Six weeks ago, the Dixie Chicks were consumed in a media-stoked tempest that, even then, seemed less real than surreal. Outraged by rather innocuous comments made in London by Chick Natalie Maines -- including "We're ashamed the President is from Texas" -- country-radio stations across the nation pulled the group's music from rotation, an extraordinary act considering their song, "Travelin' Soldier," topped the country charts at the time.
The Dixie Chicks reasons weren't always clear, but if there's one thing the media's familiar with, it's how to jump on a train. By most accounts, Keith Montgomery, the program director at San Antonio country station KAJA, started the ball rolling when he decided to pull the Chicks' music for 24 hours. Montgomery's decision was covered by a local television affiliate that just happened to be owned by KAJA's parent company, Clear Channel Communications, whose corporate headquarters also reside in San Antonio. This coverage was picked up by CNN, and faster than Sea Biscuit, the story raced off.
Montgomery complained the comments made it sound like Texans are ashamed of Bush and worried that, as role models they might influence impressionable kids who hadn't made up their mind about the war. (That, apparently, is best left for Bill O'Reilly.)
Bob Shannon, the program director at KRMD (in Shreveport, La.) who produced the "Jackass"-style "Tractor Meets Dixie Chicks CDs" video bite seen on every local news show from Kennebunkport to Kodiak, blamed Maines for "playing to the crowd Ã? when you say something like that, you have to be accountable for what you say."
Shannon works at a Cumulus station. While Clear Channel beat Cumulus to the punch on the series of "pro-troops" rallies across the country sponsored by the radio giants, Cumulus one-upped them by demanding a public apology from the Chicks before it will play their music on any of its 42 country stations. What was that about playing to the crowd?
Locally, Cox Radio's country station, K92, polled its listeners as to whether the station should still give away the 100 Dixie Chicks concert tickets it had bought as a standard on-air promotion. Sixty percent of the poll respondents were in favor of selling the tickets and donating the proceeds to Operation Home Fires. While the charity, which supports Central Florida families with military members overseas, could certainly use the $6,500 potentially generated by the ticket sales, the question still stands: How does that affect the Dixie Chicks? The tickets were already bought, so the Chicks already got paid. Those seats will still be filled. But, again, logic is easily trumped by sloganeering.
That the Dixie Chicks new album, "Home," is still the No. 1-selling country album (as of the April 26 issue of Billboard) perhaps attests to the media-driven nature of this scandal. (Even as recently as last week -- with their nude Entertainment Weekly cover and Diane Sawyer interview -- the story still had legs; and Maines still hadn't caved to the pressure to apologize.) As a solidly traditional country act that's sold more than 20 million copies -- and hasn't tried to use its country success to crossover into the pop charts -- the Chicks are a staple of the format and Maines' comment probably did upset some people. But a national boycott on airplay? Other mainstream artists such as Dave Matthews and Sheryl Crow offered far more inflammatory anti-war statements and faced little static. (In fact, Crow found herself nominated for an Academy of Country Music award on the same day Maines made her comments.) Then again, no one's ever gone broke appealing to country-music's patriotism, as Toby Keith and Darryl Worley (respectively responsible for the raghead-stomping "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue `The Angry American`" and the flag-draped, logic-flawed "Have You Forgotten") can testify; Keith's Unleashed is the No. 2-selling country album on the same chart. No. 2 with a bullet.
Been there, done that, got blackballed
Though he works outside the Nashville mainstream, Steve Earle sparked a controversy of his own last summer before the release of his new album, "Jerusalem," with the song "John Walker's Blues," which imagines the thoughts of captured American Taliban combatant John Walker Lindh. After his own experience with a juggernaut of jingoism, he easily sympathizes with the Chicks.
"What she did was a real honest reaction from an artist that had never really made a statement like that before. But what's interesting to me is the climate that we live in, where they are attempting to censor artists through public relations campaigns. That's really what it amounts to. It's just using the press -- before "Jerusalem" was even out, there were right-wing nuts on the radio calling for boycotts and people suggesting that I didn't even have a right to write what I wrote. It's like pro wrestling; intelligent political discourse just isn't that entertaining. But it's a dangerous way to think in a democracy," says Earle.
Maverick that he is, Earle's courted more trouble than "Die Hard's" John McClane and married most of it, and he's never received love from Nashville. After all, this is the guy who wrote and produced (in Nashville!) a play about executed Texas murderer Karla Faye Tucker. With a sound that forms at the intersection of rock, rockabilly and country, Earle hasn't been seen much in the increasingly format-rigid land of country radio since his first couple of albums; and has a lot less to lose by his outspoken positions than the Dixie Chicks.
"I caught the flak I did because I was in Nashville, even though I'm not played on country radio anymore," explains Earle. "The thing is, it's threatening when it's somebody that's popular. The Dixie Chicks have much bigger audience and I think that's why the reaction was so strong."
As the camera pulls back, leaving this just a blip on the media horizon, it's hard not to be a little alarmed at how quickly the incident expanded. Are we really so defensive in the wake of 9/11 that we can't abide a little dissent, or is it the media with a tight focus that transformed the anthill into a mountain?
"The idea that any radio outlet will decide because someone expresses an opinion that they're going to deny them access -- that's not okay in a democracy," says Earle. "That's more akin to how broadcast media is run in Iraq than what I grew up with."