COLUMN NINETY-FOUR, JULY 1, 2003
(Copyright © 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)
ONCE MORE ON THE CHICKS
Last week the Chicks played Chicago. Carol Marin, a well known figure in Chicago whose columns now appear in the Chicago Tribune, wrote a piece about the concert which raised two interesting issues. First, despite the attempted censorship (and reportage of that censorship by the traditional mass media) all the Chicks concerts are sold out, and their fans are visibly supportive; and second, their message is a continuation of a tradition in music, one that Marin identified as going back to a women's empowerment theme that caught her up in her generation, typified by Helen Reddy and the phrase "I am woman!" (I am not including this article in this post, because it costs to reprint it, thanks to the Chicago Tribune's greedy sense of propriety.) She did
not touch, however, on the chilling effect the censorship can have on artists who do not have the audience appeal, the popularity, of the Dixie Chicks.
I am privileged to be on a list, moderated by Dave Marsh, to which I contribute only occasionally, but to which I listen a lot. This list is composed of music lovers who explore, among other things, the dimensions of music and social consciousness. In the last six months the discussion/conversation has returned to the Dixie Chicks on numerous occasions. When the posts have included articles from the press, I have at times included them to this list.
However, a lot more goes on than copying articles when people respond to each other on the list. I asked some contributors if they would allow their conversation to be reposted to the Labor & Arts List, and they graciously agreed.
The conversation, started with Danny Alexander's review of the Chicks concert in Kansas City, then ranged to the roots of country music, the relation to folk music, and the make-up of the country audience. I think you will find this discussion most interesting and educational. And provocative. Most of the contributors to this discussion have websites or are noted in the internet, and I encourage you to look them up! David Cantwell's new book on country music was mentioned in a Chicago Labor & Arts Notes that did not necessarily appear in THE BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST.
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1. DIXIE CHICKS IN KC -- Danny Alexander
From: Danny Alexander firstname.lastname@example.org
To: 'Lew Rosenbaum' email@example.com
Subject: Dixie Chicks in KC
Date: Mon, 12 May 2003 14:24:03 -0500
The Dixie Chicks in Kansas City
In a town where two major country stations STILL don't play their music, the Dixie Chicks were greeted by a full house of adoring fans in Kansas CitySaturday night, May 10, a few carrying "Natalie for President" signs, many more wearing "Free Natalie" t-shirts (which sold out before the end of the concert). Reflecting the exuberance of the audience, one salt-n-pepper haired man danced through the crowd with a George Bush mask on. The band expressed no regrets over their actions, and their fans loved them for it.
It's hard to imagine any band in America handling the controversy more capably than the Dixie Chicks did. The evening started with a series of CMT (Chicks Music Television) clips as the audience filed in, featuring a variety of young country acts along with Mary J. Blige, Johnny Cash, Santana and Michelle Branch, Avril Lavigne, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Eminem. After Joan Osbourne performed an opening set, featuring a poignant cover of Stevie Wonder's Love's In Need of Love Today, the eclectic music mix continued through the house system, including the Go Go's Our Lips Are Sealed, Elvis Costello's What's So Funny (Bout Peace Love and Understanding), R.E.M.'s The End of the World As We Know It, Tears for Fears's Everybody Wants to Rule the World and Sly and the Family Stone's Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself Again.
The lights went down, and the Chicks repaid Bruce Springsteen for his support by playing Born in the U.S.A. to the darkened house---the cheering/singing voices that filled the darkness made it pretty clear that the context of the show clarified the intentions of that song just as it had those that came before.
The show was overwhelmingly emotional from beginning to end. The opening, Goodbye Earl, a song I never really liked much before, provided an absolutely thrilling and heartwarming start with its unrepentant nastiness. When Martie Maguire introduced the band, she joked, "Some of these guys even like Bush," before adding, in her Stuart Smalley impression, "and that's okay." Ear-splitting cheers filled the house just as they did at the end of the video for the Patty Griffin song Truth No. 2. Particularly interesting to me during that video were the waves of applause and cheers as various images flashed across the screen---alternating between Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and the record burners of various eras---the '50s race-mixing vinyl, the Beatles in the 60s, the Dixie Chicks after the words on the screen flashed "Today." The video ended with the words "Seek the Truth," and the crowd roared.
