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When does stage banter spell doom for open country discourse? And why?

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Toby Keith thinks Dixie Chick Natalie Maines should - "shut her big mouth." - Mark  Poutenis
Toby Keith thinks Dixie Chick Natalie Maines should "shut her big mouth."

It's been a month to forget for the Dixie Chicks -- and for everyone else involved in country-music radio.

Heading into March as the owners of a No. 1 country single, the Chicks now find themselves in a shit storm, thanks to that well-covered offhand comment about President Bush made at a concert in London. Too bad they forgot to pack the waders.

In a sobering spectacle for artists and free-speech advocates, the Dixie Chicks' music is nowhere to be found on station playlists across the country. Their CDs were crushed, at a particularly compelling photo op. The ladies have seen themselves burned in effigy at "pro-troops" rallies across the country -- all because Natalie Maines told a British audience, "We're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas." It's driven the Chicks as underground as Osama bin Laden; they're hiding out in their own bunker.

Welcome to the modern discourse of war, where the media can make you wish you'd never opened your mouth -- even if you didn't really say anything all that memorable.

"It was never my intention to organize something that was specifically an attack on the Dixie Chicks. I just wanted to make a statement," says Keith Montgomery, the program director at San Antonio's KAJA, whose decision to pull the group's music for 24 hours set the whole systemwide backlash in motion.

Whatever Montgomery's intent, soon thereafter, radio stations across the country threw a flag-waving hissy fit. In the move most damaging to the Chicks' career in the short term, Cumulus Media, the nation's second-largest radio conglomerate, pulled all Dixie Chicks music from its 42 country stations until the group issues a live public apology (as opposed to the one posted on its website). The group's hit single "Travelin' Soldier" tumbled from No. 1 to No. 16 on R&R's country charts in two weeks.

That their latest album, Home, remains the No. 1 country album (according to SoundScan) may be silent testimony to the media-stoked nature of the controversy.

"What's interesting to me is the climate -- which I've had some personal experience with -- that we live in, where there are attempts to censor artists through public-relations campaigns," says alt-country firebrand Steve Earle, himself no stranger to pissing off radio. "It's a dangerous way to think in a democracy."

Last year, when Earle released his album Jerusalem, he sparked a media backlash of his own over the song "John Walker's Blues," which imagines the troubled point of view of captured American Taliban combatant John Walker Lindh. But that was a county fair compared to the ire directed at the Dixie Chicks, the top-selling country trio of the past five years, with sales of more than 20 million albums.

Even such popular rock acts as Sheryl Crow and Dave Matthews haven't attracted the kind of down-home heat directed at Maines and company. This despite Matthews's far more inflammatory assertion at a recent concert: "This war is wrong," Matthews told his audience. "It's criminal to put our servicemen and women in harm's way for the misguided frustrations of the Bush administration."

"It is different if you're Dave Matthews versus the Dixie Chicks. Even in my case, I caught the flak I did because I was in Nashville, even though I'm not played on country radio anymore," explains Earle. "It's [truly] threatening when it's somebody that popular."

It's a Free Country (Sorta)

The Dixie Chicks are a solidly traditional country act, and because of their immense popularity, some people obviously felt betrayed by Maines's comment -- no matter how benign it may have been. When artists such as Faith Hill were gravitating more toward pop after achieving crossover success, the Dixie Chicks were staying true to the format, following up the multiplatinum success of 1999's Fly with last year's Home, an album steeped in bluegrass instrumentation. To hear anti-Bush comments from one of the most popular singers in music's most guns-and-apple-pie genre might be disconcerting to the average listener. But is it really enough cause for a national boycott?

"What she said and where she said it, in the moment, has taken on a whole broader meaning," says Bruce Robison, who wrote the patriotic "Travelin' Soldier." Robison is the brother-in-law of banjo-playing Chick Emily Erwin Robison; he also downplayed whatever emotional strain the Chicks may be experiencing. "And it just doesn't add up, unless you add in some broader things that are happening right now between a couple of different groups. It appears -- and I've looked at it a lot because of my own little role in it -- that people are looking for a way to show their dissatisfaction with the anti-war movement in general."

That might be the only way, other than simple difference of opinion, to explain the lukewarm arguments advanced by the Chicks' critics.

"I was insulted as a Texan, because when she says 'we' and then 'Texas' in the same sentence, it almost means that Texans are ashamed that [Bush] is from Texas," says Montgomery. Later he adds the somewhat confusing complaint that "when role models such as the Dixie Chicks speak out to impressionable kids, who may still be in the process of forming their opinions about the war or the presidency or the state of Texas, they are truly doing a disservice."

Tortured syntax and impressionable minds? No wonder Montgomery has qualms about his role in this whole thing.

Yet at least he was restrained enough not to make a full-fledged publicity rally out of it all. KRMD-FM out of Shreveport, Louisiana, took it upon itself to flatten a pile of Chicks CDs with a tractor. Bob Shannon, KRMD's program director, centers his complaints on the fact that Maines said what she did on foreign soil, even if it was on the friendliest foreign soil in the world at the moment. "We're on the brink of war, there's a huge anti-war sentiment in Europe, and she was playing to the crowd," says Shannon. "It's her right, but when you say something like that, then you have to be accountable for what you say."

It's an accountability that a Cumulus station such as KRMD requires a public apology to acknowledge. In other circles, that's called extortion.

The most intense criticism of the Chicks, and the one that seems to have spread like a brush fire through the country music orthodoxy, is that the Chicks aren't supportive of the troops. "Travelin' Soldier," mind you, is about a boy who goes off to war and the girl he leaves behind, who will never see him alive again. A touching, honest meditation on the way war affects loved ones, it's hardly an anti-war screed.

"I've seen remarkably little of the people who are trying to make hay about this even talking about what the song is about, because, to tell you the truth, I don't think that suits their agenda," says Robison.

Montgomery and Shannon's opposition is understandable -- their stations have in common a proximity to large military bases. That's a crucible for a virulent mix of patriotism and political correctness. But it's something that can cut both ways.

Toby Keith, who suggested that Maines "shut her big mouth" during this latest flap (she called him "ignorant" last August), can attest to the evils of censorship. After being booked for a televised Fourth of July special, his hot-button song "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" was pulled after producers decided his brand of boot-up-your-ass patriotism was too aggressive for national audiences.

Other once-brighter stars smell a similar opportunity. Clint Black is seeking to regain a higher profile with his new single "I Raq and Roll." Meanwhile, Charlie Daniels is spending his time penning open letters to Hollywood, suggesting they drop the political stance and concentrate on entertainment. Perhaps someone should explain irony to him. And what's Merle "Okie From Muskogee" Haggard doing at a propitious time like this? Not talking publicly, that's for sure. As the war drums continue to pound, no one else is, either -- Black, Daniels, and Haggard all declined comment for this story.

"My own opinion is that I don't believe anyone is being patriotic by trying to shut someone else up," says Robison.

No surprise that politicians -- like running backs, they love big openings on the front line -- can see the value in slagging the Chicks as well. Last week, South Carolina state Representative Catherine Ceips introduced a resolution calling for the Chicks to give a free concert to South Carolina troops and their families. It passed, 50 to 35.


With the Dixie Chicks controversy showing legs, Clear Channel stations decided to host pro-war rallies -- for those who've been fanned to fury by Dixie Chicks coverage and who are eager to show their patriotism -- that earned brief spots on the evening news. Closest competitor Cumulus then decided to hold its own rallies and one-upped Clear Channel by going even further with its system-wide Dixie Chicks ban.

Neither Clear Channel nor Cumulus responded to requests for comment.

"Issues are greatly simplified and polarized, because they're told as good versus evil as opposed to having any shades of argument. You're either with us or against us," explains author David Slayden, co-editor of a widely known academic text titled Soundbite Culture: The Death of Discourse in a Wired World. "You have labeling and name-calling. It's simple solutions to complex problems."

It doesn't help, either, that these media outlets are increasingly controlled by fewer people; with fewer decision-makers determining a larger fate, artists naturally will feel more pressure to either toe the line or make an end run around it (as the Beastie Boys, Zack de la Rocha and DJ Shadow, and John Mellencamp have done, in posting their protest songs on the Internet). In a sense, can you really blame Sony for forcing Maines to apologize for her comments, when you consider the millions the label spent promoting her group?

With the Fairness Doctrine -- the 1949 policy that required media outlets to present opposing political viewpoints -- now a matter for the history books, rallies such as those by Clear Channel and Cumulus are par for the course. No one complains. But how would you feel about a New York Times "pro-troops" rally?

"Any time you have a monoculture in terms of what's covered and who decides, you're going to have an unhealthy situation," says Slayden.

Leave it to Earle, who's caught enough dung to fill a barn in his career, to put it best, exposing a cultural wound Maines may have irrevocably opened: "The idea that any radio outlet will decide, because someone expresses an opinion in a democracy, that they're going to deny them access," says Earle -- "that's more similar to how broadcast media is run in Iraq than what I grew up with."

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