I WAS HAVING A CUP of coffee one morning in the hostility suite of the mental hospital when my editor called and suggested I write a column on the Dixie Chicks. I told him that by the time this issue came out, people would be asking, “The Dixie who?” “No,” he said. “They’ll be a topic of heated debate for some time. Just ask your fellow residents.”

So I did. I asked a 275-pound, six-foot-tall black man who was under the impression that he was Napoleon. “Sure,” he said. “I loved the Dixie Chicks. They were cute and little and purple. They wiggled through a fence in Houston fifty years ago and were eaten by two dachshunds.”

“No,” I told him. “Those were the Easter chicks.”

So I took the elevator up to my padded room in the van Gogh wing, where I live with my pet typewriter. But I wasn’t sure what to type. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about the Dixie Chicks, but I did know their agent, Dr. Kevorkian. I called him on a secure line.

“Hey, Doc,” I said, “how are things goin’ with the Chicks?”

“Great!” he said. “Not only are they riding high on the charts here in the States, but they’re also moving into heavy rotation on the new country station in Tikrit.”

“That’s wonderful!” I said. “How’s the tour going?”

“Fantastic!” he said. “We’re selling out every date. And this summer we’ve been invited to open for Jerry Lewis on a tour of France.”

“How do you explain the rather odd phenomenon,” I asked, “of the Chicks going up on the pop charts at the same time they were going down on the country charts?”

“What,” he asked, “do those country hicks know about music?”

By the time I hung up with the good doctor, I had an even more confused image of who the Chicks were. Was it healthy for me to be listening to their music? Were they trying to poison my values? Were they trying to poison my soup? I had to know the answer to that last one right away, because the sign in the lobby read “Today is Tuesday. The next meal is lunch.”

At lunch I talked to a woman who was sitting at my table, and I asked her what she thought of the Chicks. “I’m going to an ophthalmologists’ convention in Las Vegas,” she said.

I asked, “Do you think they really should’ve told a European audience that they were ashamed President Bush came from Texas?”

The woman, in a far deeper, far more bitter voice, answered, “Mother Mary, full of grace, help me find a parking place.”

“One more question, if you don’t mind,” I said. “Do you think the issue of freedom of speech comes into play here? I mean, surely the Dixie Chicks can say what they like onstage or off, but should they be held accountable for their behavior? Or, conversely, do you think bad behavior should be rewarded by a measurable increase of success in the marketplace?”

“I’ve eaten an appropriate amount for my figure!” the woman screamed in a frightening falsetto. She was becoming increasingly agitated. As an orderly took her away, I wondered whether she hated the Dixie Chicks or just didn’t want Jell-O for dessert.

I went back to my room after lunch in something of a petulant snit myself. I was starting to get a rather negative impression of the Chicks. No one in the hospital seemed to have heard of them. Was it possible that they didn’t really exist at all? Could it be they were merely a figment of the American imagination? An abstract notion to which we all subscribed? A supreme being in whom we all believed? Were the Dixie Chicks God? “Blasphemous!” I thought. “Impossible!” Yet nobody seemed to know who or what they really were or stood for. And, I was forced to admit, they had pretty much risen from the dead. I bowed my head to pray.

When I looked up, the room was bathed in a strange incandescent, celestial light. Either I was in heaven or inside an old-fashioned jukebox. The Dixie Chicks were on my television set, singing to me in perfect harmony. The lyrics, as best as I can remember, went something like this: “We’re sorry if we hurt the president’s feelers,/But he wasn’t nice like that Garrison Keillors./We’re not ashamed that we said what we meant./Now tell us why you’re a wig-city resident.”

“That’s what I want to know,” I said. “The shrink claimed he put me in here because I believe I’m George Bush’s rabbi. But I am George Bush’s rabbi! I told that shrink, ‘For God’s sake, Hoss! You can’t put George Bush’s rabbi in a mental hospital! I’m ashamed that you come from New Jersey.'”

“We know how you feel,” said the Dixie Chicks, who were now no longer on my television screen but standing in the padded room with me. “We’ve gone through something like that ourselves. You didn’t do anything wrong. You were just misunderstood.”

“Damn right!” I said. “I don’t belong in here.”

“Of course you don’t,” said the Dixie Chicks. “After all, you’re George Bush’s rabbi, and he needs all the guidance he can get. Now, before we leave for our sold-out national tour, how’d you like it if we sang for you again?”

“Make it brief,” I said. “The pope’s calling at two o’clock.”

And then they sang, and their voices were so beautiful and innocent that I could imagine what they must have been like when they were just three little girls growing up in the country, never dreaming that one day they’d be pestering the president and posing nude on the cover of a magazine. But I’ll always remember the verse they sang to me. I think it’s from some old gospel song: “Lord, we have sinned./But who among us/Ever really dances/With the one who brung us?”