The Dixie Chicks – the price of free speech is high

The Dixie Chicks - the price of free speech is high

Politics: ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’ – the price of free speech was a high one for the Dixie Chicks, struggling to continue recording after liberal comments alienated their conservative fanbase…

As a Welsh girl of Irish, cockney and North-Eastern descent, it makes no sense whatsoever that I was brought up on country music, and, for the most part, it’s always embarrassed me. Now, however, having watched 2007 documentary film ‘Shut Up And Sing’ on DVD, I am proud to have been a Dixie Chicks fan for as long as I can remember.

‘Shut Up And Sing’ follows the lives of the three female musicians that make up the Dixie Chicks across the most challenging years of their musical lives. In 2003, shortly before George W. Bush officially declared war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Chicks played The Shepherd’s Bush Empire for the opening date of their ‘Top of the World’ tour. Lead singer Natalie Maines said “Just so you know, we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas”, the band’s home state.

From then on, their lives spiralled out of control.

Despite being a country group, the band have openly been Democrat and liberal for a long time, however most of their fanbase has been made up of those who can only be described, undiplomatically, as ‘rednecks’.

The moment Maines’ comments were picked up by American press, they were blown vastly out of proportion. One right-wing group, Free Republic, began a hate campaign which included the burning of CDs (“wouldn’t it be cool,” Maines asked, not two days before, “if we could get ’em burnin’ our CDs?”), boycotting of concerts, and, eventually, a death threat against Maines herself.

Controversy like that wouldn’t currently happen in Britain, because, to be honest, we’re used to our leaders being ridiculed. It’s a day-to-day occurrence. In Bible-belt America, though, it isn’t. Maines and the Dixie Chicks really did cause a stir – and with twelve little words they went from being the biggest-selling female group on the planet to a political statement.

The documentary’s big question is about the price of free speech, in a nation which calls itself ‘the land of the free’, and, ultimately, it’s a hard-hitting political statement, against the war in Iraq, against George Bush, and against hardliners like those who brought the band down.

Their manager – British, by the way! – sat through endless meetings with the band, and especially Natalie Maines, and the decision was eventually made that they would continue recording, but that, this time, it would be on their own terms. They’d lost the radio stations who used to back them, and so they now had no one to please.

The result is unequivocally their best album ever – in 2006, ‘Taking The Long Way’ was released, and the documentary follows its creation, through all phases of songwriting, and explains what each song means to them. Some of the songs are about motherhood (all the band members are mothers, but Emily Robison gave birth to twins whilst it was being recorded), and some are about freedom and happiness, but most boil down to the controversy which followed them in the wake of the episode in Shepherd’s Bush:

“It’s been two long years now since the top of the world came crashing down / And I’m getting it back on the road now, but I’m taking the long way round”

– Long Way Round, Dixie Chicks

The film ends the way it began: Shepherd’s Bush, but three years later. Maines, of course, had to address the crowd, and had to make a statement. She chose to say the very same twelve words all over again, explaining in the documentary that the band will never be in the position again where they can judge success in record sales, but that that doesn’t matter anymore.

Sadly, it looks as though it’s all become too much for Maines: her bandmates, sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison are now performing separately, as ‘Courtyard Hounds’, and, although the Chicks are touring with another band this summer, it doesn’t look as though they’ll be recording again anytime soon. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, just in case.

Despite that, the Dixie Chicks have become synonymous with free speech, and they’ve become inspirations. Even if you can’t stand country music, watch the film, if you possibly can. It is truly inspiring.

“I’ve made my bed and I’ll sleep like a baby, with no regrets and I don’t mind saying
It’s a sad, sad story when a mother will teach her daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger
And how in the world can the words that I’ve said send somebody so over the edge
That they’d write me a letter saying that I’d better shut up and sing or my life will be over…?”

– Not Ready To Make Nice, Dixie Chicks