A moment that particularly jumped out at me was the way the crowd's cheers swelled when Muhammad Ali's press conference lit up the screen. The connection there seemed more resonant than any other, and that made perfect sense in an evening of knitting the ties that bind us all together.
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2. STILL FLYING - Timothy Finn, Kansas City Star
From: Danny Alexander firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: Strat: One more on the Chicks
Date: Mon, 12 May 2003 14:57:38 -0500
This is the same writer who wrote the review this morning. I thought he did some really good things here in the Preview.
Story 2 of 39
THE KANSAS CITY STAR
26 Fri, 09 May 2003
Controversy can't clip the Dixie Chicks' wings
Eight days ago President Bush told the world that the war in Iraq was over. Yet country radio's embargo against the Dixie Chicks is alive and well.
Two of Kansas City's three country radio stations still refuse to play the trio's music because of what lead singer Natalie Maines said about Bush more than seven weeks ago in London.
"We took them off right away," said Bruce Efron, on-air personality at WDAF-AM (610). "We've since polled our listeners, and they still feel the same way, so we're not playing them."
"We've stayed where we were," said Mike Kennedy, program director and morning host at KBEQ-FM (104.3), the "young country" station. "We took them off the air right away, and they're still off the air. Things have calmed down a bit, but there are still some passionate people out there who want nothing to do with them forever."
That kind of passion, supposedly, is still burning in places all over the country. Earlier this week a radio station in Colorado Springs, Colo., suspended two disc jockeys who broke the station's ban on the Chicks' music.
The station's manager told The Associated Press, "It's been a difficult decision because how do you ignore the hottest group in country music?"
That's a funny question because despite the ban on radio airplay, the Chicks are still the hottest group in country music. As of this week, Home was No. 2 on the country album charts---ahead of Toby Keith's album, by the way---and rising fast, which suggests that sentiments against the group aren't so red-hot and widespread.
And contrary to expectations, there have been virtually no protests inside or outside arenas during their current U.S. tour, which opened May 1 in Greenville, S.C. (and which comes to Kemper Arena on Saturday).
So where did all this animus come from?
To understand how the Chicks were branded "traitors" and worse,
why they were barred from country radio, how Maines ended up in tears on Diane Sawyer's one-hour special and how all three ended up naked
on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, a little understanding of politics and music is necessary.
Jay Orr, a senior museum editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, loosely pegs country music's association with the right-wing politicos to the mid-1960s.
"This is a generalization, but country became recognized in the media as the voice of the right wing when George Wallace actively courted country artists because he understood they might share his point of view and could be useful in his campaign," Orr said. "So artists like Grandpa Jones, Roy Clark and Tammy Wynette made appearances on his behalf.
"It was a time when the country was in great turmoil, and people were trying to find their equilibrium so his message resonated---not just the message of racial division but also the populist nature of his message."
Liberal, populist themes are deeply rooted in country music, which for decades spoke to its Appalachian traditions and people who were poor, oppressed and downtrodden.
But that changed during the Vietnam era, author Bruce Feiler writes in Dreaming Out Loud, a book about country music and Nashville in the 1990s.
"Economic liberalism was overshadowed by a social conservatism in the South as Republicans exploited widespread Southern support for the Vietnam War (and opposition to civil rights) to build a base in the region," he writes.
"Pro-war anthems like Ballad of the Green Berets and Okie From Muskogee drowned out protest pleas by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Liberals still had roots in Nashville, but conservatives carried the day."
Okie is a particularly significant song because it (and the follow-up, The Fightin' Side of Me) got Merle Haggard branded as a conservative, though his earliest music (Tearing the Labor Camps Down, Mama's Hungry Eyes) clearly addressed bedrock populist themes.
