There are many points of interest that spring to mind when we consider last month's US election, or as some may come to think of it, the day Beelzebub found the respawn button. One aspect that caught my attention was a concert performed by country band Dixie Chicks during which they unfurled a large poster of Donald Trump comically altered to give him the appearance of the aforementioned Prince of Darkness. This gave me pause for thought and took me back to an incident not too dissimilar in nature that happened over 13 years ago. Cue televisual harp strings and wobbly screen effect.
March 10th 2003, Shepherds Bush Empire, London. Dixie Chicks arrived for their first of three promotional concerts leading up to their 81 date worldwide Top Of The World tour. At the time, they were the darlings of the country music industry. The band had won 10 Country Music Association Awards, 4 American Music Awards and 7 Grammys. Their first three albums after breakthrough single There's Your Trouble shot straight to number one in the US country chart with two also topping the Billboard chart.
Then came a moment that would change their professional and personal lives forever. As a preamble to their military-themed song Travelin' Soldier, lead singer Natalie Maines took the opportunity to address the emerging conflict in the Middle East. The sentiment she chose was “We're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas” which was met with rapturous applause from the British audience. The reaction in their home country couldn't have been further from an ovation.
Before we go any further, let's just summarise those rap sheets one last time. George. W. Bush – invaded Afghanistan, invaded Iraq and left thousands of New Orleans residents without food and water for days after Hurricane Katrina. Dixie Chicks – made a twelve word statement in the heat of the moment and apologised for it afterwards.
Two things exacerbated the slight in the minds of the US public. Firstly, the fact that the incident occurred in the UK, on foreign soil as it were, led people to the conclusion that this was an attack on the USA as a whole. Secondly, there was a, in my opinion misguided, view that by taking a pot shot at the warmonger President son of a warmonger President father, Maines was somehow showing some disloyalty to the hallowed American concept of 'The Troops'.
The backlash against Dixie Chicks was both outrageous and disproportionate. Fans turned up in their droves to smash up their CDs. Country radio DJs were suspended for playing the band's music. Natalie Maines was sent death threats. Bush's approval rating at the time was over 70% and Dixie Chicks were destined to be the fall guys for the 30% of dissenters.
After completing their tour, Dixie Chicks took a near-enforced hiatus to work on new material, the result of which was Taking The Long Way, their seventh studio album and a marked deviation from their normal country roots and sound. Rick Rubin was hired to produce the album, someone had previously worked with Jay-Z and Red Hot Chili Peppers. The band were set on change, not least because their was a strong understanding that a country album would not get airplay.
The album is an unapologetic masterpiece. Whilst many expected the band to brush the 2003 incident under the carpet, the approach feels more akin to rolling up the carpet, lathering it in three years of pent up indignation and hurling it unceremoniously in the faces of their accusers. During opening track The Long Way Around, Maines bluntly states that she 'wouldn't kiss all the asses that they told me to'. Bitter End laments the fairweather friends the band lost who drank 'all of our wine' but are now nowhere to be found. There is even a nod in Lubbock Or Leave It to fellow Texan Buddy Holly, seen by some as being under-appreciated by his home town. Maines postulates that when she dies, they may erect a statue in her honour as they did with Holly.
It is in lead single Not Ready To Make Nice though that we find the most striking damnation of the events that led up to this record. In a world not yet au fait with Twitter faux pas, Maines gives us an education in contemplation before action. Perhaps we could all learn a little from the lyric 'It's a sad sad story that a Mother will teach her Daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger'. She addresses the death threats and hate mail she received while asserting that she is 'not ready to back down' and 'still mad as hell'.
There is so much to love about this album. Whether it comes from the piercing twang of Emily Robison's banjo or the towering majesty sliding into heartbreaking fragility of Martie Maguire's fiddle. It is hard though, much like a rubbernecker at a car crash, to take your eyes off Maines. After an incident that would have broken so many people, she is invigorated. She brings an edge that is perhaps lacking from previous albums. Where Robison and Maguire could have hung Maines out to dry (the pair are sisters who started the band with a different lead singer), the band stayed strong and presented a united front when the storms came. This really shines through and the album feels more cohesive and empowered because of it.
By 2006, George W Bush's approval rating was down near 30%. Taking The Long Way reached number 1 in the US Billboard chart and, perhaps more significantly, number 1 in the US country chart. It was nominated for 7 and won 5 Grammy awards including Album of the Year. Not Ready To Make Nice also became their highest charting single on the Billboard chart. If the intention of the album was to stick two fingers up at the legions of bandwagon jumpers that had polluted three years of their lives, I think it's safe to say Dixie Chicks did a pretty good job.
Then again, I might be wrong. I am a Musical Moron, after all...
If you wish to read more about this egregious disregard for the First Amendment, full behind the scenes documentation can be found in Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck's magnificent movie 'Shut Up And Sing'. As an aside, the subject of another of Barbara Kopple's documentaries is the effervescent Sharon Jones, who so tragically passed away in November. If you are interested in an exploration of Jones' career and, in particular, her alternative Christmas song 'Ain't No Chimneys In The Projects' then take a gander at http://theus100.com/tracks-5-7/.
Lyric Of The Week
“Dust bowl, bible belt, got more churches than trees//
Raise me, praise me, couldn't save me, couldn't keep me on my knees”
Lubbock Or Leave It
Dixies not sorry
Natalie's still ashamed that
Dubya's from Texas
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