Chicks in the Wilderness
A decade ago, they were riding on top of the world, selling millions of records to mothers and daughters (and even a few fathers). Then, after one fateful night in London, the Dixie Chicks were banished from country music. They still haven’t found their way back.
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The thing nobody ever remembers about the Dixie Chicks is how much fun they were. But back when the nineties were winding down, when the Chicks were making the leap from hot-selling country act to objects of a national crush, the only thing they appeared to take seriously was their music. They were ubiquitous then, a brassy girl group that could outplay and outsing any band in Nashville, with runway-model looks and a refreshingly genuine manner. Their image was equal parts strong-willed big sister, freewheeling college dorm mate, and potty-mouthed flirty girl at the end of the bar, a combination that drew country fans of both sexes and all ages and then soaked up more listeners from outside the genre. Their appeal was infectious. They were clearly enjoying every minute of their ride to the top.
Jog your memory for specific examples. Picture their old magazine ads for Candie’s shoes. One showed them packed into a bathtub with giggling faces and goofy sneakers sticking out of the bubbles, sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison clutching their fiddle and banjo while singer Natalie Maines belted a song into a scrub brush. Another had them stuffed in the back of a limo, all glammed-up and chowing down on fast food. Or watch their videos on YouTube. For their first single, 1997’s “I Can Love You Better,” they introduced themselves to the world with lilting three-part harmonies while riding into the frame seated on an airport baggage carousel. In 1999’s ridiculously catchy “Ready to Run,” they did street stunts on BMX bikes and started a food fight, all while wearing wedding dresses and running shoes. And in 2000’s “Goodbye Earl,” with its “nah-na-na-na-nah” chorus and “Thriller”-style choreography, they turned a song about killing an abusive husband into a delirious girl-power dance party.
But the joy of the Chicks came through best when they performed live, so stick with YouTube to find clips from their 2000 NBC concert special, Dixie Chicks: On the Fly. It’s just network television, which means you can expect a little cheese, like the show’s running gag that the girls, as everyone in Nashville referred to them back then, are new to the high life. In one prerecorded vignette, Natalie mistakes the bidet in their fancy hotel bathroom for a water fountain. In another Emily fails miserably in a tutorial on smashing her banjo on stage, à la Pete Townshend. But that’s all filler. The point of the program was to capture the Chicks on their first headlining tour, an 88-date monster that sold $47.3 million in tickets. When the curtain comes up, or rather when the zipper falls—the curtain was designed to look like the front of a giant pair of jeans—the band bounces into the Celtic-tinged intro to “Ready to Run.”
Martie is the only Chick visible, standing on a riser and sawing on her fiddle in unison with a pennywhistle player hidden in the shadows. When the body of the song hits, the lights come on and the three Chicks march down stairs to the front of the stage. Their look is all sass and sparkle, with Martie in a sequined tube top and jeans, Emily in a sleek green skirt and halter top, and Natalie in a royal-blue minidress with black boots and wristbands. Martie looks the most like a country performer, always smiling and keeping eye contact with fans. Emily is more reserved, concentrating on her banjo and closing her eyes when she harmonizes. Natalie, however, is the show-stealer. With no instrument to play, she squares up to the mike like it’s a speed bag in a boxing gym. Her voice is strong and sharp, the kind you feel in your chest when you hear it. She punctuates the lyrics by cocking her head and throwing up her hands. During instrumental breaks she stomps to the back of the stage, waving her arms and spinning around. Most people would feel self-conscious dancing like that alone in their bedroom. Natalie acts as if the spotlight is the most natural place in the world for her.
The audience, to put it mildly, gets it. And they’re hardly all female. The crowd shots show plenty of guys singing and dancing in the aisles. But it’s the girls and women you notice. They stare at the Chicks and sing along with every verse and then, on the choruses, turn and sing to one another. There’s a sisterhood thing happening, a collective sense of ecstasy and ownership and pride. You get the feeling watching the younger faces that every time the Dixie Chicks took the stage, an arena full of girls decided to start a band, just as boys once did watching the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The show closes the only way it could, with “Wide Open Spaces,” the Chicks’ song about dawning womanhood that somehow became an anthem for young girls and their moms and dads. Martie’s fiddle soars over Emily’s chiming banjo, while the fans—who know well that Emily had to fight just to get her banjo on the record—sing along with Natalie: “She needs wide open spaces/Room to make her big mistakes.” Natalie turns the mike around and holds it out to the audience as the fans carry the song home. As concert tropes go, it’s pretty well-worn, but it doesn’t seem contrived here. These fans feel like that song is theirs.
Then the clip ends. And it’s hard not to wonder what happened to that band. Because nobody pictures giant zippers and family sing-alongs when they think of the Chicks anymore. Mention of the group now conjures images of an embattled protest band, free-speech crusaders who took the stage looking more like the Clash than any musicians Nashville ever produced. But even that idea of the Chicks is dated. These days Martie and Emily are waiting to release their second CD as the Court Yard Hounds, and Natalie has her first solo CD due out in May. And neither album will sound or sell like the Dixie Chicks.
