It’s been more than three years since “the top of the world came crashing down,” as the Dixie Chicks sing on their latest album, “Taking the Long Way.”
The Texas trio has done a pretty fair job of rebuilding that world since — although the foundation is still a bit shaky.
The roof caved in on the Chicks after lead singer Natalie Maines told a concert crowd in London, England, in March 2003 that she was “embarrassed” to be from the same state as President George W. Bush. The backlash was immediate and furious, especially in the harshly conservative country music world. Radio stations banned their music; some even held disturbingly fascist rallies to destroy Dixie Chicks memorabilia. The group members were criticized by peers — particularly Toby Keith and Reba McEntire — and, more seriously, received death threats against themselves and their children.
Some of the negativity lingers, but so does the fact that the Chicks remain an enormously popular group. “Taking the Long Way” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart in May with first-week sales of nearly 526,000 copies, making them the first female group in history to have three consecutive albums debut in the top position.
Still in the Top 10, “Taking the Long Way” was recently certified platinum and also spent seven weeks atop Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart — not bad in a genre that supposedly abandoned the group after what the trio refers to as “the incident” in London. And even in its immediate wake, the Chicks’ subsequent Top of the World Tour grossed $62 million in ticket sales, the best ever by a country act to that point.
But it’s still not all wide open spaces. Country radio is still cool to the Chicks, with little airplay for the album’s fi rst single, in which Maines tells listeners she’s still “Not Ready to Make Nice” after the controversy. Detroit’s new country station, The Fox WDTWFM (106.7), even polled listeners about whether it should play the band, with 72 percent voting against it.
Most stations are taking a tentative position on the new single, “Everybody Knows.”
The group’s Accidents & Accusations Tour, which kicks off tonight at Joe Louis Arena, also has shown some residual effects from the furor. Some shows on the 45-date trek, including Detroit, are suffering light sales, and the group had to cancel plans to perform in cities such as Memphis, St. Louis and Jacksonville, Fla. But it’s also found welcome in Canada, even adding a second concert in Toronto.
AGAINST THE WIND
So where does all this leave the Chicks these days?
“There’s certainly a core that has become disaffected with them,” says Tim Roberts, program director of Detroit country station WYCD-FM (99.5). “But they do have a huge fan base that obviously likes their product, ’cause they’re buying it like no tomorrow.”
Adds John Trapane of The Fox, “They’re extremely polarizing; that’s the best term I can come up with.”
But what’s really happening with the Chicks now actually goes beyond Maines’ anti-Bush statement and into a different kind of politics.
In making and promoting the critically lauded “Taking the Long Way,” the group has determinedly distanced itself from its established country base. They made the album with producer Rick Rubin, better known for his work in rock and rap, though he also helmed the late Johnny Cash’s “American Recordings” series. With co-writers such as Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, Sheryl Crow and Keb’ Mo’, the result is closer to a California country-rock à la the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt.
“Rick, from the start, felt very confident that we had a lot to say and that we could write the whole thing,” says fi ddler Marti Maguire, who co-founded the group with sister Emily Robison in the late ’80s in Dallas (Maines joined in 1997). “Doing it just feels like a great validation and just fires us up to know that we could do it in the future.”
But the group members also made clear they didn’t do it for their country fans. Maines told the Toronto Sun that, “I don’t want to surround myself or be part of what (country music) represents right now.” And Maguire told Time magazine — which placed the Chicks on its 100 People Who Shape Our World list — that “I’d rather have a small following of really cool people who get it ... than people that have us in their fi ve-disc changer with Reba McEntire and Toby Keith. We don’t want those kinds of fans. They limit what you can do.”
Country radio programmers note that group has largely excluded them from promotion for the album and tour. In Los Angeles, the Chicks ignored country station KZLA-FM, which continued to play their music even in the wake of the Bush comment, to instead visit a more pop-oriented station, where they complained on-air that they weren’t getting support from country radio.
“Probably two-thirds (of the listeners) who don’t want us to play them, it’s more so because of what they’ve done in the last three months rather than the (Bush) comment,” says The Fox’s Trapane. “People are like, ‘I loved ’em and stuck through ’em through the whole thing,’ and now they’re not there for us.
“I think that’s done 10 times as much damage as the actual statement.”
WYCD’s Roberts agrees the Chicks have been “standoffish” to their country audience.
“They seem to be more interested in becoming a touring band, the way Bob Dylan or Jimmy Buffett have become, rather than being a mainstay at radio stations,” he says.
Some felt the Chicks were hoping to find a new home at more pop-oriented formats, such as adult contemporary. But programmers there say the group, even with the massive sales of its three previous albums and the occasional crossover hit, such as its 2002 cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” will have trouble establishing themselves outside country.
“They are a country group to everybody in America who knows the name Dixie Chicks,” says Chuck Knight of WSNYFM, an adult contemporary station in Columbus, Ohio. “You can’t shed and you can’t change that skin, ever.
“And, to be honest, rather than getting caught in the crossfire of the issues that come with them, we’re saying, ‘Hey, why don’t you just stay country?’ ”
The Chicks plan to stay the course, however. They’re focusing on the Accidents & Accusations Tour, which multi-instrumentalist Robison says will “get the full band going ... and rock a little bit” after the 2003 tour, which focused on the more acoustic music from 2002’s multiplatinum “Home” album.
Maguire also promises “there’s not gonna be any preaching on stage” and says the group will count whoever does go to the concerts as the Chicks’ true loyalists.
“I feel a lot closer now to these people,” she says, “ ’cause if they’re gonna spend the money to see the concert, I know they’re there for a reason. It’s so freeing and liberating to just feel like we have nothing to hide. We’ve spelled it out on (‘Taking the Long Way’) and just in the last three years; we felt it was important for people to accept us for who we are and come to the show whether you agree or not.
“Our whole point is, ‘Let’s have some tolerance, and we’re just here to play music.’ ”
The Dixie Chicks and Anna Nalick perform at 8 p.m. Friday (July 21st) at Joe Louis Arena, 600 Civic Center Drive, Detroit. Tickets are $65 and $46.50. Call (313) 471-6606 or visit
Send your thoughts and comments to