Not ready to make nice
There may be no depression in heaven, but Dixie Chicks fans can find it in the red states
When the Dixie Chicks last toured, the invasion of Iraq had just begun. Among those Americans upset about it was the Chicks’ lead singer, Natalie Maines, who told a British audience that she was “ashamed” that President Bush was from Texas. The statement stirred outrage in the United States.
The Dixie Chicks’ album Home was banned from many country-music radio stations. Nasty letters carried messages from “Shut up and sing” to death threats. Even country-diva-turned-sitcom-star Reba McEntire weighed in, with a remark about the Chicks’ singing “with their foot in their mouth.” Right-wing pundits and music-industry watchers alike predicted that the Dixie Chicks would replace “Goodbye Earl” with “Goodbye Career.”
But Home sat at the top of the country charts for weeks and went platinum. It was a heartening turn of events for country-music fans on the left. Not all of us who like a little twang in our tunes think Toby Keith’s “boot in your ass” is the appropriate approach to international relations. Perhaps integrity and honesty could still count for something in this “you’re either for us or against us” atmosphere.
Three years later, we were hoping for dèja vú all over again. The Chicks’ new release, Taking the Long Way, debuted at No. 1 on the country charts last May and stayed there until the July 4 release of Johnny Cash’s posthumous final recording bumped it to the second spot.
Under producer Rick Rubin’s direction, Taking the Long Way unleashes powerful pop-rock tunes with a county flavor. From the first single—“Not Ready to Make Nice,” which addresses the brouhaha associated with Maines’ remarks—the album takes a “never look back” approach to life. “Lubbock or Leave It” is an indictment of Southern small-town hypocrisy: “Dust bowl, Bible Belt, got more churches than trees / Raise me, praise me, couldn’t save me / Couldn’t keep me down on my knees.” When they’re not singing about fertility problems or harmonizing against war (on the Keb’ Mo’-assisted “I Hope”), there are times when Taking the Long Way could be one of the heavy-metal albums Rubin is known for producing, with fiddles instead of obnoxiously loud guitars.
Country music has a history of respecting its “outlaws,” the artists who live outside mainstream corporate country. The Dixie Chicks’ success seemed to bode well for those of us who thought the Democrats might take a political lesson from them: Speaking your mind isn’t the problem; it’s waffling that ticks off most people. It seemed that the Chicks had proven that the best way to succeed is to stick to your guns—metaphorically speaking, of course.
But on August 3, the Chicks canceled a number of shows in the so-called heartland, including Knoxville, Tenn.; Des Moines, Iowa; Kansas City; Oklahoma City; and Houston. A number of U.S. stops were rescheduled, including Sacramento’s September 4 show, which has been moved to November 14. (Tickets sold for the original date will be honored for the new date, according to reps at Arco Arena.)
The Chicks’ official blogger wrote that late summer is a bad time to sell concert tickets and that the Chicks needed time to promote their new film, Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing, which premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. But he also acknowledged that tickets for the tour are selling better in international markets than they are in the red states, which explains the addition of Canadian and Australian dates to the middle of the tour.
Meanwhile, Taking the Long Way was still in the second spot on the country charts last week, in spite of minimal radio play, and was just certified platinum. But what political lesson are we to take from the apparent inability of the Dixie Chicks to draw a crowd in the red states? They can sell records in Canada. The Democrats can’t pick up votes there. There are times when the country-music business is as depressing as, well, a country song.