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Sunday, September 02, 2012

Not Ready To Make Nice

New month.  New weekly feature.

Last month, I took the weekly Monday matinee feature, and I decided to make each one disaster themed.  It was a lot of fun, and judging from the page views, I think quite a few of you enjoyed it.  So I decided to do the same thing for September.

Instead of the Monday Matinee, I thought that I would make the Sunday Jukebox the day where we would have a weekly feature.

If you read the blog entry that I wrote on August 28, 2012, you would have found that it was based on country sweetheart Shania Twain.  And, that blog entry was actually intended as a “sneak preview” of September’s weekly feature.

For the next five weeks, I’ll be dedicating each edition of the Sunday Jukebox to the “Sweethearts of Country Music”.  Each week will feature a female country music artist, and each one will have their own stories, their own heartbreaks, their own triumphs, their own scandals, and of course, we’ll listen to at least one of their songs.

If you’re a country music fan, you’re going to love this month.  If not...well, at least the stories should keep you interested.  And, hey, there’s always October.

So, to kick off the first edition of the “Sweethearts of Country Music”, we’re going to take a look at a trio of singers who hail from Dallas, Texas.  Initially, their music was well-loved and respected by millions of people, and they sold millions of records.  However, they had one bit of controversy where they made one remark at a concert, and they ended up becoming the target of much fury and backlash.  But, do you think that they let a few jeers get them down?  Absolutely not!  In fact, they lashed out at their critics the best way they knew how...through song.

But, we’ll talk about that a little bit later.

I’m sure that some of you have figured out who the band is already that is the topic of discussion based on my opening paragraph...but for those of you who haven’t, allow me to introduce you.

The story of our band begins back in the late 1980s.  At the time, the top country music acts were Randy Travis, The Judds, and Reba McEntire.  In 1989, a group of four young women formed a band together.  The band was made up of bassist Laura Lynch, guitarist Robin Lynn Macy, and sisters Emily Erwin (Robison) and Martie Erwin (Maguire), who could play a variety of instruments.  The original style of music the band played was bluegrass, and they wanted to make it big on the country charts.  In order to do that, they needed to come up with a band name that was catchy, but memorable.  The group settled on a name that they took from a title of a Lowell George song, “Dixie Chicken”.

Of course, the “Dixie Chickens” didn’t have a nice ring to it, so the group decided to shorten the name to “Dixie Chicks”.

Anyway, the “Dixie Chicks” made a great team.  With Laura and Robin sharing lead vocals, and Emily and Martie playing such instruments as the banjo, mandolin, and fiddle, the group ended up getting their big break in 1990, when the Dixie Chicks recorded their debut album (thanks to the generous donation of Penny Cook, the daughter of a senator).  “Thank Heavens For Dale Evans” contained fourteen tracks, and went on sale later that year...but despite an appearance on the Grand Old Opry, their album failed to make an impression on country radio.

Despite this, the band did begin to build up a fan base, performing at various bluegrass festivals (they actually ended up winning the “best band” at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival), and were the opening act for several country stars, including Garth Brooks and George Strait.

By 1992, the band released their second album, “Little Ol’ Cowgirl”, which was an album that sounded more like contemporary country music.  The band developed a richer sound and modern arrangements, but the change in style proved too much for Robin Lynn Macy, who departed the band later that year.  But luckily for the Dixie Chicks, a replacement would be found courtesy of professional steel guitarist Lloyd Maines.  He introduced the Dixie Chicks to his daughter, Natalie, and gave Emily and Martie a copy of a demo tape Natalie had made.  Both Emily and Martie found that Natalie’s voice harmonized well with their own, and when the band was signed to Sony Music Entertainment in 1995, the Dixie Chicks said farewell to Laura Lynch, and hello to Natalie Maines, who became the sole lead singer for the band.

With the addition of Maines to the line-up, the band began experimenting with new sounds, and recruited a new producer, Blake Chancey, to help produce their next album.

That album was “Wide Open Spaces”, which hit record stores in January 1998.  Four singles were released from the album, three of which hit the top of the country music charts.  The album ended up selling twelve million copies worldwide, and their fan base expanded, a large percentage of which were young women.

In fact, the success of “Wide Open Spaces” was so great that the band sold more copies of the album in 1998 than most other country acts COMBINED.  The following year, the Dixie Chicks recorded the album “Fly”, which was released in the summer of 1999, which proved to be an even bigger success than “Wide Open Spaces”.  Nine singles were taken from the album, and songs such as “Ready To Run” and “Cowboy Take Me Away” did incredibly well on the charts.  The album won the band much critical acclaim and accolades.  The album was a Grammy award winning album, and continued to be named as one of the fifty best-selling albums in American history a full five years after its release date.  The album established the Dixie Chicks as a powerful force in the world of country music, and they were invited to perform at Sarah McLachlan’s “Lilith Fair” festival.