The short answer to what happened is known in band lore as the Incident. In March 2003, on the brink of the Iraq war, Natalie told a London audience that the Chicks were ashamed that George W. Bush was from Texas. Prior to that moment, they looked like surefire enshrinees to the Country Music Hall of Fame, poised, perhaps, to become the biggest act in the genre’s history. In barely five years, their first three records had sold 28 million copies. Their then-current album, Home, had sold 6 million in six months. But in the ten years since Natalie spoke those words, none of those records has sold even one million more copies, and the Dixie Chicks as an entity scarcely exists. How could an impromptu bit of between-song banter cause so much damage? And why did millions of fans never forgive them?
The fact is, none of it was nearly that simple.
About a half hour into Shut Up & Sing, the 2006 documentary about the Chicks, the band’s longtime manager, Simon Renshaw, gives this nutshell history of their early career. “I met the Chicks in 1994,” he says in a gruff voice laced with an English accent. “There they were, and they had their hair really big, and they had the hoop dresses on, and the spangles, and the cowboy hats. And they went onstage and they performed these songs, which were pretty bad. Basically western swing, very old-fashioned, very not-contemporary. But the one thing that was very, very clear was that they were three beautiful girls, and incredibly talented, and they could really play. And if they had a willingness to kind of, like, change direction, moving more into a contemporary country music space, there actually could be a really interesting slot for them.” The description omits a lot of details, as a nutshell must, the main one being that when Renshaw first started steering those “three beautiful girls,” Natalie Maines was not one of them.
The Dixie Chicks began as buskers on Dallas’s McKinney Avenue in 1989. There were four of them then, all seasoned bluegrass players, even though Martie was a freshman at SMU and Emily just a high school sophomore at Greenhill. The sisters’ parents were schoolteachers who introduced them to music early, then drove them to stops on the Texas bluegrass circuit as they grew up. Along the way they met guitarist Robin Macy and bassist Laura Lynch, women in their early thirties who would round out the group, splitting vocals and bringing a smart business sense. They settled on a sound—equal parts bluegrass and B-movie singing cowboy—and a look. Dressed in fringed skirts, Western shirts, and cowgirl boots, the Chicks moved quickly from street corners to coffeehouses, then to clubs, and finally to the studio. Their first record, Thank Heavens for Dale Evans, came out on Dallas’s Crystal Clear label in late 1990.
By the time they released their next record, Little Ol’ Cowgirl, in 1992, they were one of the biggest bands in Dallas and building a following with alternative-country fans around the state. But as the sisters matured, their ambition grew too. They wanted to be country stars. Macy bristled at their desire for an updated sound—Little Ol’ Cowgirl featured drums and steel guitar—and subsequently left the band. What remained was the trio that Renshaw discovered.
They were already remarkably successful for a regional act, big enough to have an office, an administrative assistant, and their own bus. “That was the Tuna Shoe,” remembers their original drummer, Tom Van Schaik. “It was a beige RV, but the inside walls, couches, and chairs were all pink. We had to take the fixtures out of the bathroom to use it for storage, but still, having a bus meant you’d made it. I got a paycheck every two weeks. We didn’t meet at the back of the van each night to divvy up tips.” Other acts blanched at the intensity of the Chicks’ workload. They took every gig offered, from Sea World and Six Flags shows to wedding receptions, birthday parties, and Ross Perot’s employee picnics. They did well enough singing the National Anthem at Texas Rangers games that George W. Bush, then the team’s managing partner, hired them to perform at his inaugural ball after he was elected governor. “Here’s how hard they were working,” says longtime Austin DJ Bob Cole, now at KOKE-FM. “I met them at the old KVET building when they were taking a record around, trying to get it played. And I don’t mean to sound disparaging, but it was hot out, and when I walked into the lobby, I could smell them.”
In 1994 they hooked up with Renshaw, who had worked with Nashville acts Clint Black and Doug Supernaw. Music Row was already aware of the Chicks and impressed by their organization; they sold more merchandise—T-shirts, bumper stickers, and coloring books—than most national country acts. But their image and sound were too gimmicky, and every major label had passed on them at least once. Renshaw persuaded Blake Chancey, an A&R rep at Sony Nashville, to see the band live, after which Chancey took a calculated risk. He gave them a developmental deal, which came with no guarantees. The Chicks would record demos, and if Sony liked them, a record would get cut.
Their first attempts were good but not great. Some in the studio concluded that Lynch’s voice wasn’t radio-ready, an opinion that had been whispered to the sisters before. “Simon came and met with me after three months and said Martie and Emily wanted to change lead singers,” recalls Chancey. “He said they had two candidates to replace her.” One was Natalie, a descendant of Lubbock music royalty. Her great-uncle had taught Buddy Holly some of his first guitar chords, and her father, Lloyd Maines, was a sought-after steel guitarist and producer in Texas. He’d worked with the Chicks and given them a CD of Natalie singing. They were impressed enough to book a gig with her in Austin and invite Chancey, who in turn was blown away. This was a lineup that would sell.
