You go, you mouthy, stand-up Chicks

ON POPULAR MUSIC

February 15, 2007|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

Though some may have seen it as a little tacky, the Dixie Chicks (Natalie Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire) had every right to gloat at this week's 49th annual Grammy Awards show.

The country-music pariahs were called to the stage five times, winning every category for which they had been nominated, including album of the year for Taking the Long Way. The wins capped a triumphant year for the trio after a trying period that included vicious attacks by conservative pundits and even death threats from former fans.

Almost four years have passed since lead singer Maines made a disparaging remark about President Bush on a stage in London. (She told the audience she was "ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas," which is the Chicks' home state.) And ever since, the country music establishment has been "throwing shade" at the Chicks, refusing to acknowledge their platinum-plus status in the genre. Some stations still won't play their music. Despite having one of the biggest-selling and critically well-received albums of last year, the Country Music Association ignored the super-trio at its November awards ceremony.

But by giving the Chicks five Grammys in one night, the Recording Academy (whose members certainly aren't dominated by country folks) seemed to unabashedly say, "You go, girls!" Now that public opinion about the war and the Bush presidency has largely shifted since Maines' remark, the timing couldn't have been better to show some industry love to the much-maligned group.

"Clearly, they have a pop audience and are not dependent on country radio," says 20-year music industry veteran Danny Goldberg, who's currently president of Gold Village Entertainment, a management firm whose clients include the Hives. "The fact that they had been attacked by politicians and radio stations contributed to some sentiment in their favor."

But the Chicks couldn't have been viable contenders for record, song and album of the year had they not released a strong product: Taking the Long Way, a swift million seller after its release in May, smartly showcased the threesome's evolved sound, which has taken on a savvy, slightly rock-tinged polish, courtesy of uber-producer Rick Rubin.

"I don't think [the wins] were a slap in the face to the country music establishment," says Bob Delmont, midday personality on 93.1 WPOC, Baltimore's country station. "We all know it's a great record, but we do not dictate what the majority of listeners want to hear on the radio. Many stations still play the Dixie Chicks; we are one of them."

The fact that the trio was still able to make platinum sales despite The Backlash certainly didn't go unnoticed by the Recording Academy.

"I really think [the wins] had less to do with country music and more with selling music," says Rachel Weingarten, a pop trends expert and president of the New York and Los Angeles-based GTK Marketing Group. "The music business on the whole has been in one of the worst continuous slumps in the history of recorded music."

The night after the Dixie Chicks won for record, song and album of the year plus best country album and best country performance by a duo or group with vocal for "Not Ready to Make Nice," sales for Taking the Long Way increased 1,500 percent on Amazon.com's Top Sellers list. The CD jumped from No. 32 to No. 2.

But beyond the academy's acknowledgement of the trio's continued commercial success, Weingarten says the Chicks' wins were a "nod to the passive activism gripping our nation these days. ... The Dixie Chicks, with their anti-Bush sentiments, clearly were meant to appeal to disaffected 30 and 40-somethings ... who yearn for relevance."

Maybe so. Although the Chicks lost a large portion of their country fan base, they have done just fine. The protests, the nasty remarks, the CMAs shutting them out -- seemingly none of that has hurt their bank accounts. Or their creative musical spirit, to which Taking the Long Way is a sterling testament. Shut Up and Sing, the acclaimed 2006 documentary by Barbara Kopple that explored The Backlash, showed how Maines, Robison and Maguire weathered the storm with grace. The DVD hits stores next week.

"With the Grammy wins, it showed the business wanting to stand up for them," says Gold Village's Goldberg. "The album sold very well, so there is a rationale for the wins."

Which were ultimately the sweetest "haw-haw" to those who had discounted the Chicks. And as she stepped to the mike to accept the trophy for best country album, Maines wasted no time to say just that.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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