Bush comments are tied to Dixie Chicks' music


Wars are rarely won with words, but they usually begin with them. Natalie Maines was on a concert stage in England, more than 5,000 miles from Lubbock County, but the Lone Star state heard the hometown girl when she took a poke at President Bush.

"Just so you know," the Dixie Chicks singer said, "we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." That was on March 10, 2003, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, and as the crowd cheered, a concert reviewer for the London Guardian dutifully took down the quote.

For Maines, it had been a bit of topical banter, but back home it was received as a formal declaration of war. In the 1,168 days since, there has been no cease-fire.

"Most sane people thought it was like a flash, and then it was over," Maines said after a recent rehearsal in Los Angeles. "They don't realize how insane it got and how it still is." Today, the Chicks release an album, Taking the Long Way, and it is impossible to separate its music and messages from The Incident, as the band refers to the comments Maines made three years ago.

There were death threats (including a harrowingly specific one in Dallas that authorities took very seriously), and the day-to-day vitriol level was so high that Maines, a lifelong Texan, moved to L.A. The music of the Chicks has moved west also; with the new album, the trio of Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire recorded in Los Angeles. Although their music remains grounded in bluegrass banjo and country fiddle, this album is clearly informed with a rock road-song sensibility. It's the sound of boots on big city sidewalks.

The spiky independence of the Chicks has always made for bumpy relations with Nashville. Despite a resume with cheeky hits such as "Goodbye Earl," the trio was always more Texas maverick than Nashville player.

"We never recorded a song because it was going to be a hit, but we definitely would hear a song and think, `Oh, people are going to like that one,'" Maines said. "This was the exact opposite. We just assume no one is going to like it at this stage. It was all for ourselves. It was the first record we've done where I would have been OK if nobody liked it. That would have destroyed me in the past."

Robison (who plays guitar, banjo and dobro) and Maguire (fiddle, mandolin) are sisters and, along with two other women, they founded the Chicks in 1989. By 1995, the lineup included the sisters and a new lead singer who was the daughter of Lloyd Maines, a renowned steel-pedal player.

By 2003, the Chicks had shelves full of awards and walls lined with platinum and gold records. The week Maines made her comment, the group had a new single, "Travelin' Soldier," at No. 1 on the country charts. In one week, the song went from No. 3 on country airplay charts to No. 31, and it continued south from there. Within days, there were CD bonfires and boycotts.

For the record, all three women remain opposed to the war in Iraq and fervently believe the Bush administration has repeatedly hoodwinked the American public. ("I think most people in this country are still not paying attention to what's going on," Maines says.) And each agrees that the name "Dixie Chicks" will forever be followed in print by some allusion to March 10, 2003.

"I've lost my optimism and my hope in humanity," Maines said. "I'm not being funny. I try to find it. I hate it. It wasn't all gone after what happened to us, but then after the last election it was gone."

Country radio has been cold to the new music. The single was the most downloaded country song on iTunes when it was released, but it isn't near the Top 20 at radio.

The singers said they believe their new album would never have been made without the trial by fire of the past three years.

"We've always kind of joked that we didn't write great songs because we didn't have any baggage in our lives, we were too normal and fine," said Maines. And how's that going? All three Dixie Chicks exchanged looks and burst out laughing. A few heartbeats later, still smiling, Maines added one last thought on The Incident: "I'd never take it back."

Geoff Boucher writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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