Dixie Chicks ruffle feathers

SUN JOURNAL

Texas: Their hometown of Austin is more tolerant than some, where a singer's scorn for President Bush evoked CD-crushing campaigns.

April 03, 2003|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

AUSTIN, Tex. - As they say in country-western songs, she done him wrong.

When Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, told a concert audience in London last month that she was "ashamed" of her fellow Texan, George W. Bush, outrage spread across the United States, radio stations stopped playing the group's songs and at least one town held a mass CD-crunching.

But here in Austin, home to the popular country trio as well as a certain idiosyncratic and, some would say, distinctly non-Texas sensibility, the uproar has been more of a low-level, eye-rolling undercurrent.

Oh, some people are upset - the president used to live here, after all. And there have been OUTRAGED letters to the editor, but no one here seems to be calling for what protesters' signs elsewhere have demanded: "Fry the Chicks."

The live-and-let-the-Chicks-live attitude is entirely in keeping with this island of progressive politics and indefinable cool in the midst of a state that is, however stereotypically, conservative and traditional.

"I didn't know I liked Texas until I discovered Austin," says Ron Burnett, a Long Island, N.Y., native who has lived here for four years.

Similarly, he didn't know he liked country music until he moved here, where on any day live music spills from countless bars, concert venues and even parking lots, such as one on South Congress Avenue where on this past sunny Sunday he was listening to the house band of an open-air coffee bar.

Burnett, a chiropractor, can't decide which is more absurd - Maines making a clunky political statement during a concert in Europe, or the reaction of people like those in Louisiana who recently ran a tractor over a pile of Dixie Chicks CDs.

"I think it's ridiculous to smash your CDs because someone said something you disagree with," he says.

"But I do love that there is so much political commentary from actors and singers," he says with a note of sarcasm. "I think, how would you know?"

The Dixie Chicks, originally based in Dallas, drifted to Austin some years back to become part of the city's vibrant music scene. What Seattle was to grunge, Austin is to alt-country.

Performers like the Chicks have made the city a sort of anti-Nashville, offering what they consider a more authentic country sound than the Shania Twains and Tim McGraws who dominate the airwaves.

Dale Watson is among the chief Nashville-disdainers, a rootsy heir to the Merle Haggard and George Jones style of traditional country who has a devoted following here and in Europe.

He was playing at the Broken Spoke dance hall here the other day with his band, the Lone Stars. And if there was any curiosity about his political stance - doubtful in the happy crowd enjoying ice-cold long-necks and irresistible foot-tapping music - it went unanswered.

"Politics is politics, and music is music," Watson says during a break. "I don't think you ought to mix politics with music."

Still, musicians in Austin don't eat their own, and Watson doesn't condemn Maines for her outspoken politics: "She's entitled to her opinion. I don't like her music any less for it."

James White, owner of the Broken Spoke, seems more bemused in a paternal way than angry at the singer, whom he has known for years and is the daughter of a friend, Lloyd Maines, a pedal steel guitar player and album producer.

"It's a shame it happened because I like them," White says. "I think sometimes you get caught up in the moment. At first I thought she was kidding ..."

The Dixie Chicks played the Broken Spoke several times before they hit it big nationally, and a picture of White and Maines from a day last year when she visited him is part of a veritable gallery of Texas stars who have performed in the club over the years. There's also, incidentally, a picture of White with Bush from when he was governor.

White thinks there might be some fallout from Maines' statement, at least for a while, particularly among Texans and others who support the president and the war.

Maines' belated attempt at damage control hasn't helped: After drawing a negative reaction for her comment, Maines elaborated on it further. In a statement on the group's Web site, she accused Bush of ignoring anti-war sentiments 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."

When that failed to quell the uproar, and maybe exacerbated it, Maines issued a second and more contrite statement: "I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful. I feel whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect."

The brouhaha comes at the peak of the Chicks' popularity; their current CD, "Home," recently won the Grammy for best country album, one of four awards the group picked up. Despite the controversy, it remains the No. 1 country album on the Billboard chart.

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