Sunday, August 13, 2017

Dixie Chicks and Such

One day this summer, as I headed out to do some work at our sauna-cabin (so called because it’s basically equal parts sauna and cabin – in other words, it’s not that big), I decided to put on some music for the drive. Something besides the Mozart that my son, who had recently been borrowing the car, had left in the CD player.    

I pulled the traveling CD case from the glove-compartment and started flipping through the random selection of discs there. Finding nothing I especially wanted to listen to, I decided to try one disc that I didn’t recognize, one with no markings I could make out.    

When I slipped the CD into the player I was surprised to hear the sound of “The Dixie Chicks” come out of the speakers. I’d almost forgot I had that one.    

I can’t claim to be much of a country-music fan. I grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry and didn’t really “discover” other kinds of music until almost high school, when like most of my teenage cohort, I started listening to rock. After that, me and “country” mostly parted ways.    

I do like some artists well enough, Willie Nelson, Doc Watson, some Johnny Cash, old school country, you might say, and bluegrass, but not so much modern, “slicker-sounding” country. I wouldn’t be able to pick Garth Brooks out of a line up. A musical line up, that is.    

Still, I like many of the songs on my one Dixie Chicks CD (Top of the World Tour: Live), spunky tunes, for the most part fun, high energy. Not bad. In reality, however, I bought that CD not because of the music, but because of politics.

Amazing to think that that was 14 years ago, though in many ways it feels like it was much deeper in the past, a very different time from our own.    

The Dixie Chicks, a trio of female country singers from Texas, were at the peak of their popularity in early 2003. Six of their singles had reached number-one on the country music charts in the previous five years, soon after lead singer Natalie Maines had come on board. By the first months of 2003 they had won four Grammys and ten Country Music Association Awards.    

The first months of 2003 was, of course, also the time when the drumbeat for a new war was in full swing in the US. The world watched anxiously to see if George Bush would invade Iraq. The wisdom of such a preemptive (Iraqi had not attacked the US) action was being debated in Congress and the media, though surely not debated enough. Outside the US there was much more skepticism.    

That was the background when The Dixie Chicks took to the stage in London on March 10, 2003. When it came time to perform their current top selling song, Maines paused to say a few words first.    

The song was “Travelling Soldier”, a classic country tearjerker written by Texan Bruce Robison (never heard of him, but that’s not a surprise). It tells about an unassuming young soldier from small-town America, a soldier sent to Vietnam who did not make it back, just one of the some 58,000 Americans who suffered the same fate. (In some ways, the song reminds me of the Vietnam-era hit “Galveston” by Glenn Campbell, who succumbed to Alzheimer’s recently.)   

I guess “Traveling Soldier” took on special meaning for the band as the US was being pushed inescapably by the president toward a controversial war that would again result in the loss of US soldiers. Surely with that in mind, Maines told her London audience this:    

“Just so you know, 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.”   

The Iraqi War started ten days later. To date, over 4500 Americans have died as a result, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.    

I’m not sure how Maines’ London audience reacted to her mild anti-war statement. Probably with cheers. I suspect most Brits, with the exception of Tony Blair, were not especially eager to follow the US in its quest to topple Saddam Hussein.    

The overall reaction in the States was unambiguous, however, and scalding. Many of the Chicks’ fans were outraged, especially by the criticism of President Bush. People began boycotting the band. Their songs plummeted in the charts, sponsors started to abandon them, and I doubt they have ever fully recovered from the controversy. All because they said they were “ashamed” of the US president. Ridiculous.    

I’m not sure what the opposite of a boycott is. It would be too corny to say it’s a “girlcott”, but okay maybe I just did that anyway. In any case, in order to do my bit to support the band, to boycott the boycott, as it were, I bought a Dixie Chicks CD.  

How times have changed. In today’s political climate, where public discourse has never been coarser, Maines’s ding at George Bush seems quaint by comparison. This year there have been some celebrated cases of celebrities perhaps crossing the bounds of good taste in insulting Donald Trump, sparking outraged conservatives to ask for their heads. They got Kathy Griffin’s at least. She lost her New Year’s Eve gig at CNN and suffered other repercussions after posting a photo of herself holding a fake severed head of Trump.    

Of course, outrage is often a one-way street. You didn’t see the same outrage on the right (or none, in fact) when Ted Nugent, while banishing two machines guns, inspired concert-goers with this bit of nuanced commentary:    

"Obama, he's a piece of shit. I told him to suck on my machine gun. Hey Hillary, you might want to ride one of these into the sunset, you worthless bitch."    

No boycott. No outrage from folks worried about the sanctity of the Oval Office. In fact, Nugent got invited to the White House just three months after Trump took office.    

Isn’t that ironic? Perhaps not as ironic as America electing a president who now claims that he too shared (not really) the Dixie’s Chicks’ opposition to an unnecessary war, a huge disaster that was about to happen. 

His fake opposition didn't prevent him getting elected by many of the same people who 13 years earlier trashed the Dixie Chicks for speaking their minds and taking a genuine stand. Seems supremely unfair to me. 

The Dixie Chicks in concert, June 2003. 
(Credit: Wasted Time R)

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