Natalie’s impact was immediate. Just 21 years old, she was a funny, brash force of nature, wholly uninterested in the cowgirl shtick that preceded her. The Western costumes were shelved and the yodeling numbers dropped from the set lists. The Alison Krauss CDs played on the tour bus now split time with the sound track to Grease. In the studio Chancey enlisted producer Paul Worley, the Sony Nashville executive vice president in charge of A&R, to help refine the Chicks’ sound. Negotiating a new direction was tense at times. “We were five people trying to make a record,” says Chancey, “and all five never agreed on anything. It wasn’t ever even the same three against two. We were all moving around like a chess set.” The producers brought in a song by Nashville songwriters, “There’s Your Trouble,” and Natalie hated it. She introduced “Wide Open Spaces,” a song by the Groobees, an Amarillo act her dad had produced, and Chancey balked at it. But the creative tension was working; both songs made the cut. Most days ended with a beer run, followed on at least one occasion by a recorded burping contest.
The finished album, Wide Open Spaces, started a buzz at Sony Nashville. The sound was unmistakably country, but it had an edge. The girls had lobbied to include songs from poppier, non-Nashville songwriters like Maria McKee and Bonnie Raitt. That, combined with a new, more casual look, gave label execs a sense that the Chicks could attract the best kind of following—not only country fans but listeners who thought they didn’t like country music. Sony needed that to happen. At that point, every other Nashville label had at least one huge act carrying the rest of the roster, like Garth Brooks at Capitol and Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn at Arista. Sony Nashville had been limping along with Patty Loveless, Collin Raye, and Joe Diffie, none of whom had ever had multiplatinum records. The Chicks had the potential to change all that.
But they also showed the potential to cause a unique kind of headache. In August 1997 they were introduced to the rest of the Sony family at a company-wide conference. Every Sony division was represented, from rap to rock. Craig Campbell, the Sony Nashville publicist assigned to the Chicks, was there with the girls. “Each label group had thirty minutes to talk about new artists and have one of them play. We brought the Chicks, and I remember Natalie onstage saying, ‘We get confused a lot with the Spice Girls, so we’ve come up with some names for each other.’ I can’t remember all three, but one of them was Slutty Spice. Then she said, ‘People get our band name mixed up, calling us Dixie this or Dixie that. We’ve even heard the Dixie Cunts.’ The whole room was like, ‘Can she say that?’ They weren’t used to hearing that from country artists.”
Alot of gears go into motion when a Nashville label decides to give an act the big push. A team is created from the label’s various departments: the artist development people who will settle on an image, marketers who will translate that to styling and packaging, publicists who will handle press coverage, and promoters who will lobby to get the songs on the radio. It’s a huge collaborative effort with a lot of together time. Staff accompany the artists to every concert, interview, and photo and video shoot. They become like family. The stars go to the staff’s weddings, and the staff to the stars’. And if the biggest dreams are realized, they’ll all celebrate together at platinum-record parties and awards shows for years to come.
The Chicks made much of the team’s job easy. “One of the main concepts was to project an attitude of freedom and fun,” says Allen Butler, the president of Sony Nashville from 1993 until 2003. “These girls and their music are fun. Wouldn’t it be fun to go see them? Wouldn’t it be fun to buy their records?” Margie Hunt, then a senior director of marketing at Sony, says the label essentially let the Chicks style themselves. “Once an artist was signed, I’d put up eight-by-ten headshots of the ten top stars on a wall and take a step back to see what differentiates them visually—and the females were interchangeable,” she says. “You didn’t get that feeling with these girls. So many artists respond to trends, try to anticipate what’s going to be cool. These girls knew who they were.”
The harder part was getting the Chicks on country radio, which has more power in the industry than even the labels. Unlike other genres, country music has no path to commercial success other than through radio play. Performers have to master the art of the schmooze, to become adept at charming programming directors. Even after Congress deregulated radio, in 1996, allowing companies like Clear Channel and Cumulus to buy up hundreds of stations, artists still had to make those rounds. When the Chicks released their first single, “I Can Love You Better,” in October 1997, they visited 120-some-odd country stations, yucking it up with DJs. “One of the first things we ever discussed,” says Chancey, “was ‘Don’t turn your back on country radio, and they will never turn their back on you.’ ”
“I Can Love You Better” moved up the charts in fits and starts, but even though it stalled, it never fell off. The long climb gave Campbell, the publicist, time to get the Chicks attention on nontraditional outlets. He booked them on daytime talk shows like RuPaul’s and Sally Jessy Raphael’s, expanding their exposure beyond typical country fans. The song peaked at number seven in the spring of 1998, and the budding Chicks army was eager for a second single. “There’s Your Trouble,” the song Natalie hated, was released in April and, with the full support of country radio, quickly went to number one.
About that time, Chancey figured out that something special was happening. “I went with my sister to pick up her daughter from elementary school. There were all these little girls in the minivan, and one of them said, ‘Can you put the CD on song number four?’ My sister hit it, and it’s ‘There’s Your Trouble.’ Thirty seconds later they’re all singing at the top of their lungs. I went, ‘Wow.’ When you get mothers and daughters singing together, that’s winning the lottery.”
