – Fly – stands to this day as one of the all-time great albums in any genre of music. Filled with hooks and hits yet not lacking in either substance or musicianship, Fly was so good the Chicks could have retired afterward and be regarded today with the all-time greats of Country Music.

Summer 1999 saw the Chicks lighting up the stage at Three Rivers Stadium as part of George Strait‘s Country Music Festival, alongside Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney and then-red-hot JoDee Messina.

The next step was a headlining tour of their own…but a dispute concerning royalties with their label, Monument/Sony, held up a highly anticipated third album.

And then the twin towers fell.

The 9/11 tragedy, and the shockwaves it sent through American society, started a chain of events that propelled Country Music back in a more traditional direction. Shania Twain may have sold 34 million copies of Come On Over, and Faith Hill’s Breathe may have been omnipresent in late 1999-2000…but by 2002 the public had had enough and both artists began to face backlash. As of this writing, neither career has recovered.

Enter Natalie, Martie and Emily. Off the radar themselves while settling their dispute with Sony, their oldies were blasting out of radio speakers everywhere. Even some harsh remarks about Toby’s summer 2002 anthem “Courtesy Of The Red, White & Blue” (The Angry American) were pretty much dismissed as a sideshow.

America was ready for its sweethearts to return. And with new releases from leading ladies Faith and Shania falling on deaf ears…frankly, Country Music NEEDED its Dixie Chicks.

And did they deliver…

Home was a bold step, even for the Chicks. It was all-acoustic…only the Sheryl Crow Pop remix of “Landslide”, sent to stations like our sister 100.7 Star, had any drums of any sort. Here’s the original.

Then again, gutsy was what we’d come to expect from this trio. And the public responded, snapping up six million copies of Home in short order. A third single, “Travelin’ Soldier”, flew to #1.

In the first week of March 2003, our weekly internal polling of Country Music fans in Pittsburgh…the same data used today to compile the Jimmy and Monty Top 30 Countdown (heard weekends on Y108), showed “Travelin’ Soldier” the undisputed #1 song of the week in Pittsburgh.

Furthermore, other internal listener tracking, taken in February 2003, showed the Dixie Chicks themselves had not one…but three of the Top Ten most-loved Country songs of ALL TIME in Pittsburgh.

Their An Evening With The Dixie Chicks DVD was flying off shelves.

Their Top Of The World tour was an all-but-certain sellout…the most-anticipated tour of the year.

And then…as that tour kicked off March 10, 2003, at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire Theatre in London, England, Natalie Maines introduced “Travelin’ Soldier” as follows:

“Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” 

(it should be noted that Natalie, Emily and Martie call Dallas their home)

As Facebook was but a dream in Mark Zuckerberg’s mind and there was no Twitter or Instagram…it took a day or two for the news to cross the pond…and for the fit to hit the shan.

When it did…the public reaction was swift and visceral. And requires context to properly understand.

In his 2003 State Of The Union speech, President Bush set the stage for an invasion of Baghdad and a toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime, citing intelligence shared by multiple nations that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Other reports alleged that Al-Qaeda training had been taking place in Iraq. Operation Iraqi Freedom was set to commence on March 19th, with goals stated as follows…”to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.”

That Natalie’s remarks were made on foreign soil…where there was little popular support for the invasion (although Prime Minister Tony Blair was on board with President Bush and committed 45,000 troops to the effort) …only made it worse.

Natalie tried to contain the firestorm by issuing a clarification on March 12th…

“I feel the President is ignoring the opinions of many in the U.S. and alienating the rest of the world.”

…followed by an apology on the 14th…

“As a concerned American citizen, I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful. I feel that whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect. We are currently in Europe and witnessing a huge anti-American sentiment as a result of the perceived rush to war. While war may remain a viable option, as a mother, I just want to see every possible alternative exhausted before children and American soldiers’ lives are lost. I love my country. I am a proud American.”

Some people seem to hold this notion that all of us in Country Radio somehow got together and “banned the Dixie Chicks”.

COMPLETELY UNTRUE.

It IS true that a FEW stations took that extraordinary step…but only a few. For most of us in Country Radio, the disappearance of the Chicks’ music was heartbreaking…didn’t happen overnight…and was driven by one thing only:

Listener feedback. PERIOD.

And by “listener feedback”, we don’t mean that we were worn down by the angry protests of a few vociferous listeners. Or that people were burning copies of Fly in the Foster Plaza parking lot.

We mean that in our regular and customary surveys of listeners’ reaction to the music we play, the overwhelming response went from loving to hating the Chicks’ music.  And all over the nation, Country Radio program directors began receiving similar feedback in the same way.

Here in Pittsburgh, “Travelin’ Soldier” disintegrated first and was pulled from further airplay around April 1st…pretty much concurrent with its disappearance nationwide.

But during this period, Y108 promoted a listener poll that generated over 15,000 written responses, many still supportive of the Chicks, even if they disagreed with them on the Iraq War.

So we continued to play the trio’s older hits, even though sometimes listeners would call to voice their displeasure.

An attempt to rehabilitate their image began in earnest about a month later on ABC’s Primetime Live.

The other four segments can be seen here…

Segment TwoThreeFour…and Five.

One sentiment that came up repeatedly from different people in the industry who had spoken with Natalie, Martie and Emily, was that the Dixie Chicks genuinely didn’t understand how the average Country Music fan felt. I’d say that sentiment was underscored when they appeared nude on the cover of Entertainment Weekly’s May 2nd, 2003 issue…their bodies covered with slogans such as “traitors”, “Dixie Sluts”, “free speech” and “brave”.

In this context, I guess what happened next was inevitable.

May 22nd, at the ACM Awards, the Chicks – nominated for Entertainer of the Year – performed wearing shirts bearing the acronym…

“F.U.T.K”.

Did it stand for “Friends United in Truth and Kindness”. Or was it “Freedom, Unity, Truth and Kindness”?

Respectfully…if you believe either one, I’ll make you a deal on the Clemente Bridge…and throw in PNC Park as a bonus!

Now even though Toby Keith’s anthem “Courtesy of The Red, White & Blue” was at this point almost a year old – and the Chicks’ displeasure at the song’s message was old news as well – the girls apparently felt the compulsion to reopen that controversy which only further soured the public’s perception.

Watch what happened when Vince Gill announced their name among the ACM Entertainer of the Year nominees.

Toby, for his part, is said to have walked out during the Chicks’ performance. Apparently he didn’t buy the explanation of “F.U.T.K.” either.

Duh.

Toby was in fact never a warmonger…in fact he’d expressed reservations about invading Iraq in a 2003 60 Minutes on CMT interview, but as he told CMT a year later, “sometimes (war) is the only answer“.

Which, I believe, was the entire point of “Courtesy of The Red, White & Blue”.

And, to be fair, I can’t believe if the Dixie Chicks were total pacifists, that they would have ever recorded “Travelin’ Soldier”…or “Goodbye Earl”.

But Natalie is, in my opinion, a loose cannon…which can be cute in the right context…but lethal when you’re kicking off a world tour a week before your country plans to go to war to dethrone a tyrant, and you publicly disrespect your President on foreign soil.

I believe we were more than fair to the Dixie Chicks here at Y108. We may have been the last Country station in America playing their music, albeit more and more infrequently.

But finally, in early 2004, almost a year after the original incident in London, even the band’s previous supporters had had enough. An increasing number of people saw the Dixie Chicks as hard-left ideologues who had nothing in common with the common Country Music fan. And so we ceased playing their music.

It wasn’t censorship…no matter how Natalie, Emily and Martie may try to portray it. The listener feedback simply had soured to the point where there was no other choice.

What seems to have been forgotten here is one simple truth…

Freedom of speech does not equal an obligation to listen.

It just doesn’t. It simply means that you can speak without government repercussions or threat of physical harm (and there were people who stepped over the line in making physical threats, a criminal act).

In fact, President Bush’s response was as follows:

“The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. They can say what they want to say … they shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out…”

As the years have passed, we’ve blown the dust off our old Dixie Chicks CD’s and played an occasional track or two. And we have the benefit of ten years hindsight to help shape our opinions and perspectives.

No matter your views now – or then – the bottom line and the saddest part of this whole sordid account is that a superstar career imploded over 32 poorly-timed words.

And we come back around to an old adage we all learned in kindergarten…

“LOOSE LIPS SINK SHIPS”.

Maybe Natalie Maines was absent the day the teacher gave that lesson…

That’s my view…what do you think?

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