It really shouldn’t have come as a surprise when I heard from the Dixie Chicks’ publicist that “the girls are not available to the press,” and in fact, hadn’t been for the entirety of their 53-city "DCX MMXVI" tour, which stops by First Niagara Center at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 17.
After all, a single comment taken out of context and sent around the world in a social media-style blink of an eye might rip the scabs off all over again, sending the band members back a decade-plus to when they were transformed from American country music Texas-born Golden Girls into that genre’s equivalent of corporate whistle blowers.
It happened after singer/guitarist Natalie Maines told a British audience “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this (Iraq) war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”
Even then, in the days before social media’s dominance, Maines’ comment spread like a virus. Almost immediately, corporate country radio stopped playing the Chicks’ music.
Peers expressed their displeasure too, among them bro-country star Toby Keith, a man apparently in love with all the bits of America that don’t include free speech. Keith spewed venom in Maines’ direction.
Fans didn’t unanimously rise to the defense of Maines and her sisters-in-song, Martie Erwin Maguire and Emily Erwin Robison, either. Venues stopped selling out. The Chicks, licking their wounds but remaining defiant, trimmed back their 2006 tour, and for all intents and purposes, got the hell outta Dodge.
Now, without new music, and no major media preamble, they’re back.
And guess what? The Dixie Chicks are selling out arenas again. Country radio is employing selective amnesia. The fans are generally acting as if none of this ever happened.
What has changed in the decade since the Dixie Chicks were deemed history, kaput, over? Everything and nothing. We’re still a country that has trouble wrapping its head around free speech, particularly when it comes to non-politicians expressing political views. Just ask Colin Kaepernick.
However, we’ve had an African-American president, and nominated a woman for that same job. Those are pretty major sea-changes, but it’s not as if America turned all progressive since Maines bashed George W. Bush on stage.
Here’s what we do know.
Bush and company’s decision to invade Iraq is no longer viewed by the majority as having been a jolly good idea. The further we get from the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the less patriotic fervor surrounds all things foreign policy. Whether or not this vindicates Maines and her bandmates’ criticisms back in the heat of the moment is a decision you can make for yourself.
Country music is less of a seeming mouthpiece for conservative political viewpoints. Thanks bro-country, and the genre’s consistent cozying up to rock and pop tropes for this. The songs tend to center on drinking, trucks and having sex while drinking in trucks. I’d hesitate to call this progress, but it may have helped get the Dixie Chicks off the Blacklist.
The marriage of traditional country to rock and pop that the Chicks helped to pioneer is now de rigeuer. That said, very few artists do this as well as the Chicks. The fact that the band now does whatever it wants to do – covering songs by everyone from Beyonce to Ben Harper, moving easily outside the strictures of the country form - as if the whole corporate country music power structure no longer applies to it, now speaks of integrity.
"Shut up and sing" is no longer considered a valid criticism of performers who also happen to be sentient beings. At least I hope that's the case, because that whole post-9/11 "movement" suggested popular culture had become incredibly unhealthy, and that divisions between political and philosophical factions might soon give birth to an environment ravaged by extremism. Oh, wait...
Strong women speaking their minds to large audiences is perhaps less of a frightening thing to country music fans. I might be going out on a limb here, and I have no way to actually prove this assertion. But I’d like to believe it.
Who: The Dixie Chicks
Where: First Niagara Center
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 17