Chancey had no idea. In June Wide Open Spaces, which had been released at the end of January, was certified gold, for 500,000 copies sold. While the label was planning a gold-record party for the end of summer, the album was certified platinum, and the trajectory never leveled off. The third and fourth singles, one of which was “Wide Open Spaces,” the song Chancey dismissed, went to number one as well. The Chicks collected two Country Music Association Awards that September, and the following February they received two Grammys, drawing huge attention just for their clothes, black outfits festooned with safety pins designed by MTV’s House of Style regular Todd Oldham. Backstage that night, the reality of their new lives started to sink in. “Elton John came up to us and said, ‘Man, I love your record!’ ” says Chancey. “Then he started naming all the songs on Wide Open Spaces and singing them. Our mouths were open and flies were coming out.”
The team worked hard to manage the momentum. “We had to get across that the girls had real talent and were not just pretty faces,” says Margie Hunt. “People had to see them perform. Because the minute they saw Emily rip on the banjo or Martie on the fiddle, that would just lay them out.” But though the Chicks were now popular enough to headline shows, they’d draw only eight thousand people at best. Plotting with Renshaw and the band’s booking agency, Buddy Lee Attractions, the team planned to maximize the Chicks’ reach. “There was one country star playing stadiums at that point: George Strait,” says Tony Conway, who ran Buddy Lee. “Strait’s traveling Country Music Festival started at noon and went all day. That had people like Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney—and the Dixie Chicks. That put them in front of thirty thousand to forty thousand people a night.” In a shrewd move, Renshaw also booked the Chicks on Lilith Fair, the all-female touring festival that featured rock acts like Sheryl Crow and the Pretenders. Their fan base continued to grow and diversify.
But before the year ended, the band needed to produce a second album. This would be a different experience from the first one. For Wide Open Spaces, most of Sony Nashville didn’t even know the Chicks were in the studio, and they proceeded at a leisurely pace. This time they had to hustle and meet high expectations. But with the first record they’d also needed to scrounge for songs. Now they were inundated with pitches by Nashville songwriters wanting a Chicks cut. One A&R rep who worked on the record estimated that he listened to more than a thousand songs. The Chicks were also writing their own material, including “Cowboy Take Me Away,” a song Martie had co-written as a wedding present to Emily and her new husband, country singer Charlie Robison. Natalie brought in a song she’d co-written, “Sin Wagon,” which provided another opportunity to butt heads with producers. The song featured a sexual reference that concerned label execs, and Worley, who was co-producing again, brought it up with her. “I asked if she really wanted to hear young fans saying, ‘Mommy, what’s mattress dancing?’ She said, ‘I grew up singing “Like a Virgin.” Do you think I knew what a virgin was?’ ” Natalie agreed to a slight rewrite, but instead of deleting anything, she added a punch line: “That’s right, I said ‘mattress dancin’.’ ”
The second album, Fly, debuted at number one on both the country and pop album charts in September 1999. That meant yet another party, capped off by what had become a Chicks ritual. Early on, the girls had decided that certain career milestones—number one singles, number one albums, gold and platinum certifications—would be commemorated by the inking of a chicken-foot tattoo on top of their feet. Team members weren’t required to participate, but the invitation was extended. “I’d never had a tattoo in my life,” says Mike Kraski, who was a sales and marketing vice president at the time. “I had told them I would get one if they ever got to four million units, but I didn’t stick with the program. So one night after a bowling alley party, I was staggering around in one of the Chicks’ feather boas when they reminded me of my promise. Somewhere I’ve got a picture of Natalie drawing chicks’ feet on me in a tattoo parlor.”
The chicks were now country music’s hottest act, but the distinction carried as many limitations as possibilities. Country is something of a ghetto. It’s always been an underdog genre, its fans subject to enough hick-and-rube jokes for a bunker mentality to have taken root. Listeners turn on their radios expecting to hear lyrics about lives that resemble their own, sung by artists they can relate to. So the male legends of country music have maintained humble, everyman personas, and the females have been polite girls next door. And none of them have ever gotten too big to maintain a personal tie with their audience. That’s why even though Jay-Z might not conduct thirty-minute meet-and-greets with radio-contest winners before every show, George Strait still does.
But fans don’t expect artists to be loyal just to them; they must remain loyal to the art form itself. They’re expected to sound like country acts and to be content to remain in the genre. Artists who polish their sound to chase pop success have always faced a backlash, as Faith Hill learned in the nineties and Taylor Swift is learning now. The critique such acts hear—“That ain’t country”—isn’t a suggestion about where to stock their CDs in the record store. It is an accusation of betrayal.
The arbiter of all this is country radio, which defines what real country is. The determination can seem random. Some acts aren’t country enough; others are too country. But the definition does evolve, and the innovative acts are the ones who play the rest of the game well enough to get away with bending the rules. Ernest Tubb could launch the honky-tonk era, complete with forbidden instruments like drums and steel guitar, partly because he was the kind of guy who would turn his guitar over at the end of every show to reveal the word “Thanks” written on its back. When Emily insisted her banjo be kept high in the mix during the recording of Wide Open Spaces, Sony fought back because country radio wouldn’t play songs with banjo. The Chicks held their ground and then sweet-talked their way onto the air. And when they received the CMA for Vocal Group of the Year, in 1998, Martie was careful to sound a gracious note. “Thanks for letting us color outside the lines,” she said.
