The Dixie Chicks were one of the best acts in country music. They were fine musicians, who broke out into phenomenal mainstream popularity while keeping their bluegrass roots. They had a great career.
Note the past tense. Lead singer Natalie Maines's comments in London about how ashamed she was of President Bush have made their once-adoring fans ashamed of them.
Sales of their albums have plummeted 40 percent. Their album Home, which had been at the top of the country charts for months, was pushed aside by war-backers Darryl Worley, whose rebuke to protesters "Have You Forgotten?" debuted at No. 1, and Toby Keith, whose in-Osama's-face Unleashed took No. 2. Scores of radio stations have boycotted their music, and anti-war rallies have featured tractor-crushings of Dixie Chicks CDs.
Home from their European tour, where they were caught up in the anti-war frenzy, the Chicks have been trying to mend fences. Ms. Maines apologized for not being respectful to the president, while defending her right to voice disapproval of the war. In an interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC, the trio tried to explain themselves, with fiddler Martie Maguire saying that the public was overreacting.
Rock stars from Sheryl Crow to Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder-and just about every guitar player in between-have been loud in opposing the war in Iraq. Rappers have been far more brutal about President Bush. The Hollywood social scene has long been emoting against the war. And while many Americans complain about celebrity peaceniks, such behavior is almost expected and few artists have felt the public's wrath as the Dixie Chicks have.
Why are country music fans taking it so hard? It is probably true that the blue-collar, rural, small-town folks who make up country music's core audience sent more young men and women to fight in the war than most other demographic segments sent. And country music, being closer to the nation's folk culture, holds to traditional values, more so than the packaged rebellion of music made for teenagers. And though country music is capable of expressing liberal populist politics, as at Willie Nelson's Farm Aid concerts, most performers and fans would agree with Merle Haggard: "When you're runnin' down my country, hoss, you're walkin' on the fightin' side of me."
But there is another characteristic of country music fans. They tend to identify with the stars, and, more importantly, the stars identify with them. Whereas most entertainers in the pop culture come and go, attracting masses of fans upon becoming fashionable, only to lose them when they are no longer cool, country fans are not so fickle. A country singer can keep a core of fans from the first time on the Opry stage to old age in Branson. But if the singer and the fans no longer identify with each other, this kind of bond is impossible.
The war in Iraq created what many of the cultural elite can never understand and refuse to participate in: a sense of national unity. Nearly 80 percent of Americans pulled together to support that war, feeling a loyalty and solidarity with soldiers that went beyond ordinary patriotism. The Dixie Chicks positioned themselves outside of the circle.
Before the controversy, the group made plans for their U.S. tour, to begin this summer. They took the unprecedented step of putting all of the tickets for all of their concerts on sale at one time, selling them on the Internet. Within days, they sold 867,000 tickets, and 51 of the concerts are sold out.
Will people come to the concerts? Pro-war rallies have featured ticket-burnings, but some folks may think if they already spent $50 a ticket, they might as well see the show. It will be interesting to see how the Dixie Chicks are received, but there is evidence that they still don't get it.
After going on TV to try to make the public feel sorry for them, the Chicks made another career move. They appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly in the nude, their carefully positioned bodies covered with names that people had called them. As if posing naked would make country music fans think more highly of them.
Perhaps their strategy is to write off their old fans and appeal to the rock 'n' roll rebels. If so, maybe they can bring fiddle, banjo, and dobro sounds into pop music, which would be a worthy contribution. Until they experience another backlash that is even harder to overcome-falling out of fashion.