On September 4th, Mike Chase and Amy Faust — morning show hosts for the country station KWJJ in Portland, Oregon — cued up Taylor Swift’s “Soon You’ll Get Better,” a quietly resilient acoustic ballad featuring the Dixie Chicks.
“It’s a song about her own mother struggling with cancer,” Chase explains. “We played the song and also posted it on our Facebook page. One woman [commented by saying] her grandmother had died ten minutes prior to us playing it. And right after that, some guy goes, ‘I guess it would be better if Taylor wasn’t ramming her politics down my throat.’ We thought, ‘wow: what a study in extremes.'”
The Dixie Chicks have been a third rail in country radio ever since they said that they did not support President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. “We’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas,” singer Natalie Maines said onstage in London. They were staples of the format before their comments and personae non gratae immediately after. Looking back now, country radio’s decision to exile the Dixie Chicks seems to presage the current political moment. “That was kind of the beginning of the cancel culture that we have now,” Chase says.
But the group quietly snuck back into the format this month as Swift’s backing vocalists. This is all the more surprising considering that Swift’s label is not promoting the song to country radio — program directors rarely take the initiative to play music that isn’t being pushed to them — and Swift publicly left country five years ago to head to pop’s richer pastures. Still, country radio played “Soon You’ll Get Better” 36 times in Lover‘s debut week, and seven more times the week after.
The biggest booster of Swift and the Dixie Chicks’ collaboration in country radio has been Johnny Chiang, Director of Operations for Cox Media Group Houston; KKBQ, which he oversees, plays “Soon You’ll Get Better” three times a day. Chiang has a reputation for painting outside the lines — KKBQ was also a supporter of Kacey Musgraves, though most of country radio ignored her.
“Why are we playing [‘Soon You’ll Get Better’]?” Chiang asks. “Simple reason: It’s a great song. If Taylor was still in country, we would have 100 stations adding it out of the box. So I don’t care that the song is not being worked to country.”
Chase feels similarly. “It makes all kind of sense [to play this],” he says. “Taylor’s great at making a song and a hook; the sentiment is sincere; she has her own history with country, and there’s the connection to the Dixie Chicks. It should be a song that country radio plays full time.”
(In addition to KWJJ and KKBQ, stations in Salt Lake City and Baltimore played “Soon You’ll Get Better” once apiece. Neither station responded to requests for comment. A rep for the Dixie Chicks also did not respond to a request for comment on the group’s country airplay.)
But country radio devotees have long memories. And this is especially true in Chiang’s market, Houston, where George W. Bush spent his teen years. “After just four plays of the song, we had several complaints from listeners,” Chiang says. “They weren’t complaining about the song — they were complaining about the Dixie Chicks.”
“You can’t even tell [they’re on the song],” Chiang adds. “The backing vocals are so benign you can barely hear them.” But when his DJs identified the singers, listeners were still angry enough to pick up the phone.
Portland’s reaction to “Soon You’ll Get Better” has been more mild. KWJJ did not ban the Dixie Chicks back in 2003 — though their cross-town rival did — and the station still plays some of the group’s classic hits.
Perhaps as a result, the majority of the Facebook responses to Swift’s collaboration with the Dixie Chicks were enthusiastic. “Most people said either, ‘It’s so beautiful, it reminds me of something that happened to me,’ or, ‘I almost can’t listen to this all the way through, because it’s hitting so close to home,'” Faust explains. “I don’t like the idea of just taking one [irate] guy and giving that [opinion] too much power. He was one out of 75.”
In Houston, Chiang is closely monitoring the number of angry calls prompted by “Soon You’ll Get Better.” “We’re gonna keep an eye on that,” he says. But he is aiming to play “Soon You’ll Get Better” a few times every day for roughly a month, at which point KKBQ will have enough data to accurately determine how its audience is responding to the track. “My goal is to get this damn thing charted [on the airplay chart],” Chiang says, “even with no one working it.”