When the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines made her infamous anti-Bush, anti-war comments almost three years ago, she exposed a shocking truth: Country music, as it turns out, is not 100 percent Republican.
With radio stations across the nation boycotting their music and outraged commentators predicting walkouts at their concerts, the Chicks were made to seem like very lonely liberals in the love-it-or-leave-it world of country. In hindsight, however, the group set off a political bombshell of an altogether different sort: They blew open the door for a remarkable number of closeted Music Row Democrats.
In fact, that's the name of a high-powered Nashville advocacy group that sprang up in the wake of the controversy. The blackballing of the Dixie Chicks was a prime motivation in the founding of the left-leaning political action committee, says co-founder Bob Titley, a prominent talent manager (Brooks and Dunn, Kathy Mattea) and a confirmed Democrat. "There was a failure in our community to step up to their defense," he says.
The Music Row Democrats now claim more than 1,300 members, including key Nashville executives, songwriters and artists such as Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. "The organization grew spectacularly fast," says country music historian Robert K. Oermann, a founding member. "People were hiding in corners, afraid to come out. Now the community is more mobilized."
As the political tides turn — not just in Nashville but nationally — the Chicks are preparing to release their long-awaited follow-up to 2002's Home, an as-yet untitled album recorded with renegade producer Rick Rubin. "Instead of making a country album with a rock side," Rubin recently told Rolling Stone, "we wanted to do a rock album that leaned country, like [Tom] Petty or Gram Parsons."
Hints like that have unnerved some in the country industry, where sales were recently reported to be down about ten percent from 2004. From an economic perspective, it's tough to argue with an act that has sold more than 22 million copies of its first three major-label studio albums, according to SoundScan.
"We need them," says Clay Hunnicutt, Clear Channel's vice president of country programming nationwide. "Radio is always looking for great artists with great music, great hits."
Yet the Dixie Chicks — Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire — may have already moved on. "We don't feel a part of the country scene any longer," Maguire told the German magazine Der Speigel in September 2003. "We now consider ourselves part of the big rock & roll family." (The group, lying low in anticipation of the new release, declined to comment for this story.)
There are a few hardcore holdouts who continue to boycott the Chicks. In Lubbock, Texas — Maines' hometown — the staff at KLLL 96.3 ("Country for Texans") has recently tried spinning an occasional Chicks track after more than two years of banishment. Many local listeners, says PD Jeff Scott, are still upset that a hometown product would declare she was "ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas," as Maines did.
Lubbock, Scott notes, recently took second place in a poll of the most conservative cities in the nation. "People still have a lot of anger over what was said. It's been a real lightning rod for us."
Elsewhere, however, there are nagging questions about the legitimacy of some of those complaints. Titley is one of several people interviewed who claimed that the rash of angry calls demanding boycotts were at least partly the result of a coordinated effort by conservative political activists.
Despite the controversy — or perhaps because of it — the Chicks continued to prove their commercial viability, selling almost six million copies of Home and mounting the top-grossing country tour of 2003. Now, as they prepare to reenter the spotlight, some speculate that the group might be poised to shun the industry that shunned them.
"If I were the Chicks," says Oermann, "I wouldn't give a rat's behind if [country] radio played us."
Titley, too, thinks a little payback may be in order. "Now that things have fallen apart politically on the right," he says, "there might be a certain vindication."
But industry gatekeepers say it will be hard to ignore the Dixie Chicks' commercial track record when the new album comes out. Mike Peterson, program director for Chicago's WUSN ("America's Country Station"), says he's keeping his fingers crossed that the new album will work for his station's format. "I can't wait to hear it," he says. "I want to own the Dixie Chicks in this market."
"It doesn't matter to me which side of the political spectrum pulls for them," says Brian Phillips, executive vice president and general manager of country music network CMT. "The Dixie Chicks captivated the limelight to the extent that it caused a lot of conversation."
And he says that's good for business: "We're not looking for wallpaper."