- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2006

It’s the best of times and the worst of times for the Dixie Chicks. Ostracized by country fans in 2003, the trio — Emily Robison, Natalie Maines and Martie Maguire — have fallen gratefully into the loving arms of the national media on the strength of a defiant new CD. Last month the Chicks scored a cover story in Time magazine and a flattering profile on “60 Minutes.”

The poodlelike press attention paid off, at least in the short term: The Rick Rubin-produced “Taking the Long Way” topped Billboard’s albums chart in its first two weeks of release, with healthy sales of about 800,000.

Yet, to the surprise of some industry observers, the Chicks’ summer concert tour is seeing sluggish sales in such heartland cities as Oklahoma City; Memphis, Tenn.; Houston; and Indianapolis. There’s been talk of moving the Chicks from arenas into smaller venues and even of postponing the tour (although the group has denied reports of the latter on its Web site).

On the bright side: Tickets in Toronto are selling briskly. A promoter there told Billboard magazine: “Canada loves the Chicks.”

That about says it all, doesn’t it?

What the Dixie Chicks seem to be experiencing are the dissonant shock waves of a badly executed attempt at crossing over from a traditional country fan base to a more heterogenous rock audience.

They’re hardly pioneers in this regard.

Country music has a long tradition of political mavericks and counterculturalists — among them Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and the late Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.

Briefly, some history:

Chris Willman writes in his terrific book “Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music” that country’s cultural cleavage began in the 1940s, when Woody Guthrie traded in his hillbilly cred and moved to avant-garde New York City.

The Vietnam era proved most inviting for country crossovers. In the early 1970s, Mr. Nelson took up residence in bohemian Austin, Texas, creating a kind of rival papacy to the country music industry’s traditional seat in conservative Nashville, Tenn.

Later that decade, Mr. Nelson was an overnight guest in Jimmy Carter’s White House, on the roof of which, legend has it, he smoked a joint.

Then the pendulum swung back again. The country trended in a more conservative direction. President Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, helped erase memories of an impotent foreign policy, and country music, more than any other genre, became the soundtrack of the country’s renewed patriotic vigor.

In the changed climate, liberal country artists such as Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell and Lucinda Williams found themselves on the margins of mainstream country music.

Unlike these earlier generations of rebels, the Dixie Chicks, in their original incarnation, never really acquired artistic credibility. They lacked the vaguely intellectual aura that grew around prestige singer-songwriters such as the more literary Miss Williams or politically aware Mr. Earle.

By Miss Maines’ own admission, the Chicks’ breakout albums were “amateurish.” Songs such as “Wide Open Spaces” and “Ready to Run” were lightweight, if highly likable, expressions of female independence. “Goodbye Earl,” about a woman who murders her abusive ex-husband, took this theme to an extreme, but it was hardly the kind of thing radio stations saw fit to ban — unlike, say, Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill.”

In short, the Chicks never had a secure base. Lacking one, they were never on a sound footing for a crossover.

The Chicks have been tactically unwise, as well: They’ve tried to redefine themselves through the filter of the elite media — the very institution average country fans trust least.

They also have staked their new identity on divisive issues such as patriotism and the permissible limits of dissent.

In stark contrast, Mr. Nelson forged his crossover identity from the grass roots up. In the ‘70s, he organized annual outdoor festivals near Austin that provided common ground for hippies and cowboys. In the ‘80s, he co-founded Farm Aid, another point of convergence between struggling rural country fans and the ‘60s counterculture.

It’s true that the Dixie Chicks ultimately were shunned by country radio — but not for anything they sang. Rather, it was Miss Maines’ striking lapse of political decorum that initially turned country fans against the Chicks. She was personally “ashamed” that President Bush was from the Chicks’ home state of Texas.

Worse, she said so during a time of war and on foreign soil, which betrayed a lack of tact and guts.

Given their subsequent involvement with Don Henley’s anti-corporate Recording Artists Coalition and the anti-Bush Vote for Change tour, it’s clear the Dixie Chicks are opportunists — whenever and wherever they can, they truckle to the cultural elite.

During the height of the anti-Chicks frenzy in 2003, the Chicks couldn’t even sell out with conviction: They flip-flopped. They issued non-apology apologies and then took those back. As they alienated old fans, they failed to convince new ones of their integrity.

Country fans are fine with artists who, after serious contemplation of Christian ideals (Mr. Cash) or prolonged exposure to pot smoke (Mr. Nelson), embrace left-of-center politics.

What they don’t appear to tolerate are condescending parvenus who gratuitously snub their core audience.

“I’d rather have a small following of really cool people who get it … than people that have us in their five-disc changer with Reba McEntire and Toby Keith,” Dixie Chicks fiddler Miss Maguire told Time. “We don’t want those kinds of fans. They limit what you can do.”

No less pointedly, the opening verse of the Chicks’ new CD has Miss Maines musing: “My friends from high school/Married their high school boyfriends/Moved into houses/In the same Zip Codes where their parents live.”

Country fans “get it” perfectly — which is why many of them have chosen to spend their concert dollars elsewhere this summer.

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