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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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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.