But as their popularity grew, they started to feel hemmed in by Nashville’s confines. Initially Sony Nashville managed to keep pace. After Wide Open Spaces sold better than all other country groups’ records combined in 1998, the label renegotiated the Chicks’ contract. Typically this happens after a second or third album, an acknowledgment of the basic unfairness of record deals. But the Chicks were on a faster track. In February 1999 the label quietly bumped their royalty rate from 13 percent, the industry standard, to 16 percent.
And then came Fly. For the first seven months after its late-August release, it sold roughly half a million copies a month. “Once it hit about five million,” says Worley, “you could see there was something bigger going on than any of us ever dreamed. But because of accounting cycles, the Chicks hadn’t gotten paid. So I called New York [Sony’s parent office] and said, ‘You guys need to write them a check. They’re fixing to tour and need money to do it.’ But New York wouldn’t hear it, and that put the Chicks in a position of having to go to war with the label.”
The Chicks took the dispute public, a move not without precedent. Garth Brooks had used a similar strategy in 1992, repeatedly telling interviewers that he was considering early retirement, until eventually Capitol Nashville rubber-stamped a deal reading like Garth’s letter to Santa. The Chicks were less subtle. In October 2000, while out on the Fly tour, they groused about Sony’s accounting practices in an interview with Dan Rather. “I don’t even have a million dollars in the bank,” said Natalie. “Tell me where this money goes. I have no idea.”
The spat turned into the biggest public pissing match Nashville had ever seen. After nine months with no headway, the band had a lawyer send Sony a letter declaring the Chicks free agents. Sony quickly filed suit to enforce the contract or collect $100 million in damages. The Chicks sued back, accusing Sony of “systematic thievery” and seeking $4.1 million in unpaid royalties. Then they joined rock artists like Courtney Love and Don Henley in a campaign protesting the unfairness of the record industry. But those steps paled next to the hardball that followed.
In October 2001 the Chicks booked time in an Austin studio and started recording on their own. They spread word that they were creating a bluegrass album and shopping it to other labels. Because of the surprise multiplatinum success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? sound track, bluegrass was in vogue, and Chicks fans started clamoring to hear the new music. Sony, which needed a big record by year’s end to make its bottom line, blinked. In June the Chicks signed a new deal giving them a 20 percent royalty rate, a $20 million signing advance, and their own imprint, Open Wide Records. But even more significantly, Sony agreed to let them be handled by New York instead of Nashville. With their loyal country fans firmly in hand, the Chicks wanted Sony New York to make them pop stars.
The news hit Music Row hard, and a joke around town went “Open Wide Records—as in, take your medicine.” At Sony Nashville, the team that had worked with the band for five years broke up and moved on to other acts, except for the promoters, who would still be needed to get the Chicks on country radio. “We are a family business,” says Worley. “People put their hearts and integrity and relationships on the line for the artists. So for that to be yanked away and given to New York was a slap in the face.” But the hurt feelings ran more to disappointment than resentment, especially when Nashville got to hear the new record. It was brilliant and, ironically enough, far more country than anything else on the radio.
Home was released in August 2002. It was the girls’ first mature record, deeper and smarter than Spaces or Fly, an all-acoustic collection of rave-ups, love songs, and lullabies. Unchaperoned by label grown-ups, the Chicks had written or selected every song. The first single was “Long Time Gone,” a rousing stomper that featured a swipe at country radio. “They sound tired, but they don’t sound Haggard,” sang Natalie. “They got money, but they don’t have Cash.” Home debuted at number one on both the country and pop album charts, just as Fly had done.
At that point, none of the Nashville rules seemed to pertain to the Chicks. Natalie violated the country music equivalent of Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment—“Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow country artist”—when she said Toby Keith’s post-9/11 hit, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” sounded ignorant. Then the Chicks stepped on even more toes, scheduling a national on-sale date for tickets to the 52 shows on their upcoming tour. In the past, country booking agents had always coordinated with one another to stagger acts’ show dates and ticket sales so they didn’t overlap. But the Chicks’ new booking agent hadn’t bothered with that. “Should we route [our tour] around other acts, or should they route around us?” Renshaw asked Billboard.
Still, every move seemed to work to perfection. The Chicks’ new brain trust arranged for them to sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl in January 2003, followed by a People magazine cover and an appearance on Saturday Night Live. The band won three more Grammys in late February, and when tour tickets went on sale on March 1, they sold 867,000 in just the first weekend, a $49 million haul. When the tour kicked off in London one week later, the Chicks’ version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” was the number seven pop single in the U.S. and another song, “Travelin’ Soldier,” about the sacrifices of war, was the number one country song. Everything they’d been working for, the crossover sales and stardom, was squarely in their grasp.
The chicks took the stage in London on Monday, March 10, during a singular period in American history. One hundred thousand U.S. troops were amassed in Kuwait, waiting for the green light to invade Iraq. In the States, where the country was still reeling from 9/11, opposition to the invasion had been drowned out by vocal supporters or rendered irrelevant by the war’s sheer inevitability. The press had yet to seriously question the Bush administration’s rationale for going in, and Congress had decisively authorized the move. The biggest fight brewing on Capitol Hill was the great “freedom fries” debate, a knock against the French for refusing to go in with us.
