Chick Hunt

When does stage banter spell doom for open country discourse? And why?

It's been a month to forget for the Dixie Chicks – and for everyone else involved in country music radio.

Owners of a No. 1 country single heading into March, the Chicks now find themselves in a shit storm thanks to that well-covered offhand comment about President Bush at a concert in London. Too bad they forgot to pack the waders.

In a sobering spectacle for artists and free-speech advocates, the Dixie Chicks' music is nowhere to be found on station playlists across the country. Their CDs have been crushed in a particularly compelling photo op. The ladies have seen themselves burned in effigy at "pro-troops" rallies across the country – all because Natalie Maines told a British audience, "We're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas." It's driven the Chicks as underground as Osama bin Laden – they're hiding out in their own bunker.

Welcome to the modern discourse of war, where the media can make you wish you'd never opened your mouth, even if you didn't really say anything all that unforgettable.

"It was never my intention to organize something that was specifically an attack on the Dixie Chicks. I just wanted to make a statement," says Keith Montgomery, the program director at San Antonio's KAJA, whose decision to pull the group's music for 24 hours set the whole systemic backlash in motion.

Whatever Montgomery's intent, soon after, radio stations across the country blew a nationwide flag-waving hissy fit. In the most damaging move to the Chicks' career in the short term, Cumulus Media, the nation's second largest radio conglomerate, decided to pull all Dixie Chicks music from its 42 country stations until the group issues a live public apology (as opposed to the one posted on its Web site). The group's hit single "Travelin' Soldier" tumbled from No. 1 to No. 16 on R&R's country charts in two weeks.

That their latest album, Home, remains the No. 1 country album according to SoundScan may be silent testament to the media-stoked nature of the controversy.

"What's interesting to me is the climate – which I've had some personal experience with – that we live in where there are attempts to censor artists through public relations campaigns," says alt-country firebrand Steve Earle, himself no stranger to pissing off radio. "It's a dangerous way to think in a democracy."

Last year, when Earle released his album Jerusalem, he sparked a media backlash of his own over the song "John Walker's Blues," which imagines the troubled point of view of captured American Taliban combatant John Walker Lindh. Yet that was a county fair compared to the ire directed at the Dixie Chicks, the top-selling country trio of the past five years, with sales of more than 20 million albums.

Even popular rock acts like Sheryl Crow or Dave Matthews haven't attracted the kind of down-home heat directed at Maines and company. This despite Matthews' far more inflammatory assertion at a recent concert: "This war is wrong," Matthews told his audience. "It's criminal to put our servicemen and women in harm's way for the misguided frustrations of the Bush administration."

"It is different if you're Dave Matthews versus the Dixie Chicks. Even in my case, I caught the flak I did because I was in Nashville, even though I'm not played on country radio anymore," explains Earle. "It's [truly] threatening when it's somebody that popular."

It's a Free Country (Sorta)

The Chicks are a solidly traditional country act, and because of their immense popularity, some people obviously felt betrayed by Maines' comment, no matter how benign it may have been. When artists such as Faith Hill were gravitating more toward pop after achieving crossover success, the Dixie Chicks were staying true to the format, following up the multiplatinum success of 1999's Fly with last year's Home, an album steeped in bluegrass instrumentation. To hear anti-Bush comments from one of the most popular singers in music's most guns-and-apple-pie genre might be disconcerting to its average listener. But is it really enough cause for a national boycott?

"What she said and where she said it, in the moment, has taken on a whole broader meaning," says Bruce Robison, who wrote the patriotic "Travelin' Soldier." Robison is the brother-in-law of banjo-playing Chick Emily Erwin Robison; he also downplayed whatever emotional strain the Chicks may be experiencing. "And it just doesn't add up unless you add in some broader things that are happening right now between a couple of different groups. It appears – and I've looked at it a lot because of my own little role in it – that people are looking for a way to show their dissatisfaction with the anti-war movement in general."

That might be the only way, other than simple difference of opinion, to explain the lukewarm arguments advanced by the Chicks' critics.

"I was insulted as a Texan because when she says we' and then Texas' in the same sentence, it almost means that Texans are ashamed that [Bush] is from Texas," says Montgomery. Later he adds the somewhat confusing complaint that, "When role models such as the Dixie Chicks speak out to impressionable kids who may still be in the process of forming their opinions about the war or the presidency or the state of Texas, they are truly doing a disservice."

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