KOF #5: Eleven Words that Reshaped Country Music Culture

by Jada E. Watson

“Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We don’t want this war, this fighting. …And we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.’
– Natalie Maines

When the Chicks landed in the UK in March 2003 for their first of three promotional concerts before their Top of the World Tour, the trio was riding high on the success of their sixth studio album, Home. Released in August 2002, the album debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums and all-genre Top 200 Albums charts – remaining on both for 12 and 4 non-consecutive weeks, respectively. By March 2003 they had seen three of the album’s records climb the Billboard Hot Country Singles Chart: “Long Time Gone” peaked at #2 on August 24, 2002, their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” did the same on November 9, 2002, and “Travelin’ Soldier” was on its way to #1. Following an off-the-cuff statement about their embarrassment that President Bush was from their home state of Texas, “Travelin’ Soldier” hit #1 on the Billboard chart on March 22, 2003 and then quickly fell off the charts. Their music – and their entire catalogue – endured a 30-day ban on Cumulus’ country stations, their concerts were protested, and Maines received a death threat. All because of 11 words.

In the 5th instalment of the Keepers of the Flame blog, SongData dives into the trajectory of the Chicks’ last song to appear on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles Chart, and reflects on the trio’s place in country music culture.

“We never once questioned ourselves, ever – because we never thought it was going to get played on radio.’
– Natalie Maines on recording Home

When the Chicks entered the studio in 2001, they were in the middle of a contract dispute with Sony over accounting procedures. The trio believed their label had withheld at least 4.1 million dollars in unpaid royalties for Wide Open Spaces (1998) and Fly (1999).  There was a lot of uncertainty about the future of the songs they planned to record, but the Chicks felt artistically free to make creative decisions and take certain risks with their style and sound, and narrative content. They also took an active role in the album’s production, co-producing Home alongside Natalie Maines’ father Lloyd Maines, and recorded outside of Nashville, at Cedar Creek Recording in Austin, Texas. Natalie Maines stated: “Thank God we didn’t have a label at the time, because we would have second-thought the first single, second-thought the length of the songs, second-thought there being no drums. We never once questioned ourselves, ever – because we never thought it was going to get played on radio. We didn’t even think it was going to be sold in retail stores” (qtd. in Chris Willman, Rednecks & Bluenecks). 

The result of this studio time was an acoustic record that showcased their instrumental virtuosity and diverse musical influences: folk-inspired bluegrass lyrics, finger picking and fiddle riffs, and classical orchestration. Home marked a change not only in musical sound and style, but also in lyrical content. The Chicks addressed a range of themes including the commercialisation of country music in “Long Time Gone” (by Daryll Scott), coming of age in their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”, cyclic patterns of emotional abuse in “Top of the World” (by Patty Griffin), and two songs that would become critical narratives on their 2003 tour: wartime heartache in “Travelin’ Soldier”, and freedom of speech in their cover of Patty Griffin’s “Truth No. 2”. As Lori Burns and I have observed, “each of these songs challenges social structures that are traditionally bound to and inscribed with power relations that constrain women,” giving voice to female experiences.

The album was their first to be issued on their Open Wide imprint that came out of their private settlement with Sony, and certified platinum and two times multi-platinum within one month of its release and six times multi-platinum by March 2003. Despite their instant success with Home, the Chicks dropped off the charts by April 2003, following Maines an anti-Bush statement made from the concert stage on the first leg of their Top of the World tour at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London, England.

The rise and fall of “Travelin’ Soldier”

At the beginning of 2003, the Chicks were considered all-American girls, the darlings of country music, and the only group (country or otherwise) that had a hit record addressing the topic of war that appealed to both Democrats and Republicans. “Travelin’ Soldier”, written by Bruce Robison, tells the story of a young woman’s secret relationship with a man fighting in the Vietnam War. The song outlines their meeting, their correspondence, and her heartache over hearing her soldier’s name on the list of local war dead during half-time at a football game. The lyrics resonated with many Americans in 2003 – especially as the country prepared for invasion of Iraq. 