"Merle Haggard sees the connection between himself and country music with people who are oppressed," Orr said, "either economically or judicially."
"Johnny Cash, too, aligned himself with the downtrodden, the hungry and oppressed. At a time when a lot of country artists were espousing fairly conservative messages, Cash was singing songs like What Is Truth? a song about how important it is to have dissent and differing points of view."
For the most part, Feiler argues, populist themes eventually disappeared in country music, which, by the 1990s, was manufacturing mostly songs about "interpersonal relationships---people fighting people instead of the elements."
But country music's association with conservatism and patriotism remained steadfast.
"I think by and large country listeners are conservative and patriotic," said Dale Carter, program director at country station KFKF-FM (94.1). "A lot of people took what she (Maines) said as an assault on our president and our country."
The Dixie Chicks' three albums have sold more than 26 million copies in the United States since 1998. Numbers that enormous make them a crossover act, meaning they draw from a variety of music audiences, especially Top 40 pop (like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain).
Their recent success comes at a time when men dominate the country sales and radio charts, especially hunks and brutes like Tim McGraw and Toby Keith.
According to this week's Billboard charts, only five female acts are in the country chart's Top 20: the Chicks, Twain, Jessica Andrews, Martina McBride and Alison Krauss. (Madonna, Cher, Kelly Clarkson and Norah Jones have five of the seven best-selling albums on the pop charts).
Only two women have songs in the Top 20 country singles chart: McBride and Andrews.
When Maines made her remark about Bush in March, it's safe to assume that her gender and the band's brash sassiness---the very qualities that help it attract so many young girls and women---only inflamed the issue among hard-core country music fans (and prompted the name calling ).
The radio embargo definitely hurt the band on the radio charts. However, it was widely assumed that it hurt the retail sales of Home, which tumbled on the sales charts. But that's not necessarily the case.
The record had shipped 6 million copies since its release in early August, and even at its recent lowest point on the chart it was keeping pace with other blockbusters from last year by Nelly and Eminem.
After seven months on the chart and without a tour behind it, the album was destined to slide down the sales charts. Since the tour began a week ago, sales have increased.
So if enough fans are buying the record to bring it back up to No. 2 on the country charts, who is driving the persistent protests on country radio? Are they Chicks fans or even country music fans?
"We haven't done any technical polls," Kennedy said. "We just invite comments."
But when Q-104 auctioned off its tickets to the Chicks' show at Kemper, Kennedy said, all 20 were gone within 10 minutes. (And the $2,000 the station raised will go to victims of this week's tornadoes.)
"There is no way to know exactly what percentage of people responding to radio against them are in fact Dixie Chicks fans," Orr said. "But ownership of corporate radio is so leveraged and is in such a tooth-and-nail fight for listeners that it can't afford to alienate anyone. It's not going to rock the boat."
One local radio station, however, is willing to let the boat rock itself: KFKF-FM (94.1) The station stopped playing the Chicks for a day, then put them back on the air, citing free-speech issues.
"I made people on both sides very angry," Carter said. "I got thousands of e-mails from people all over the world. Some were appalled we took them off even for a day; others are angry we put them back on."
The manager of the Colorado Springs station told Billboard that the ban will remain intact even though 75 percent of his listeners favored playing the Chicks' music.
Orr said: "I talked to a writer who's doing a story on women in country music and who asked a lot of people about the Chicks situation. By and large she found that radio people told her that the Chicks had seriously hurt themselves, but record company folks, journalists and other artists didn't think they had."
It appears the Dixie Chicks will survive commercially, with or without radio, but are there any other damages to worry about? Mike Ireland thinks so.
Ireland is a songwriter from Kansas City who has put out two critically acclaimed country albums (last year's Try Again was named the year's best country album by the editors at Amazon.com). Next month he'll go down to Nashville to record his contribution to a Johnny Paycheck tribute album.
