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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."

But on a deeper level, it may have to do with the juvenility of their protests. When Dixie Chicks attack, it's off-handed and completely oblivious to context. When Maines popped off about Bush back in March--as the nation was on the brink of war--she didn't have any real criticism, just a blanket declaration of being "ashamed" that the president was a fellow Texan.

Once the firestorm began, the band didn't elaborate on why, exactly, they were ashamed. They didn't discuss how the United States should be dealing with Saddam or why they thought that a stable regional dictator was preferable to a risky attempt at democratization. Similarly, while touring Europe earlier this month, the group's Emily Robison attacked Arnold Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial run, explaining, "I find his idea to run for governor absolutely insane. . . . America should be governed by people who have a clue. I hope he doesn't win." These are clearly women who think smart people are supposed to have opinions on everything--that not having an opinion is what makes you a dunce.

And while no right-thinking person would question their patriotism, it is off-putting that every time the Dixie Chicks have a pronouncement to make about American politics, they make it from Europe. It's when they get in trouble that they come home to pout.

AT LEAST PART of the impetus for their leaving country music seems to be finding listeners who will agree with them politically. As Maines gleefully told Entertainment Weekly, "We surprised [the rock] audience as much as the country audience. They never in a million years thought that we wouldn't want to go to war." Most of the time, audiences seek out musicians they like. The Dixie Chicks are shopping for an audience they find palatable.

The pity is that if you trek through their catalogue, you'll see that the Dixie Chicks are talented musicians and songwriters who make great records. They've evolved from a country-pop group (with their disc "Wide Open Spaces") to a whimsical girl-power act (with "Fly") to, finally, a truly interesting country group (with "Home"). And they've done so by putting out fun, bluegrass-tinged, unabashed country music. As the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot wrote back in 2000:

The Dixie Chicks tone down some of the cartoon imagery; their act is earthier and more human than [Shania] Twain's hillbilly Bo Derek routine and [Garth] Brooks' smarmy hick shtick. And their allegiance to country's roots appears more genuine; fiddle player Martie Seidel and banjoist Emily Robison are steeped in bluegrass tradition and their riffs and solos are integral to the songs rather than just pasted on for effect. Singer Natalie Maines is the trio's wild card; she has a twang in her voice that suggests she has at least heard of Loretta Lynn, but her spunky attitude speaks to a generation that watches Rosie O'Donnell and still has "Grease" posters in their closets.

What's next for them? Will they quit country for real and take up guitars and drums? If not, will they withdraw their names next time they're nominated for Best Country Album at the Grammys?

Who knows. But one thing's for sure: By turning their backs on country, the Dixie Chicks are in danger of mutating into a left-wing boutique act whose audience is more interested in supporting a brand of politics than enjoying music.

It would be a shame if the Dixie Chicks decided that instead of being Loretta Lynn, they'd rather be Michael Moore.

Side note: Tucker Carlson is too good a friend for me to review his new book, Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites with anything approximating objectivity. So I'll just say this: It's breezy and fun and there are moments so surreal, you'll surely see them again in Chris Buckley's next novel. You should give it a read.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.