“Travelin’ Soldier” performed by the Chicks, written by Bruce Robison
An Evening with the Dixie Chicks, filmed at Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre in August 2002
Directed by Joel Gallen

International tensions were mounting in the early months of 2003; as President Bush planned to invade Iraq, the world was watching with much concern and anger over the impending war. When the Chicks arrived in London in March 2003, the city’s streets were full of anti-war protesters. After performing “Travelin’ Soldier” on their March 10 concert at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Maines, recognizing the heightened tensions in the air, informed her audience that she and her bandmates shared their sentiments – that they too opposed the impending war. She then attempted to lighten the mood by stating, “we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” Journalist Betty Clark reviewed the Chicks concert for The Guardian, and abbreviated Maines’ comment quoting only the denunciation and not the larger context surrounding their concerns about war. The Associated Press picked up on the review, and the country music community (fans, fellow artists, industry, and media representatives) expressed disappointment and feelings of betrayal over the lead singer’s disrespect for the Commander and Chief.

Despite two attempts at a public apology for her comments in London, the Chicks’ #1 single, which appeared to reflect military support, fell off the charts. As I outlined elsewhere, country music radio boycotted their music, former fans protested at their concerts, CDs and memorabilia were destroyed at ‘anti-Chicks’ rallies (dubbed ‘chick tosses’), Robison’s ranch was vandalised, Maines received a death threat, and metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs were brought into select American concert venues. Two Colorado radio DJs were even fired for playing the Chicks’ music. Strong supporters of the Bush presidency branded the Chicks “traitors”, “un-American”, “Saddam’s Angels” and the “Dixie Sluts” – slurs that appeared on posters and t-shirts of protestors outside of Chicks concerts. In response to the professional and personal attacks, the Chicks posed nude on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, wearing nothing but these slurs alongside terms like “Proud American,” “Hero,” “Brave,” and “Free Speech.” The cover photo did nothing to assuage the anger of their protesters, but it was a bold statement on their freedoms and rights as citizens of the USA, and a reclaiming of their narrative voice.

The Chicks’ single “Travelin’ Soldier” had been nearing the top of both the Billboard and Mediabase charts as these events unfolded in London. The trio had released “Travelin’ Soldier” to radio on December 20, 2002, debuting at 58 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. The song was immensely popular in the early months of 2003, and reached #1 by within three months of its release: 16 years ago today on March 22, 2003. The line graph in Figure 1 outlines Mediabase’s reporting on monthly spins for “Travelin’ Solder” in 2003, mapping the fast rate at which the song’s spins increased between January and February, and the drastic rate at which is dropped off of country radio.

This graph represents the monthly spins for the Dixie Chicks "Travelin' Soldier" in 2003
Figure 1. Monthly Spins for “Travelin’ Soldier” (2003)

Zooming into the week-by-week movement of the song on Mediabase, the song’s trajectory can be viewed in relation to the activities unfolding in the USA and in the Chicks tour. As viewed in Figure 2, the song had 1,351 spins the week of January 4, 2003 – within two weeks of its release to radio. As the trio embarked on the European leg of their tour and President Bush solidified plans to invade Iraq, “Travelin’ Soldier” climbed steadily to its peak at #1 on Mediabase’s weekly chart with 6,636 spins the week ending March 8, 2003. We can assume that the song’s theme of war-time heartache appealed to country radio and to Americans grappling with the impending war.

Figure 2. Weekly Spins for “Travelin’ Soldier”, January to May 2003

Two days later, on March 10, Maines denounced President Bush from the concert stage in London, England and by March 13 the American press had reported on the concert statement and country radio and listeners were debating whether or not to play their music. Despite the near-immediate backlash, the trio dropped just 1 position to #2 in the chart ending March 15 — but their loss of 618 spins that week was a sign of the ban to come. The following week, after two failed attempts at an apology by Maines, the trio’s song dropped from #2 to #16 on the Mediabase chart, losing 3,691 weekly spins (a 61.3% drop), and landed in recurrent status by March 29 – losing hundreds of spins every week. 

