First Published July 2013
CHICK, FIGHTER, MOTHER
Thirty-two words. That’s all it took to turn Natalie Maines from a dixie darlin’ to a Saddam supportin’, America hatin’, devil in disguise. At least, that’s what happened in the eyes and ears of country music radio and a large number of country ‘ fans ‘. Fans for whom, it must be added, the subtleties of irony and the intricacies of reason and logical thinking – even common sense, perhaps – were as much a foreign language as any other found beyond the shores of their good ole U.S. of A.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against America or country music, far from it. In fact, I’ve spent some of the most memorable days and nights of my life under the blue of a ‘Buckeye’sky in Ohio, and country music defines a massive a part of who I am. But even now, a decade on, how Natalie Maines and the Dixie Chicks were treated back in 2003 still gets me shaking my head in disbelief. There truly are times in this life when no matter how much you love something, you can still find yourself almost diametrically opposed to everything that something seems to stand for or represent at that moment in time. And 2003 was one of those times.
With the release of Mother, Natalie’s first solo record last May, it’s worth remembering how this Dixie Chick spoke her mind, stood her ground, and fought back when lesser souls would have shattered in face of the storm that engulfed her and her bandmates, sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison.
It was London, 2003 at the Shepherd’s Bush Theatre. The world stood just ten days away from yet another war as the U.S. and Britain prepared – despite huge anti-war demonstrations – to invade Iraq in search of the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ their intelligence services had confirmed beyond a doubt existed. That was the message being relayed to the world by then President George Bush, his Vice-President Dick Chaney, their Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. For the greater good of the free world, war had to be waged, they argued. But a lot of people disagreed with that assessment, Natalie Maines among them.
The Chicks were on the European leg of their Top Of The World Tour. Their album sales were in the tens of millions. They already had eight Grammys to their name and their count of CMA Awards topped that by a further two. Their cover of the Stevie Nicks classic Landslide was riding high at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Just three years earlier they had performed the national anthem at the Super Bowl, the sporting and television highlight of the American calendar. But then Natalie Maines spoke from her heart. And thirty-two words changed everything. As she was later to sing, “The top of the world came crashing down.”
“Just so you know”, she began, “we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”
Now, in the same way as I’m not attempting to run down America as a country or all Americans, or everyone who’s a country music fan, or who was involved in the industry then, I’m not saying that Saddam Hussein was basically a good guy, a bit of a character who was misunderstood and suffered a bad reputation because of that. Absolutely not. He was a tyrant, a dictator. A brutal, arrogant, selfish narcissist. But was the invasion of Iraq and the grief it brought upon so many the way to deal with him? Again, in my opinion at least, absolutely not.
As soon as word reached the States of Natalie’s comments while on stage in London, the fallout began. And the nature of the attacks on her, Martie, and Emily were deeply personal, vicious, founded mostly in the flag-waving bluster of patriotism as defined only by flag-waving and bluster. As mentioned earlier, all argument and rationale was as far removed from the subtleties of irony and the intricacies of reason and logical thinking as Bush et-al always were from those ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ Unquestionably, no male band would have been vilified in the same manner.
Maines and the Chicks were accused of supporting communism. One radio caller suggested, in total seriousness, that Maines herself should be strapped to a bomb and dropped on Iraq. Bill O’ Reilly – renaissance man that he is – referred to the band as, “callow, foolish women who deserve to be slapped around.” In the ultra-conservative world of O’ Reilly’s middle class America just ten years ago, it seems that while opposing war was a big no-no, encouraging violence against women was an acceptable form of free speech.
Other protesters labelled Maines, Maguire and Robison as ‘bimbos’ and ‘dixie twits.’ “Free speech is fine”, remarked one man, “but you don’t do it outside of the country and you don’t do it publicly.” Another reasoned that, “Being ashamed of our President means being ashamed of our country.” One couple even offered this sage advice, “Keep playin’, keep makin’ music, and keep your mouth shut.”
Within a week Landslide had fallen from #10 to #43 on the Billboard Hot 100. And within two weeks it had crashed out of the chart completely. Country radio all but banned the Dixie Chicks in response to the frenzy of country ‘fans.’ Many stations even went as far as to set up bins outside their offices so that ‘fans’ could publicly dump their Dixie Chicks albums. In some cases, the public destruction of their albums was encouraged and even arranged by having tractors drive over them to crush them.
Even President Bush himself commented on the controversy, although this time he was perhaps pointedly missing the point and the bigger picture as opposed to just not getting it, as was so often the case. “They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt”, he opined, “when people don’t want to buy their records.” Bush, of course, like the Chicks themselves, is a native of Texas where he served as the Lone Star state’s 46th governor between 1995 and 2000.
On May 1st, 2003, Bush held court aboard the USS Lincoln, a banner behind him proclaiming, ‘Mission Accomplished.’ He stated at the time that this signalled the end of major combat operations in Iraq. In December of 2011, President Obama oversaw the final withdrawal of the last remaining US troops from Iraq. There have been almost 4,500 US casualties in Iraq, nearly 4,000 of them since President Bush’s ‘mission’ was ‘accomplished.’
In 2007, Taking The Long Way, the Dixie Chicks’ first album since the top of their world came crashing down, claimed five Grammys. Among them, the awards for Album Of The Year and, for their defiant, fight-not-flight anthem Not Ready To Make Nice, the awards for Single and for Song Of The Year. Upon its release, Taking The Long Way debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 and the country charts, despite receiving next to no support from country radio. Clearly and thankfully, however, the band retained the support of their more liberal, contemplative fans. Even if, to their eternal shame, a significant number of their fellow country artists distanced themselves from the Chicks in every way possible. But they were not without allies among big names in the music world as both Bruce Springsteen and Madonna were vocal in support of the Chicks’ right to express their opinions freely.
Even country legend Merle Haggard could see through the bluster and past the flag-waving. “I don’t even know the Dixie Chicks”, he stated, “but I find it an insult for all the men and women who fought and died in past wars when the majority of America jumped down their throats for voicing an opinion. It was like a verbal witch-hunt and lynching.”
Mother is not a Dixie Chicks album. And it’s definitely not country, so don’t expect either one. But it’s doubtful that any labels like country, pop, rock – or whatever else – were even discussed by Maines and her producer Ben Harper when they began work on this collection of songs. And in truth, what ‘kind of’ an album it is doesn’t really matter.
What matters is that one of the most powerful, expressive and emotive voices of the last fifteen to twenty years, a voice that has been too long gone, has gifted its vocal dynamism to the world once more. As it happens, though, Mother (whose title track comes from Pink Floyd’s The Wall album) IS an excellent debut. Among the standout offerings are Natalie’s graceful embrace of the Jeff Buckley classic Lover, You Should’ve Come Over, and Come Crying To Me, a Maines co-write with Dixie Chick band-mates Martie and Emily.
Last week the US celebrated the fourth of July, its Independence Day. If anyone can claim to have truly lived in the spirit of what that day is supposed to recognise, then it’s Natalie Maines.
And long may she continue living that very same way.