Dixie Chicks: They're back and this time they're really angry

They had platinum albums on the walls, Grammys on the shelves, and the adulation of millions of Middle Americans. Then they said what they thought about the Iraq war, and all hell broke loose. Now, despite death threats and boycotts, the Dixie Chicks are at it again
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The Independent Culture

Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the country-rock group the Dixie Chicks, had never really revealed her feelings about the dozen or so words she uttered on stage at the Shepherd's Bush Empire in west London a little over three years ago, and the mad media kafuffle that ensued. Was it a big mistake or the best marketing coup ever? Does she regret the offence she caused and the furious reaction of her fans or does she remain unrepentant?

You had probably never even heard of the Chicks until that time, even though the Texas trio of singers and strummers has been around, in different incarnations and combinations of artists, for 17 years. American country has a fairly narrow following in Britain.

That was the spring, of course, when President George Bush, with support from Tony Blair, launched his ill-starred invasion of Iraq. The Chicks were in the middle of a long European tour and they knew what the political mood was that side of the pond. It was 10 March - 10 days before the US and British forces poured in - and Maines did a good job of reading the Shepherd's Bush crowd.

"Just so you know," she told the packed house, "we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas". The fans erupted in cheers of approval and the group proceeded with the next song. It was a few days before the trouble began, when America got wind of what she had said, thanks to reviews of the concert in British papers.

And, oh boy, was it a potent backlash. The Chicks were in the headlines like never before. America was going to war and what did this little singer from Lubbock, Texas, think she was doing insulting the country's Commander-in-Chief at such a time? Few things are more dangerous for a celebrity in the United States than the charge that they are somehow unpatriotic. Americans do not take kindly to traitors to the nation. Maines did offer an apology at the time. But it was one of those carefully scripted mea culpas, probably dictated by executives at the band's Sony record label.

Now, all this time later, she is giving an honest accounting of herself. It comes in a song on a new album from the Chicks. Does she take the chance to make peace with her fans, with President Bush and, indeed, with the country? Here is a clue: the song is called, "Not Ready to Make Nice".

The scripted apology came on 14 March, four days after the London gig. "As a concerned American citizen, I apologise to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful. I feel whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect. While war may remain a viable option, as a mother, I just want to see every possible alternative exhausted before children and American soldiers' lives are lost. I love my country."

President Bush himself was drawn into the controversy. "The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. They can say what they want to say," he told Tom Brokaw of NBC. "I don't really care what the Dixie Chicks said. I want to do what I think is right for the American people, and if some singers or Hollywood stars feel like speaking out, that's fine. That's the great thing about America."

That may have been the end of it. but the Chicks did not shy from capitalising on their new notoriety. Over the years, they have become a major power on the American music scene and were not about to slink away. The band has sold more than $100m (£57.4m) in concert tickets and they are used to their albums making $10m apiece.

No one was terribly surprised, therefore, when the women appeared naked (with their more private areas strategically camouflaged) on the front cover of Entertainment Weekly in May 2003, with provocative slogans emblazoned tattoo-style all over their bodies, from "Traitors" and "Saddam's Angels" to "Dixie Sluts", "Proud Americans", "Hero", "Free Speech", and "Brave".

They also had backing from peers in the music industry, who saw the opportunity to stand up for free speech at a time when it seemed to be in serious peril in America. They included Bruce Springsteen and Madonna. Madonna herself was not immune to political pressures, finding herself forced to cancel the release of her anti-war video for the song "American Life" which had a double of Mr Bush being murdered with a hand grenade.

Yet, there was a steep downside to the ruckus, commercially and personally. Country music fans in the US are mostly a Middle-America, conservative bunch, who vote Republican for President. All across the US, country music radio stations joined a boycott of the Chicks, refusing to play their music. Even today, the group has 30 per cent less radio airplay than before the anti-Bush incident.

More gravely, Maines, who is the daughter of the steel guitar legend Lloyd Maines, reported serial death threats.

In their American tour in the summer of 2003, the group was shadowed by bodyguards, and metal detectors were erected at the entrances to all their concert venues. Since 2003, the Chicks have been more or less quiet, with no new releases or tours. It was a time, you would imagine, when they would refocus on the music and leave politics alone.

The first sign that was not entirely their intention came in late 2004, when they agreed to be part of the series of concerts called "Vote for Change" staged in swing states in the weeks before the voters chose between Democrat John Kerry for the White House or George Bush seeking another term.

The series was spearheaded by Springsteen and organised by the Democrat grass-roots organisation MoveOn.org. Late last year, the group made another brief surfacing, with a new song, "I Hope", in a telethon concert for victims of Hurricane Katrina. But industry insiders were far more interested in a new album due in early 2006.

With three years gone since the Shepherd's Bush brouhaha, it seemed reasonable to suppose the Chicks would try to put the controversy behind them. They would try, at least, to move on. Which band, in its right mind, would want to alienate their fans any further?

Originally slated for release in April, the album, Take the Long Way, has now been pushed back a month until May. But this week, we have learnt that the Chicks have taken the opposite tack. There is, for instance, one song entitled "Lubbock or Leave It", apparently an attack on narrow-minded small-town America. We have not heard it yet.

But, through their website, the band's members have allowed early release of "Not Ready to Make Nice". Rather than expressing sorrow for the upset she caused her fans, she instead uses to the song to raise her middle finger. The track is an expression of despair at those who deserted her and threatened her with death.

Click on the website, DixieChicks.com, to hear the music yourself. The tune is appealing and, after a week on the radio airwaves, shows every sign of selling swiftly. Billboard Monitor shows the single has jumped from number 54 to 36 in a week and is listed with a 94 per cent chance of becoming a hit. But the uncompromising lyrics are getting the attention":

"I made my bed and I sleep like a baby/With no regrets and I don't mind sayin'/It's a sad sad story when a mother will teach her daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger/And how in the world can the words that I said/Send somebody so over the edge/That they'd write me a letter/Sayin' that I better shut up and sing/Or my life will be over."

Already, the country music scene is bubbling with indignation. In Lubbock, one country station, KLLL, is refusing to play the single. DJ Jeff Scott said: "I think as long as they're still angry, keep stirring it up, people keep remembering and it keeps adding fuel to the fire and keeps this thing going."

TJ Greaney of Country Line magazine, said: "Country music fans want to forgive them. Whether they're going to or not, I don't know. A lot of people really like the Dixie Chicks. And they want them to be the Dixie Chicks, not a political arm or spokesperson. They want them to do music."

What, then, are the Chicks up to? Critics say the album appears to be taking the band further from its country roots to a more rock'n'roll sound. Maybe the women have calculated there is no point in seeking forgiveness and it is time to expand to a wider audience and to do that they need to generate headlines again, by rekindling the controversy that served so well before.

But Maines offers a different take. The hurt she felt was genuine and the writing of the song offered her the only way towards recovery. If people want her to leave this episode behind, she had do this first.

"This album was total therapy," she said this week. "I'm way more at peace now. Writing these songs and saying everything we had to say makes it possible to move on."

She has taken the chance, finally, to say what she really thinks of everything that has happened. With the power of the wallet, music fans everywhere will shortly be able to do the same.