But the response to the war that the Chicks encountered in England was nothing like that. Just three weeks before, one million protesters had marched on London’s Hyde Park as part of a global protest that drew an estimated 30 million people. Natalie counted herself among the opposition, and those were the people she thought she was speaking to that night at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, a hundred-year-old, two-thousand-seat hall stacked with elegant balconies like a four-layer wedding cake. “Just so you know,” she said, “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 Chicks then played a ballad, “More Love,” with an optimistic chorus, “If there’s ever an answer, it’s more love,” to the thunderous approval of the London crowd.
Nobody in the Chicks’ camp thought much of the comment after the show. But two days later, Renshaw had to shut down the forums on the band’s two websites. Country music news sites had posted reports of the quote from London newspapers, prompting angry fans to swamp the Chicks’ chat rooms. Renshaw met with the band to formulate a response. The scene is captured in Shut Up & Sing—the four of them sitting in a hotel room, where he mans a laptop while Natalie thinks aloud about ideas for a statement. Then Renshaw turns and faces the girls. “I don’t think we should shy away from controversy,” he says before adding, almost gleefully, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get them, like, burning CDs and banning you from the radio?”
It was an incredible misread of country music fans. Country’s response to 9/11 and the war on terror had been to send songs like Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” and Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” to number one. Anger at the Chicks now became part of that reaction. Within days, country stations around the U.S. placed trash bins in their parking lots where listeners could discard their Chicks CDs. A Louisiana station hosted a “Chicks Bash,” where CDs and memorabilia were crushed by a 33,000-pound tractor. Though the Chicks released statements voicing support for the troops and apologizing for being disrespectful to the president, none of it stemmed the tide.
Back in Nashville, members of the old Sony team instinctively went into protect-the-franchise mode. But they were no longer involved in calling shots for the Chicks. “I was sitting at my desk when the news came across the wire,” says Sony Nashville’s Allen Butler, “and I knew, however innocently Natalie might have said it, that was the wrong place and time. New York noticed it immediately too, but they didn’t think it would be that serious. They had Springsteen and a lot of other outspoken artists.” Mike Kraski, by then executive vice president and general manager at Sony Nashville, went so far as to formulate a response. “I didn’t think Martie and Emily shared Natalie’s politics,” he says. “If they’d have backed up a step and had Natalie say her mistake was saying ‘we’ instead of ‘I,’ they could have made it a conversation about where America was at that time. I shared that with New York, and they thanked me for my opinion.”
The blowback proceeded at a breakneck pace, driven at least partly by conservative Internet forums where phone numbers to country radio stations were posted. Thousands of protest calls were made. “You had death threats on all of us DJs,” says Bubba, one half of Big D and Bubba, a syndicated morning show then based out of Baton Rouge. “But on top of that, people were calling our advertisers, businesses like furniture stores, and saying, ‘We’re going to boycott you because you advertise on the station that plays the Dixie Chicks.’ ” Bob Cole got similar calls on the Chicks’ home turf in Austin. “We tried to keep playing it,” he says, “but we got bomb threats and death threats.” The following week Cumulus Media issued a company-wide edict forbidding its 42 country stations from playing Chicks records, but that was almost unnecessary. Stations across the U.S. had already reached that decision. The Chicks’ number one country single, “Travelin’ Soldier,” fell off the charts in just two weeks.
But angry fans didn’t restrict their fury to radio. Smashed CDs were mailed to Sony Nashville, at least one of which was smeared with feces. Another was mailed to the home of a Sony A&R rep, presumably because he’d been thanked in the disc’s liner notes. Other country stars largely stayed silent, unwilling to risk getting tarred by association. Toby Keith, on the other hand, started flashing a Photoshopped image of Natalie hugging Saddam Hussein on a screen above the stage when he played “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” in concert.
The Chicks returned from overseas in early April, taking some comfort in the knowledge that tickets to the North American leg of the tour had already been sold. But that also worked against them. When other celebrities have faced such a crisis—Tiger Woods comes to mind—they’ve been able to drop from the public eye and let the controversy die down. The Chicks didn’t have that option. So they settled on a strategy that struck many, at least in Nashville, as tone-deaf. They would maintain a united front, and they’d stand their ground. In an interview with Diane Sawyer, an ever-defiant Natalie couldn’t put her heart into the obligatory fallen-celebrity apology. When Sawyer pushed, the best Natalie could muster was, “No, I’m not truly embarrassed that, you know, President Bush is from my state,” she said. “That’s not really what I care about.” The following week they appeared nude on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, their bodies painted with the hateful slurs they’d been hearing, names like “Dixie Sluts” and “Saddam’s Angels.” Three weeks after that, with their tour in full swing, they performed on the Academy of Country Music awards show in a live remote from Austin. Knowing the country world would be watching, Natalie wore a T-shirt with “F.U.T.K.” written on the front, another clear knock at Keith.
As the tour went on, protests were surprisingly few, but the radio boycott continued, as did the hate mail. Before a show in Dallas, Natalie received a death threat that authorities took seriously enough to provide a police security detail. But even then the Nashville establishment stayed out of the fight. Eventually the Chicks hit a breaking point. When the tour returned to Europe in September, Martie indicated to Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine that the band was through with country music. “We don’t feel a part of the country scene anymore,” she said. “It can’t be our home anymore.” Then she added, “No, we see ourselves now as a part of the large rock-and-roll family.”
The post-incident Dixie Chicks bore no more resemblance to the America’s sweethearts in the Candie’s ads than that iteration did to the Dallas street-corner cowgirls. Onstage their look was almost militant, their clothes often black and Army green, the sleeves ripped from their shirts, and Natalie’s hair piled up like a mohawk. They had become darlings of the antiwar left, a crowd that saw Natalie as one of the few public figures who’d had the courage to speak out from the start. Their brutal treatment by right-wing commentators like Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News bunch had earned them the mantle of free-speech martyrs. The band embraced every bit of it. In the summer of 2004, as Bush geared up for reelection, Renshaw helped organize a series of fall concerts in swing states under the banner “Vote for Change.” The Chicks played eight dates with the liberal likes of James Taylor, REM, and Bruce Springsteen.
They were also putting together a new album. Recorded throughout much of 2005, Taking the Long Way was their means of working out all they’d been through. The feeling of the album was aggrieved defiance. Both the breakup songs and the new-love songs tore into old lovers who sounded like stand-ins for Nashville.“Lubbock or Leave It” railed against judgmental hypocrites in Natalie’s hometown, but all of country music was in the crosshairs. And the songs that addressed the turmoil directly, like the first single, “Not Ready to Make Nice,” were explicitly not conciliatory. The music was a pretty, pop-country hybrid, but that got lost under the weight of their statement. The Chicks were pissed off.
“I remember telling Natalie that if she let this turn her bitter, then the bad guys have won,” says Worley. “And she said, ‘Paul, if you had seven hundred credible death threats against you and your family, you would feel differently about that.’ Her point was well-taken. I don’t know how that must feel.”
The hard feelings persisted after the record’s release in May 2006. In a Time cover story headlined “Radical Chicks,” Natalie continued to poke the old wound. “I apologized for disrespecting the office of the president,” she said. “But I don’t feel that way anymore. I don’t feel he is owed any respect whatsoever.” It was Martie, though, who landed the final blow. “I’d rather have a smaller following of really cool people who get it,” she said, “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.” Not surprisingly, when “Not Ready to Make Nice” was released the following month, country radio scarcely touched it. “They came out and said they didn’t want to be part of country radio,” says DJ Big D. His partner Bubba adds, “That took the monkey off radio’s back.”
“I’d rather have a smaller following of really cool people who get it,” she said, “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.”
Taking the Long Way quickly went to number one on both the country and pop album charts, but the reality of their new, post-Incident career set in soon after. Sales didn’t come close to matching those of the three previous albums. When tickets went on sale in June for their 43-date Accidents & Accusations Tour, not only was country radio refusing to play their music, it wouldn’t accept paid ads for their concerts. Except for a few shows in the Northeast and Canada, sales were abysmal. Though the Chicks scrambled to add 10 Canadian dates, they had to reschedule 12 in America and cancel 14 altogether.
In February 2007 the Chicks dominated the Grammys, winning a total of five awards, including the top three—for album, record, and song of the year. The New York Times called their wins vindication, pointing out that the band had not been nominated for anything at the recent CMA Awards. The transformation was complete. The Chicks were the toast of the pop music world. And country music itself had moved on.
Last November I traveled to Nashville to visit with former members of the Dixie Chicks’ Sony team. Based on an email exchange I’d had with Emily, I went with the understanding that the Chicks would cooperate on this story. But after arriving I had trouble confirming an appointment with Larry Pareigis, who used to be the head of radio promotion at Sony Nashville. He had helped keep “I Can Love You Better” from falling off the charts in late 1997 and dispatched his promotion reps to calm country radio in the spring of 2003. Finally he sent me an email saying he’d heard from Renshaw, who had informed him that the Chicks were not participating. As such, Pareigis wasn’t willing to be interviewed either. He was extremely polite about it. But as he’d explained earlier, even though he hadn’t worked with the Chicks in years, he still felt protective of them.
Everyone I talked to on Music Row expressed some measure of that loyalty, though it ran to the girls individually, as old friends, rather than to the band. And that makes sense, because despite a few Canadian dates set for this summer, the Dixie Chicks show few signs of life—no plans to record and precious little airplay. Emily and Charlie Robison divorced in 2008 and she now lives in San Antonio with their three kids as well as her boyfriend and their six-month-old daughter. The band she and Martie formed, Court Yard Hounds, released a self-titled CD in 2010 that sold about 200,000 copies, according to SoundScan—a respectable figure, though a far cry from the numbers the Chicks racked up in their glory days. Last summer they recorded a follow-up in Austin, where Martie, now also divorced, lives with her three daughters. But so far there’s no release date nor plans for a tour. Martie is occasionally spotted around town, and gossip in the music scene suggests that the sisters—along with Chicks management and Sony—are ready to revive the band, if only Natalie would get on board.
Publicly, Natalie shows no interest in doing so. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, actor Adrian Pasdar, and their two boys, but her distance from Nashville is more than geographic. She’s a fixture on Twitter, characteristically nervy and often political, but country music seldom comes up. When it does, like last year when she started a tweet-fight with a joke about singer Jason Aldean’s inability to stay on pitch, the scars are still visible. In the ensuing back and forth with irate country fans she wrote, “I haven’t been aware of country music in at least 6 years. It’s not my thing.” She added, “I used to follow it because I felt it was my job to know what was going on. I don’t think that anymore.” Her upcoming solo album was produced by light-soul folk rocker Ben Harper. Judging from its title cut, a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Mother,” it won’t be remotely country, and she promised as much in a January interview with Howard Stern. Tellingly, when Stern suggested that Martie and Emily were like Garfunkels to her Simon, the Chick who always spoke her mind offered only a slight correction, pointing out that the sisters already had a career when they invited her to join them. And later she said this: “I just don’t feel like it’s the Dixie Chicks’ time.”
She may well be right. But is that because country music abandoned the Dixie Chicks, or was it the other way around? And why did the whole situation get so out of hand? Everyone I spoke with in Nashville had an opinion. A lot of them alleged a conspiracy on the part of corporate radio, a theory once pushed by Renshaw and the Chicks, pointing to Cumulus’s official boycott and the well-known Republican ties of Clear Channel executives. But airplay statistics show that independent stations dropped the Chicks faster than the corporate chains. And even within the chains, airplay dropped faster in red states than blue, and at country stations as opposed to pop. And it fell fastest at stations near military bases. So the idea of a national, web-rousing boycott doesn’t pan out. The groundswell wasn’t organized, it was organic.
Noted country historian Robert K. Oermann believes Nashville abandoned the Chicks and attributes it to gender. “This would never have happened if they were men instead of women,” he says. “I think they were perceived as uppity before the Incident took place.” It’s hard to know how much weight to give that argument, because no artist, male or female, ever bucked Nashville convention to the extent the Chicks did. And even after they sued their label, stepped on other acts’ touring schedules, and picked a fight with Toby Keith, radio kept playing them and their records kept selling.
But there’s something to Oermann’s reasoning. The Chicks were uppity, but the problem wasn’t that they didn’t behave like proper ladies. The problem was that they didn’t behave like proper country stars. When Garth Brooks got crosswise with Capitol Nashville, he didn’t sue anyone or flirt with a new label, and he certainly didn’t start consorting with Courtney Love. He continued to play the Nashville game.
The Chicks quit doing that, and ultimately it hurt them more than gender or even politics. Tim McGraw later criticized Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, and Carrie Underwood came out in support of marriage equality, but they kept playing the game and they’re still on country radio. The Chicks went to war against country music, and it’s unclear why they chose that route. Maybe they fought in defense of sincerely held beliefs. Maybe they felt betrayed by an industry that turned its back on them after they’d made it a lot of money. They may have been convinced country radio would never give them another chance, and they may have gambled that, refashioned as activists, they could join the ranks of the Springsteens and U2s.
In any event, ten years on, when most Americans view the Iraq war much the same way Natalie Maines did, there are still country stations that won’t play the Dixie Chicks. The shame is that country music is not better off without them. Forget all the new fans they brought to the genre and the new directions they were pushing the music; they made great country records. And but for the Incident, there would be two or three more Dixie Chicks albums in existence. They’d have written and recorded songs about their changing lives—about marriage and motherhood and divorce—that could have become anthems for fans growing up with them, just like “Wide Open Spaces” once was. But for whatever reason, and whomever one wants to blame, those records never got made.
I spent my last afternoon in Nashville at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s a remarkable facility, a multimillion-dollar downtown complex that serves as a testament not just to the stars who created the music but to the massive wealth the industry generates. Throughout two floors of state-of-the-art, multimedia exhibit space, the story of country music unfolds in its apparent entirety, from Jimmie Rodgers’s train conductor’s cap to Loretta Lynn’s coal-miner’s-daughter dress to Taylor Swift’s rhinestone-studded flapper dress.
The largest displays are devoted to the biggest stars, but, knowing a little of the history already, I was struck by how many of them had contentious relationships with Nashville. One of Hank Williams’ suits was exhibited, even though habitual drunkenness got him fired from the Grand Ole Opry, in 1952. Buck Owens and Merle Haggard were well represented, even though they established the Bakersfield scene that competed with Nashville in the sixties, as was Willie Nelson, who ditched Music Row to start the outlaw movement in Austin in the seventies. There’s even a display case for Gram Parsons’s famous marijuana-leaf Nudie suit, although he was never associated with mainstream country music and was generally reviled in Nashville when he died of an overdose, in 1973.
But nowhere in the museum was there any mention of the Dixie Chicks. This, even though the Chicks are the best-selling female group in American history and even though the Incident represents one of country music’s greatest intrusions into the American consciousness. The hall of fame gave them nothing. It was as if they never happened.
In February that changed, when the hall put on display the Todd Oldham–designed safety-pin dresses that caused such a stir at the 1999 Grammys. These are the first Dixie Chicks artifacts to be exhibited at the museum since the Incident. Whether country fans let them stay up remains to be seen.