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Trading Places

The Dixie Chicks have decided that they aren't a country music group any more. What are they thinking?

12:00 AM, Sep 24, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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"I think [the Dixie Chicks] will go down as one of the biggest acts in the format, and by doing so--by staying true to their country roots and to country music--they will be a turning point for the industry. They're showing what can work and be country and have its own identity and not have to cross over to another format to sell records."

--Sony Music Nashville's Allen Butler, December 18, 1999

THE DIXIE CHICKS, you may have heard, have decided that they are no longer a country music band. Member Martie Maguire told the German magazine Der Spiegel, "We don't feel part of the country scene any longer, it can't be our home any more.. . . . So we now consider ourselves part of the big Rock 'n' Roll family."

Forget for a moment that this is like Ian McKellen announcing he's no longer a classically trained actor and that he now considers himself part of the Hollywood action-hero fraternity.

There are three possible explanations for this latest fit of Dixie Pique. None of them are particularly flattering.

The first, and kindest, is that they're simply sore losers. In the Spiegel interview Maguire says, "We had in the United States this year the most successful tour in country music, the best selling album, as well. The song 'Travelin' Soldier' was at the top of the Billboard charts. Nevertheless, for the next country music awards, we were only nominated (for the CMAs) in two categories. We did not receive any awards (at ACMs) and during the ceremony, we were booed. That says everything."

The second is that this is the endgame in a calculated marketing shift. After complaining about George W. Bush last March, the Dixie Chicks lost a sizable chunk--though by no means all--of their audience; many country radio stations took them off their play lists. Alan Sledge of Clear Channel called the blowup "a classic example of maybe the Dixie Chicks not knowing their constituency." In Entertainment Weekly, Chris Willman speculated that "They may need all the rockers they can get. The simple truth is that the Chicks' careers as country-radio hitmakers may be over." And in an interview with Willman, the band foreshadowed the shift, saying that from now on they "probably won't be showing up" at country awards shows.

THE THIRD EXPLANATION is that the Dixie Chicks have decided they don't like the people who buy their records. A scan of their press clippings suggests that when they blame the country music "industry" for driving them out of the format, they really mean country music "listeners." After all, radio stations have quietly worked their singles back into the rotation and while Maguire complains that the group hasn't received enough support from other country artists, Merle Haggard, Vince Gill, and Faith Hill have stood up for them.

But while the reaction of fans attending their shows has been positive, country music fans outside of that self-selected group have been less enthusiastic. At the Country Music Awards last spring they were booed and their mailbags were so stuffed with negative responses that the trio decided to appear defiantly naked on the cover of Entertainment Weekly to strike back at these critics. (It may not have helped that this aggressive PR assault was conducted while American troops were still formally engaged in hostilities in Iraq; or that lead singer Natalie Maines said in the article, "I hope people don't look at [this cover] and go, 'Oh, isn't that nice. They're trying to get more attention.'")

When asked how she felt about creating the Bush fracas, Maines told Entertainment Weekly, "It's sort of felt how people say it is when someone dies, how you go through every stage--angry, disappointed, confused. Some days I just feel proud." Later, recounting how one of their tour bus drivers quit in the wake of her comments, Maines said, "It seems unfathomable that someone would not want to drive us because of our political views. But we're learning more and more that it's not unfathomable to a large percentage of the population." Of course Maines is part of that large percentage, too, since she no longer wants to associate with country music.

WHY HAS the country music audience reacted so viscerally to the Dixie Chicks? Part of it may be simple team politics. As Clear Channel's Alan Sledge said, "The people who like the Dixie Chicks are also people who most likely voted for President Bush in the last election."