Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition: Further Thoughts On The Dixie Chicks

I had the pleasure of seeing Shut Up & Sing recently, a documentary about the Dixie Chicks' latest album and the controversy that erupted when, at a London concert in March 2003, just days before the Iraq war began, lead singer Natalie Maines made an off-the-cuff joke about how she was embarrassed that President Bush was from Texas. I remember the incident well, because I was living in Los Angeles at the time, but was soon to return to Texas, where more than a few people I knew were furious at what Maines had said. I've been trying to make sense of the furor surrounding the group ever since, and I've come to only a few conclusions.• They weren't attacked for political speech, but for liberal political speech. Many of the criticisms the band received focused on the fact that, as a band, they're being paid to sing, not offer political commentary. But Toby Keith released the single "Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue (The Angry American)" in 2002; among its lyrics was the warning that "We'll put a boot in your ass / It's the American way." Rather than tell Keith to tone down his rhetoric, country music fans supported the song. Maines wasn't even performing political songs, and it's clear from the footage of the London show that her joke is spontaneous. Yet country music fans still turned on the group for expressing a political belief. To embrace Keith for his politics but tell Maines to not express her beliefs is hypocritical. • The vitriol with which the Dixie Chicks were attacked extended to their gender, which is just frightening. They were labeled the "Dixie Sluts" by some extremist critics, something that never would have happened to a male singer who voiced an unpopular opinion. Cash, Haggard, Kristofferson and Willie himself were labeled outlaws and given respect, but for women to speak out is apparently too much for country fans to handle. • Yes, people who stopped listening to the Dixie Chicks after the Bush jab were completely within their rights. Freedom of expression extends to what albums you do or don't buy, and the former fans who professed their newfound hatred for the Chicks had every right to do so. But that doesn't mean it wasn't a boneheaded, myopic thing to do. I had several friends who liked the Chicks but stopped supporting them after spring 2003, and it wasn't because their tastes changed. No, it was pretty much because of Maines' joke. Why should that stop you from listening to their music if you already liked it? Does her political belief mean she can't sing as well, or play the guitar with the same skill? Does the group's tight harmony become sour when you realize that Maines doesn't support the president? If Rhett Miller came out in fervent support of President Bush, I'd strongly disagree with him, but I wouldn't get rid of my Old 97's albums. I love those albums. I love the songs, the lyrics, the blend of music and emotion and Texas references and heartbreak and pop swagger and just about everything on them. It wouldn't make sense to stop listening to a fantastic musician because I don't like his voting record. • My personal experience with the controversy was a weird one, mired as it was in a dangerous mix of conservative politics, fundamentalist Christianity, and West Texas heat waves. I thought my friends who abandoned the Chicks because of Maines' outburst were pitiable and sad, but mainly because I could never figure out where they drew the line. Refusing to listen to a band because its members aren't practicing Christians would be foolish, but at least it would have been in line with these people's refusal to listen to the Dixie Chicks. So what was it about politics that got these people so motivated that God didn't have? Why were these people willing to hate a band out of their love for Bush but not their belief in God? • I've liked the Dixie Chicks for a while now; they're talented musicians, and Maines has a voice like a cannon. I still think Home is a fantastic album. And what do you know, when I listen to it, I don't think about politics, or fanatics, or the way our culture devours itself out of boredom. I think about the music, and how this band won't just shut up and sing, and how great that is. And on that note: