“Has-beens.” “Hypocrites.” “No one cares.” “Just sing.”
“Talented musicians.” “Just moms and human beings.” “True patriots.” “The only country act with balls.”
Disparate comments like those were commonplace back in 2003, the year the Dixie Chicks — not exactly the likeliest of political torchbearers at the time — drew a line in the sand over the Iraq war and sank in professional quicksand.
Those comments are not from 2003, though. They were posted by readers on StarTribune.com just this past November, when the Dixie Chicks’ second of two concerts at the Minnesota State Fair grandstand was announced. So much for Spam sushi being the most debated offering at the fair this year.
Thirteen years later, the Chicks’ kerfuffle almost seems like a quaint, small-time controversy amid the current chaos surrounding presidential politics. Lead singer Natalie Maines — from the flatly conservative Texas Panhandle — slammed President George W. Bush on a London stage in March 2003, just a week before he sent U.S. soldiers back into Iraq amid allegations it had weapons of mass destruction.
“We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas,” she said.
The backlash was immediate, and it truly shocked and awed the music industry. The Chicks’ red-hot single “Travelin’ Soldier” — ironically a moving tribute to a fallen Vietnam War hero — became the fastest-descending single in Billboard history the following week, a fact that the song’s gifted writer, Bruce Robison, humorously brings up at gigs nowadays. Country music stations nationwide dropped the Chicks like flies.
Here in Minnesota, the trio went from playing two sold-out shows at Xcel Energy in 2003 (tickets sold before the controversy) to not even being able to fill Target Center for one night in 2006.
There’s no debate: Maines’ comments immensely hurt the Chicks’ career.
In 2016, however, something else is equally clear: The Dixie Chicks are not “has-beens,” at least not in concert terms.
The country trio’s shows Saturday and Sunday make up the first two-night stand at the State Fair’s grandstand since “Mountain Music” hitmakers Alabama during their ’80s heyday (Alabama, coincidentally or not, returns to the grandstand next Thursday). Tickets for both Chicks gigs — about 30,000 tickets total — quickly sold out, nearing the demand for seats before Maines fired her “ashamed” heard around the world.
The fair’s deputy manager in charge of entertainment, Renee Alexander, said she was not surprised by the excitement for these shows, nor did she hesitate to bring them to the fair.
“To me, it was a no-brainer,” said Alexander. “I felt like enough time had passed [since the controversy], and I believed there’s a large, core audience of Minnesotans who are nostalgic for their music.”
Alexander said the fair staff has heard a “small cluster” of negative reactions to the concerts. Pointing to the fair’s equal acceptance of more politically conservative acts, such as Toby Keith, she said, “If you book shows based on everything artists believe or say, you’re going to wind up with a short list of options. We just focus on the talent and music.”
Tuned out at radio
For each of its grandstand concerts, the fair partners with a local radio station for giveaways and promotion. In the Chicks’ case, it actually teamed up with two stations: K102 (102.1 FM) and BUZ’N (102.9), the Twin Cities’ two leading country outlets.
Both stations are giving away tickets. However, neither is actually playing Dixie Chicks songs.
Gregg Swedberg, senior vice president of programming at K102’s iHeartMedia, blamed the discrepancy on the fact that the Chicks have not released new music in 10 years, and not on the lingering wounds from Maines’ damaging words.
“They stopped being a modern country radio act because they stopped making new music,” said Swedberg.
The program director at K102 in 2003 when the big dust-up happened, Swedberg summed up the controversy in one word: “fascinating.” He admitted a lot of mainstream country radio operators in 2003 “grandstanded to make their own political statement.”
“We never did that; we just said politics are none of our business and continued to play them,” Swedberg said. However, he believes the Chicks made matters worse when, in 2006, they released the Grammy-winning, controversy-courting single “Not Ready to Make Nice,” co-written with Twin Cities musician Dan Wilson.
“ ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’ was their middle finger right back” at country stations, he said. “That was totally their prerogative as artists to make that statement, but at that point it was more about them than it was about their music.”
K102 gave “Not Ready to Make Nice” a chance, but its listeners did not respond well to it, Swedberg said.
Where’s the trouble?
After having their say with their 2006 album, the Chicks went on extended hiatus. They each focused on raising their children but also issued lower-key side projects, including one solo album by Maines and two records by sisters Emily Strayer and Martie Erwin under the band name Courtyard Hounds.
The Chicks first stepped back into action in 2013 with 15 tour dates, but those gigs were conspicuously set in Europe and Canada. Only in 2016 are we learning that American audiences — if not American country music stations — are responding favorably to Dixie Chicks music again.
Arena and amphitheater dates from Cincinnati to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to the group’s native Dallas have sold out. The Twin Cities, however, is the only U.S. market to have two shows with the band.
So who are the 30,000 fans who bought up tickets to this weekend’s concerts?
Swedberg and Alexander both pointed to nostalgia-seeking country listeners eager to revisit the music’s flourishing era of the 1990s, much like rock listeners who want to hear Nirvana and Pearl Jam songs.
Other possible explanations for the Chicks’ resurgence: Many young women today were teens and preteens in the Chicks’ heyday, and were thus relatively oblivious to the controversy; or women of all ages are tired of country music being dominated by macho, rowdy male singers such as Kenny Chesney and Luke Bryan and want to hear the Chicks’ many songs of empowerment, including “Wide Open Spaces” and “Goodbye, Earl.”
More on the political front, some listeners who begrudged the Chicks’ stance against Bush and the Iraq war in the heat of the moment circa 2003 changed sides after the “weapons of mass destruction” allegations were disproved years later. Or, like the many Vietnam War supporters who watched movies with “Hanoi” Jane Fonda decades later, maybe some of the detractors simply forgave or forgot.
Of course, as any comments section under a Dixie Chicks story online would attest, there’s still plenty of resentment over the stance they took in 2003. Whether there’s still enough contempt to prevent mainstream country radio stations from playing the Chicks again remains to be seen.
K102’s Swedberg, for one, thinks the trio deserves another chance.
“They made some very good records,” he said. “If they make another good record that suits our format, we would absolutely try it out.”