Receiving the fi fth and final trophy of the Dixie Chicks’ Grammy Awards sweep on Sunday night, lead singer and chief provocateur Natalie Maines declared that she’s “ready to make nice” again.
The question now is whether the rest of the world — particularly the part that turned its ire on Maines and her bandmates nearly four years ago — are ready to do the same.
It was Maines’ remark, to a British audience in March 2003, that she was ashamed to be from the same state as President Bush, that set off a fi restorm that included radio boycotts, protests and death threats from alienated fans in the generally conservative and Republican-leaning country music world.
The divide remained strong last May, when the Chicks released their now-Album of the Year, “Taking the Long Way,” to a hostile country market that they’d largely decided to abandon in favor of indifferent pop and adult contemporary formats.
Even without benefi t of airplay, “The Long Way Around” has sold about 1.9 million copies in the United States and, of course, won all fi ve Grammys the group was nominated for on Sunday, including three of the four main awards (Album, Song and Record of the Year) and two country categories — a development Maines termed “interesting.”
But, as one West Coast record promoter pointed out, “They’re making it on publicity. They’re not doing it on radio. It’s all publicity-driven.”
That’s true enough. The Grammy-winning “Not Ready to Make Nice” has been played about 11,500 times since it was released to radio last March, according to MediaBase — which is not nearly a big-hit kind of number. And subsequent singles such as “Everybody Knows” and “The Long Way Around” have barely done 10 percent of that.
So how does a group in that situation wind up being the story of the Grammy Awards? It comes down to politics — but not necessarily the kind you might expect.
The Chicks’ Grammy sweep was not, as some will portray, a music industry middle fi nger at the Bush administration. Rather, it was the Texas trio’s peers empathizing with the situation they faced in 2003 and saluting them for their steadfast defi ance in the face of a potentially career-crippling backlash. It was a vote of solidarity from a body of fellow artists and other music industry professionals who felt that the Chicks had been treated too severely and admired the fact they didn’t fold under the pressure.
Maines, who worked hard — and mostly succeeded — in restraining herself from making infl ammatory comments on Sunday, was pretty close to the mark when she noted that “I think people are using their freedom of speech with all these awards. We get the message.”
There were other factors at play, too.
Do not discount the fact that “Taking the Long Way,” the most ambitious and, yes, pop-oriented of the Chicks’ four studio releases was a fi ne album — and possibly the group’s best yet. It was a contender based on creative merit as much as perceived political impact.
Then there are the mechanics of the Grammy voting process that played to the Chicks’ favor:
The music community is, by nature, mostly liberalminded and also prone to endorse anti-authority behavior from any quarter.
By virtue of the way the voting process is set up, even non-country Recording Academy members are able to vote in that fi eld, and there’s no doubt that Chicks supporters from all corners of the industry lent their support in that genre, too.
The Chicks also had the weight of the massive SonyBMG label behind them, and block voting is a subtle but still evident way of the world in Grammy voting.
So even if large portions of the populace still refuse to whistle Dixie, the Chicks were well-positioned within the Grammy-voting populace.
Will this change the tide for the Chicks in the wider world? Well, don’t start fl ipping around the radio dial expecting to hear a triumphant, full-scale return.
“I don’t think it really changes that much,” says Tim Roberts, program director of Detroit country station WYCD. “They’re kind of the darlings of a certain segment of the culture, but the indication from my audience is extremely mixed and polarized one way or the other. There’s no middle ground with those girls.”
WYCD did try to play “Not Ready to Make Nice” when it first came out, but Roberts says the station stopped because it “got so much negative feedback.” That’s pretty typical of country stations’ experiences around the country, and the Chicks haven’t actively promoted subsequent singles to the format.
There will certainly be a sales bump for “Taking the Long Way” this week, and the Chicks — who played to a considerable amount of empty seats when they opened their tour last July at Joe Louis Arena — may well try to see if they can extend the Grammy buzz into the concert arena.
As for Maines making nice? We’ll believe that when we see her taking a Rose Garden stroll with W.
Oakland Press music writer Gary Graff is a Recording Academy member who votes for the Grammy Awards each year. He’s keeping his votes secret, but he did predict a big night for the Dixie Chicks in Sunday’s Oakland Press — and is now busy scheduling free l
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