"It's going to have an enormous chilling affect on any country artists saying anything that leans to the left," he said. "The only artist who came out in support of the Dixie Chicks was Bruce Springsteen. I find that peculiar. I'm sure the Dixie Chicks aren't the only people in country music who disagree with our government's policy in Iraq. And look what happened to Vince Gill."
Gill was forced to back-pedal recently after suggesting publicly that maybe it was time to forgive or at least move on from this incident.
"How much more chilling can it get?" Ireland said. "The reaction was so unexpectedly vehement he had to clarify what he said in a press release. What did Joe Strummer say? Something like you have the right to free speech as long as you're not dumb enough to actually try it."
Orr is more sanguine about the future when it comes to country music and the struggle between dissent and patriotism, even though the genre's biggest single this year is bound to be Darryl Worley's jingoistic Have You Forgotten?
"Just like rock music can have room for Ted Nugent and Eddie Vedder," he said, "country has room for people like Emmylou Harris, who is campaigning against land mines, Steve Earle, who campaigns against the death penalty, and Mary Chapin Carpenter, who helped campaign for Al Gore in 2000. And they have all had significant success."
Just don't expect to hear them on mainstream country radio. ##
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3. CAN ANYONE VERIFY THIS? -- Susan Martinez
Date: Tue, 13 May 2003 00:27:55 -0700
Subject:One more on the Chicks
From: Susan Martinez email@example.com
I'll bet more than one person on this list can clarify something I heard in Nashville this February. I had an annual 'family dinner' with Nora Guthrie, her husband Michael, and Bucky Halker; music and politics are always the meat when we gather, but especially so on the cusp of war. Michael (a great radio journalist based in Germany) said that the right/left wing split in country music was a direct result of the McCarthy era, that the Folk & Country charts were renamed to just Country to build distance from folksingers and reds.
Can anyone verify this?
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4. COUNTRY MUSIC, FOLK, AND POLITICS -- Daniel Wolff
Date: Tue, 13 May 2003 08:49:23 -0400
From: Daniel Wolff firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: One more on the Chicks
I can't verify the charts name-change, but Bill Malone is interesting on all this in his book, Don't Get Above Your Raisin'. First, he points out that Guthrie and folkies were of no commercial importance in the 1950's vis-a-vis country music. He takes a moment to light into Alan Lomax for calling Woody America's greatest folk composer in 1960; why, Malone asks, is Hank Williams out of the running? Because Lomax and friends resented pop culture and saw "folk" from a NYC/Commie perspective.
Second, Malone says the identification of country with right-wing politics dates somewhat to George Wallace, certainly to the late 1960's/70's era when Nixon visited Nashville, etc. (NB: Johnny Cash's fervent support for Nixon and the Vietnam War is conveniently overlooked these days.
Malone talks about Cash refusing to sing Okie from Muskogee at the White House: supposedly a proof of his liberalism. Malone says it wasn't for political reasons: he didn't know the words. And Cash lashed out at protestors who criticized Nixon during Vietnam.)
Finally, all of this political switch coincides with the "Southernization" of American politics. I think I could argue that country didn't so much swing right as the country did, and the music---to some degree---reflected that. Malone has good examples of leftie country music right up through the 1950s, arguing it wasn't monolithic politically until (mebbe) the late 1960s, and then it was mostly anti-anti-war protestors. Country didn't distance itself from Reds/folk circa McCarthy because Reds/folk barely tipped the scales then. The folk revival (Vietnam era) being a different question.
Footnote: Chicks quiz: Name the group that recorded Old Uncle Joe, a racist attack on ML King during the civil rights movement? Answer: The Dixie Guys.
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5. WE COULD USE A BRIEF OUTLINE OF COUNTRY'S POLITICAL
HISTORY - Lee Ballinger
Date: Tue, 13 May 2003 09:51:09 EDT
Subject: One more on the Chicks
It is interesting to note that, with one of the fascist currents in America taking a "neo-Confederate" form (flag controversies, etc---there are many organizations out there, some of which include some of our lawmakers), that no one to my knowledge has attacked the Chicks for betraying their name. Nor has the left, not usually prone to miss a chance to be irrelevant, attacked them for the name in and of itself.
