In March 2003, during a show at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines had some righteous fire for then-President George W. Bush: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” The audience cheered; people back home freaked out. Radio stations pulled the Chicks from rotation. Album sales took a nosedive. About a week later, the United States invaded Iraq and launched a years-long $1.7 trillion war based on false intel.
The Dixie Chicks were huge at the time, and suffered a backlash to match. They’d already put out two Grammy-winning albums (1998’s Wide Open Spaces and 1999’s Fly), and were set to tour extensively off a third, 2002’s Home. The Guardian originally reported Maines’s remarks, and once the U.S. media picked up on them, radio stations flipped out and hosted album burnings. Death threats followed, and the Texas trio—who’d become one of the best-selling female groups of all time, and one of the most popular groups to ever come out of Texas, period—found themselves embroiled in a giant national controversy.
Reuters reported at the time:
One station in Kansas City, Missouri held a Dixie “chicken toss” party Friday morning, where Chick critics were encouraged to dump the group’s tapes, CDs and concert tickets into trash cans. Houston country station KILT pulled the band’s records from its playlist — at least temporarily — after 77 percent of people polled on its Web site said they supported the move. “We’ve got them off the air for right now,” said Jeff Garrison, program director at KILT, which is owned by Viacom’s Infinity Broadcasting Corp. “People are shocked. They cannot believe Texas’ own have attacked the state and the president,” Garrison said.
In a statement, Maines later clarified, but did not back down:
I feel the president is ignoring the opinion of many in the U.S. and alienating the rest of the world. My comments were made in frustration, and one of the privileges of being an American is you are free to voice your own point of view.
But many critics and pundits felt that people should not be speaking ill of the president while on foreign soil, and eventually Maines had to semi-apologize:
As a concerned American citizen, I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful. I feel that whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect. We are currently in Europe and witnessing a huge anti-American sentiment as a result of the perceived rush to war. While war may remain a viable option, as a mother, I just want to see every possible alternative exhausted before children and American soldiers’ lives are lost. I love my country. I am a proud American.
There was a hostile “how could they” sentiment in the air, which was very much of its time. That very week, the House cafeteria renamed French fries “Freedom fries,” with many U.S. burger joints following suit.
It took the Dixie Chicks a few years to recover, and their name is still heavily associated with the controversy, as detailed in the 2006 documentary Shut Up and Sing. In crucial ways, the group never backed down: That same year, they returned to the same London venue, and Maines repeated her words verbatim.
Also in 2006, they released a new album, Taking the Long Way, with a lead single called “Not Ready to Make Nice.” It was a direct reference to the London show and the events that followed:
The album could have been “way safe and scared,” Ms. Maines said. “We could have pandered.” They didn’t. The new songs are filled with reactions, direct and oblique, to the Incident. There are no apologies. “We had to make this album,” Ms. Maines said. “We could not have gotten past any of this without making this album. Even if nobody ever heard it.”
Less than a year later, it won the Grammy for Album of the Year.
The Dixie Chicks should be remembered as bold women who never fully backed down from an opinion that cost them album sales, radio play, and widespread popularity. (Not that they’ve disappeared entirely: In fact, they’re reportedly reuniting for major shows in 2016.) George W. Bush should be remembered as a war criminal, and not be repainted as a simple old man from Texas who enjoys painting and baseball.
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