Such a sudden and drastic decline in spins was the result of an organized campaign to vilify the trio for their political beliefs. In a July 2003 hearing before Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, the Chicks’ manager Simon Renshaw agreed that while radio stations were free to choose the music included in a playlist, he was concerned that Cumulus had in fact issued a directive to its stations to stop playing the trio’s music – which former President & CEO of Cumulus Lewis Dickey ultimately admitted during the hearing. While the damage had been done, the hearing shone a spotlight on issues regarding free speech and the potential impacts of consolidated media on the careers of artists.

Impacting country music culture

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers
– Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

We often point to this critical moment in the Chicks career as a turning point in gender representation in country music culture. It is often reported that their loss of the #1 position was followed by a 61 week period with no female artists at the #1 spot of the Hot Country Songs chart. Rarely discussed is the fact that the trio’s week at #1 was preceded by 49 weeks of male-dominated hits following Martina McBride’s two-week stint at #1 with Blessed in April 2002. As reported in my recent article in Popular Music & Societyin the 110-week period surrounding their week at #1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, male artists like Darryl Worley, Toby Keith, Alan Jackson, and Kenny Chesney dominated with songs about war and loss, on one hand, and beer and partying on the other. The May 2004 rise of Gretchen Wilson broke this dry spell. Wilson’s brand of what Eric Weisbard has termed “Walmart-themed class consciousness” in his chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Country Music spoke directly to the fan base alienated by the Chicks’ anti-Bush/Republican politics in 2003. Her radio 2004 radio success cements the idea that female artists need to fulfill a certain role within the limited space allotted on country radio. Yet, as Weisbard has pointed out: even Gretchen Wilson was too “hardcore” for country radio. She was soon replaced by the more poised and polished sound of Underwood, who recorded songs just hard enough to appeal to a younger female audience (“Before He Cheats”), while appealing to the more tradition-oriented fans with emotional ballads and religious-themed songs and duets with male country legends (including “I Told You So” with Randy Travis and “How Great Thou Art” with Vince Gill). What emerged from this situation was the notion that women were expected to conform to an unspoken set of rules and tread carefully between tradition and innovation, liberal and conservative values, and bold yet acceptable subject positions in order to avoid offending country radio audiences and programmers. It also suggests a level of cultural sexism in which women can be sidelined or punished for their personal beliefs or behaviour.

As a result of these 11 words, the Chicks found themselves on the periphery of a musical community they once called home. Country music radio refused to play their music, fellow country music artists alienated them, and a large portion of country music audiences rejected the Chicks’ apology; the trio continued to be branded as traitors and as unpatriotic. Maguire expressed her feelings of being out of place in an interview with the German weekly magazine, Der Spiegel’s Jörg Schallenberg stating, “we don’t feel part of the country music scene any longer, it can’t be our home anymore … we now consider ourselves part of the big rock ’n’ roll family.” With no need to pander to any genre, radio format, or fanbase, the Chicks responded to the backlash with their most bold, unapologetic and personal album: Taking the Long Way (2006). The album facilitated their crossover to adult contemporary and, as a result, to a new and wider audience.

Superstars, renegades, innovators, heroes, villains and moms, the Chicks have played a significant role in reshaping country music culture. Their post-“incident” career offers an example of how artists on the periphery of the mainstream industry can carve out their space in relation or opposition to the genre. Their example is much more divisive, to be sure, but for young women grappling with how to define a career in an industry that seems unwilling to make space for them, the trio’s decisions to embrace their position as outsiders and the artistic freedom that can come with that status offers an example for finding success in country music. Instead of trying to acquiesce to the country industry’s expectations on the behaviour, style, sound, and female subjectivity, they set an example for writing narratives about strong female characters and boldly marking out their own space within the broader culture of popular music. The Chicks are often cited as significant influences on today’s young female artists, including Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town, Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini, Maddie & Tae, Mickey Guyton and Kalie Shorr (to name but a few). Their own trajectory within the genre might have been blocked, but the Chicks’ enduring influence marks the music and careers of every female artist in the genre today.