Of course, “Fly” also had a couple of controversial moments, as a couple of songs from the album ended up causing some radio stations to block them from their playlists.  The unreleased song “Sin Wagon” made references to “mattress dancing”.  And, of course, there was the song “Goodbye Earl”, which was a comedic look at an abused wife murdering her spouse.  Seriously, take a look at the video below.

Of course, the Dixie Chicks were unapologetic about the controversy, and even joked about it.  And, in this case, the controversy probably helped the band get even more publicity, which lead to more record sales.

Things became even more complicated when the Dixie Chicks got into a dispute with their record company over royalty payments, and in 2000, the band walked away from the Sony, prompting the company to sue the band for failure to complete their contract.  In turn, the Dixie Chicks retaliated with their own lawsuit.  Eventually the band settled with Sony privately, and were awarded their own record imprint, “Open Wide Records”, which allowed them more creative control and higher royalties.  At the same time, the band released their next album, “Home” in 2002, the album independently produced by Lloyd Maines.  The album didn’t do quite as well on the charts as their previous efforts, but it still ended up selling six million copies and was honoured with four Grammy Awards. 

But then in 2003, things began to crash and burn for the band, beginning with a March 10, 2003 concert appearance in London.

At that time, the group was promoting “Home”, and their song “Travelin’ Soldier” was topping the country music charts.  But it was also around that time that the United States were preparing to send American soldiers to fight in Iraq during the “War On Terror” following the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington D.C. in 2001.  And, needless to say, the Dixie Chicks were not thrilled with then American president George W. Bush’s plan to invade Iraq.  And, the concert in London, they made their feelings known.  Just before performing the song “Travelin’ Soldier”, Natalie Maines issued this statement to the crowd.

“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.”

That was the comment that sparked a political firestorm, and sent fans into an outrage. 

Now I don’t think it was so much the fact that the band opposed the war that caused the outrage.  Certainly over the years, dozens of musical acts have opposed war and promoted peace and avoided controversy...but when the Dixie Chicks inserted that remark about George W. Bush at the end of their statement it caused things to explode.  Media outlets in America lambasted the Dixie Chicks for insulting the president on foreign soil, and despite an apology from Maines four days later, former fans began to turn on the Dixie Chicks.

The Dixie Chicks were subsequently banned from various country music stations, and were dropped by Lipton, one of their main sponsors.  Several fans turned their backs on the group, and demonstrations were held in various locations which saw former fans destroying their Dixie Chicks albums.  A few celebrities came out in support of the band, including Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, and Merle Haggard, but the Dixie Chicks continued to get chided and jeered by the media.  They even got booed at the Academy of Country Music Awards, and found themselves embroiled in a public feud with entertainer Toby Keith.  Natalie Maines herself ended up getting the worst of it, receiving death threats as a result of the controversy.

It took about three years for the band to begin writing new material for a new album, likely still trying to find a way to cope with the fact that so many people had blacklisted them.  They figured that the best way to do that was through song.

You see, despite the fact that the band made that statement, they also had feelings.  And, in my honest opinion, just because they may have made a comment that didn’t sit well with a lot of people, I don’t think it really justified having people lash out against them the way they did.  It most certainly did not warrant anyone uttering a death threat against the person who said the statement that caused the snowball effect in the press.

So, in 2006, the Dixie Chicks released their first song since the controversy erupted.  The song was written by all three members of the band, and all three members had statements that they wanted to make in regards to the song itself.  Emily knew that the song was special due to its autobiographical nature, while Martie came to a new realization about how painful that time period was.  Natalie, the Dixie Chick who ended up getting the worst of it stated that at first she was trying to tiptoe around the controversy and wondered if they should all get along...but then she realized that she wasn’t at the point in her life where she was ready to make nice just yet.

And, while we’re looking at that last statement, let’s listen to the song.

ARTIST:  The Dixie Chicks
SONG:  Not Ready To Make Nice
ALBUM:  Taking The Long Way
DATE RELEASED:  June 5, 2006

“Not Ready To Make Nice” was the Dixie Chicks response to the criticism.  I mean, think about it.  If you had fans destroying your albums and threatening your life, I would think that the last thing you would want to do is have a tea party with them and forgive them as you nibble on a slice of key lime pie.  In fact, I might be on an island of one with this comment, but I applaud the girls for sticking to their guns...and a lot of other people did as well.  Allmusic, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and USA Today all gave the song positive reviews, and even praised the band for continuing to be themselves.  The song even won three Grammy Awards, proving that they were still a hot ticket despite being ripped apart in the media just a few years earlier.

In short, the Dixie Chicks did what not a lot of people did.  They stood up for themselves, wrote a song about it, and it became a hit.

How many people can say that?

So, that was the first week of “Sweethearts of Country Music” September.  Coming up next week on September 9th, we’ll talk about a country music superstar and her “independence day”.

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