As I tried and failed to prod our good friend David Cantwell, I will try again here. We (America) could use even a brief outline of country's political history. It would, of course, be interesting in and of itself. However, we are faced with the conjunction of:
1. Most Americans think the country audience is monolithically reactionary, esp. the Southern country audience.
2. Nothing in America can change without a large section of the country audience organically involved, esp. in the South, where so much of our political life (Dubya, etc.) is determined outside the reach of democracy.
3. As the Chicks are proving, the country audience is not at all monolithic.
And then we all will find a way to publish the book that will inevitably result.
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6. THE COUNTRY AUDIENCE IS NOT MONOLITHIC -- David
Date: Tue, 13 May 2003 09:17:05 -0500
From: David Cantwell email@example.com
Subject: Re: Strat: One more on the Chicks
And publicly shaming me is the best prodding of all, Lee!
On the issue of the Dixie in Dixie Chicks, it's worth noting to that the logo for their Top of the World tour features the word Dixie spelled out in blue with stars---an image that evokes the confederate battle flag without the stars and bars or even the color red; that is, it really evokes the upper left hand corner of the US flag.
There are several entries in my and Bill Frickics-Warren's Heartaches by the Number:Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles that deal with the politics of race, war and country music. For instance, Tony Booth's version of Merle Haggard's interracial love song Irma Jackson, which tells the story of why Merle didn't release it himself on the heels of Okie (as he'd planned), choosing instead to go with Fightin' Side of Me.
Tex Sample's excellent book White Soul is written as a way for working-class ministers to use country music in the pulpit but winds up being the best example I know of detailing how the country music audience uses the music to make meaning of their lives and the world. Begins, if i remember correctly (and I may not), with him talking about protesting against George Wallace and wondering why more of his friends and family weren't there.
My piece The Cryin' Side of Me, about Travelin' Soldier's place in the history of country music's war songs has already been posted here I believe. But I'll follow this note with another recent CHicks piece I've done for the Pitch here in KC.
The country audience is not monolithic. But then no audience is monolithic, especially no large audience. --davidcantwell
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7. THE CRYIN SIDE OF ME -- David Cantwell
Date: Tue, 13 May 2003 09:29:51 -0500
From: David Cantwell firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: Strat: The Cryin' Side of Me
Please delete if you've already seen. It was written awhile back---as in right before The Comment---for the Nashville Scene. --dc
MARCH 20 - 26, 2003 -- MUSIC
The Cryin' Side of Me
The Dixie Chicks' latest single is part of a country music tradition that calls for alternatives to war
By David Cantwell
Dixie Chicks Travelin' Soldier, from Home (Open Wide/Monument)
Travelin' Soldier, the current single by the Dixie Chicks, is the most powerful antiwar record of the moment. Partly that's because it's the one now being heard by the most people---it sits at No. 1 on Billboard's country chart and No. 26 on the pop chart. But it's also because the song, written by Bruce Robison, doesn't sidestep war's inevitable human costs. A high school girl falls in love with a boy who is eventually shipped to Vietnam. At the record's end, she stands beneath the bleachers, sobbing; her sweetheart has come home, but he's dead.
The record is careful not to take a stand on war either way. It neither threatens revenge, as Toby Keith did in Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American), nor does it denounce military action, as John Lennon did when he implored, Give Peace a Chance. Even so, Travelin' Soldier is an antiwar song of the most persuasive variety: It makes plain the need for alternatives to war by speaking honestly of war's fatal consequences. (The Dixie Chicks' lead singer did make the band's stand on war explicit last week when she told a London audience, "We're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas," prompting a strong reaction from some American fans and radio stations.)
The song's personal, as opposed to political, approach to military conflict has long been a part of the country music tradition. The young girl in Travelin' Soldier is reminiscent of characters in earlier recordings where Americans have had to bury their dead: Jimmie Rodgers' The Soldier's Sweetheart (which looks back to World War I), Ernest Tubb's The Soldier's Last Letter (from World War II), Loretta Lynn's Dear Uncle Sam (from the Vietnam War), among many others. Country artists have also sung about the loneliness experienced by soldiers far from home (Gene Autry's At Mail Call Today and Floyd Tillman's Each Night at Nine) and about the terror of combat. "I am so afraid of dying," Glen Campbell sang in Galveston, the record's arrangement exploding around him like incoming rounds of fire.
Still, for many listeners, country music is more typically associated with jingoism. It's hardly an unfounded connection. Keith's recent hit, for instance, follows in the footsteps of Merle Haggard's 1970 chart topper The Fightin' Side of Me, Johnny Wright's 1966 hit Hello Vietnam and Red Foley's jaunty Smoke on the Water. A pop and country hit during World War II, Foley's record predicted, with transparent glee, that the Land of the Rising Sun would soon be a "graveyard" populated by "vultures" feasting upon dead Japanese.
It's the glee many of these records express that's disturbing---not the human necessity to protect oneself and others, or even the all-too-human desire for revenge, but the bald-faced revelry at the anticipation of spilling enemy blood. We hear a great deal of talk these days about good and evil. The former might best be represented by Alan Jackson's Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning), which at each chorus embraces "faith, hope and love."
By contrast, Keith's Angry American may not be evil, exactly, but it does indulge a sickening moral relativism: Our lives are precious, and our deaths mourned; your lives are not precious, and your deaths will be celebrated. "We lit up your world like the Fourth of July," Keith exults. That doesn't sound like war he's singing about; it sounds like a party. "A mighty sucker punch came flying in from somewhere in the back," Keith adds, before taunting, "We'll put a boot in your ass." In Keith's estimation, our nation's foreign policy and the safety of our citizens are of no more consequence than, and just as much fun as, a parking lot fight on a Saturday night.
Similarly, Darryl Worley's current single Have You Forgotten? speaks of events in language more appropriate to barroom fisticuffs than to armed global conflict. "Some say this country's just out looking for a fight. After 9/11, man, I'd have to say that's right," he sings, shaking his head as if to ask, "How could it be otherwise?" Worley's anthem has generated some controversy. When he announces in its first line, "I hear people saying we don't need this war," it's nearly impossible not to read "this war" as "the coming war with Iraq."
The rest of Worley's lyrics make plain that he's speaking more broadly of a war on terror, though that only confuses the matter. Who are these people? Worley claims have forgotten about Bin Laden and al-Qaeda? Still, it's not the way Worley's song blurs the line between defensive and preemptive wars that rankles; it's the notion that any grievance, even one as horrific as the terrorist attacks of 9/11, could justify the actions of a nation that is "just out looking for a fight." That's a wholly different proposition from being determined to fight, if we must.
Of course, how the United States fights is also a matter of concern. And on that point, Toby Keith's Courtesy of the Red, White and Blu" portrays one reality of war, or at least one reality of how the U.S. wages it, with more honesty than perhaps any record before it. "It's going to feel like the whole world's raining down on you," Keith warns. This is true. In the first rush of attack, U.S. military might doesn't take the form of boots on the ground. Rather, it overwhelmingly rains missiles and bombs on enemy combatants and innocent civilians alike. The stated intent will be to drop those bombs only on the enemy combatants, but we know that even smart bombs will maim and kill husbands and wives, senior citizens and babies, lovers---people who are, in the
most basic respects, no different from you and me.
"[E]very war is both won and lost," novelist Barbara Kingsolver has written, "and that loss is a pure, high note of anguish like a mother singing to an empty bed." Every dead soldier creates a scene similar to the one of the young girl standing beneath the bleachers in Travelin' Soldier. Her boyfriend has returned, at last. But he has made his long, lonely journey in a body bag, and he's not headed home, but to a graveyard. The girl is crying, weeping, sobbing and she can't stop. Then the record is over. Because there is nothing left to say. ##
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