'Earl' Creates Heat--and Heated Debate

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Dixie Chicks, the hottest group in country music, have some people hot--as in steamed--over their new single, "Goodbye Earl."

The bouncy tune about two women who kill an abusive husband is stirring the biggest debate in Nashville since Garth Brooks' grim "The Thunder Rolls," another song on the same theme.

Leading the resistance to the single are some radio programmers. Most country stations are playing the record, but many of them are airing it less frequently than might be expected of a new single from an act as popular as the Dixie Chicks.

"It's one of the things where some of the gatekeepers take it more seriously than the audience does," said Lon Helton, country music editor for Radio & Records, a leading radio trade publication. Helton said about 20 of 149 country stations that R&R; tracks are still not playing it.

"The audience knows that it's kind of tongue-in-cheek and that the Chicks are having some fun," Helton added. "I think the public knows the Chicks have a great, edgy attitude. Programmers were nervous at first about offending parts of their audience, but I think they've gotten the message. The single is going up our [country airplay] charts as fast as any single the Chicks have put out."

"Earl," which is on the Chicks' Grammy-winning album "Fly," is currently No. 8 on the pop sales chart and No. 2 on the country sales chart, according to Billboard magazine.

The debate centers on whether the record sheds light on the problem of domestic violence or condones a murder by the abuse victim and her friend.

The Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has given its support to the group--not for the song's solution to spousal abuse, but for fomenting public dialogue on an important issue.

"Many battered women feel trapped and feel that violence is their only option to get away from the abuser," said coalition executive director Rita Smith. "We don't want them feeling that way. We want them to know there are resources available to them. . . . We want stations who play the record to tell their listeners that there is a hotline number they can call if they've been a victim of violence."

In fact, many stations are supplying phone numbers to violence prevention hotlines whenever they spin "Goodbye Earl." The Country Music Television (CMT) cable channel created a "Goodbye Earl" edition of its "CMT Beat" mini-feature that airs periodically through the week dispensing similar information to viewers.

Most country fans and radio programmers see the record as a darkly humorous take on an admittedly serious subject (the wife resorts to poetic justice for the black eye that Earl gave her by doing him in with poisoned black-eyed peas), which the Chicks put in the national spotlight when they sang it on the Feb. 23 Grammy telecast.

Most on the industry side say they've opted to let the public be the judge, and feel they can't ignore the new single from a group that has sold nearly 4 million copies of its latest album.

But some have blasted the group, and stations playing the song, either for treating domestic violence lightly or for championing a protagonist who takes the law into her own hands.

"The quote coming from the Dixie Chicks is that it's just tongue-in-cheek and that they're raising awareness about [domestic violence]," said John Pellegrini, program director of York, