The Dixie Chicks: Freedom’s Just Another Word
I don’t even know the Dixie Chicks, but I find it an insult for all the men and women who fought and died in past wars when almost the majority of America jumped down their throats for voicing an opinion. It was like a verbal witch-hunt and lynching.
— Merle Haggard, July 25, 2003, CBS News
Truth be told, throughout the 1990s and into the early years of the new millennium, as the Dixie Chicks grew in popularity, they were merely a blip on my musical radar screen. While I indeed liked much of their music that would from time to time reach my ears, my perception was an emphasis on fashion, style, and image that equated to feeling there was too much sparkle and shine for my liking, and it completely overshadowed and obscured the true substance and remarkable talent of these three women. Add in a very strong message of empowerment, a strong bond with a primarily female audience, and their oversaturation on country music radio that seemed to have no relation to what I personally perceived as country music, and it was even easier to ignore and discount them. A classic case of male and musical chauvinism in equal measure.
The Incident on March 10, 2003
With our armed forces poised at the border in preparation of invading Iraq based on the lies and deception that came from our government, in a nonscripted moment Natalie Maines stood on a concert stage in London flanked by fellow bandmates Emily Erwin and Martie Erwin and spoke these words as they were about to introduce a new song called “Travelin’ Soldier”: “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.” The audience erupted in cheers, and you need to know that in the weeks leading up to that moment we were in the midst of an international anti-war movement that brought millions of people into the streets to protest America’s intentions.
Fifteen years have passed, and we now have a president who brags about grabbing female genitalia, has been accused of multiple instances of sexual misconduct, is an accepted and expected liar, a serial philanderer who gets a “mulligan” from the blind eyes of the religious alt-right, and on a daily basis sends out hateful insults often based on race, color, creed, gender, physical appearance, and opposing messaging to his own fractured points of view. Meanwhile, looking through the rearview mirror, Maines’ rather mild and justifiable swipe at “W” in 2003 caused an outrageous backlash that got the Dixie Chicks permanently banned from country radio, while enduring insults that mutated into threats of violence and death. It was an irrational and orchestrated far-to-the-right-of-center campaign that betrayed the values and freedoms we enjoy in America.
While they were down, they were hardly out. In 2006, their new album Taking the Long Way debuted at number one on both the country and pop charts, and they swept the Grammy Awards in February 2007 in each of the five categories in which they were nominated, including Album of The Year. But as they were able to hold onto the majority of their fan base, country radio continued to boycott their music, and with anemic ticket sales in much of America, they headed for friendlier venues in Canada and across the ocean. Letting the music speak for itself, all three women held that virtual middle finger high with “Not Ready To Make Nice.”
In a Time magazine article in May 2006, Martie Erwin said, “I’d rather have a smaller following of really cool people who get it, who will grow with us as we grow and are fans for life, than people that have us in their five-disc changer with Reba McEntire and Toby Keith. We don’t want those kinds of fans. They limit what you can do.” Maines also retracted her earlier apology to President Bush, stating, “I apologized for disrespecting the office of the president, but I don’t feel that way anymore. I don’t feel he is owed any respect whatsoever.”
With the 15th anniversary of Maines’ comments weighing on my mind, the other night for the first time I sat and watched the Barbara Kopple documentary Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing. Filmed between 2003 and 2006, it follows Maines and the Erwin sisters from that night in London through troubled times and up to the recording and release of their album Taking the Long Way. It is a candid, raw, and very personal insight into what the band dealt with behind the headlines, and the film skillfully portrays the conflict between rhetorical hate-mongering and the strength, love, and sisterhood of these three women. It left me feeling ashamed not only for the unfair treatment toward fellow Americans exercising their right to free speech, but for my own self-absorption at the time that translated into sitting on the sidelines with my mouth shut.
From 2006 through 2008 the band shared concert dates times with James Taylor, and later did a summer stadium tour with The Eagles. After a hiatus to focus on family, the Erwins recorded as the Court Yard Hounds and Maines released a solo album. But the band remained together as a live performance entity, producing no new studio albums but conducting a worldwide tour in 2016 and subsequently releasing a live album and DVD. In November of that year the band returned to the stage at the Country Music Association’s televised award show.
(The Failing) New York Times, November 3, 2016:
On live television, Beyoncé’s improbable performance with the Dixie Chicks at the 50th annual Country Music Association Awards couldn’t have gone more smoothly. With a giant band and brass section, the pop star blew through an extra twangy version of “Daddy Lessons,” the southern-fried track from her latest album, “Lemonade,” even working in a section of the Dixie Chicks’ own “Long Time Gone” in the middle. The Nashville crowd was on its feet.
But online, the reception was decidedly more mixed, with some country fans arguing that Beyoncé, who has recently leaned harder into activism around police reform and the Black Lives Matter movement, had no place at the ceremony.
“Why are you showing Beyoncé & Dixie Chicks? One doesn’t believe in America and our police force while the other didn’t support our president and veterans during war,” one commenter wrote on Facebook, alluding to each act’s past political moments. Another added: “Neither are country, and Beyoncé could not be bothered to put some clothes on for the occasion.” Beyoncé, according to one common sentiment, “isn’t even what country represents.” Others were plainly racist.
In the days that followed, a majority of people in America voted for a woman and Democrat to lead our country, but with voting laws and electoral procedures in play that most people still don’t understand, we ended up with the single greatest threat to our democracy and rights. In what I consider to be a fractured fairy tale, three brave women sailed through rough waters with their dignity and values intact, while the rest of us were left holding an empty bag of wind. In my opinion we all owe Natalie, Emily, and Martie a debt of gratitude for keeping the flames of freedom burning. And I’ll keep my fingers crossed for one more album …
Many of my past columns, articles and essays can be accessed at my own site therealeasyed.com and I also aggregate and post daily on Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed.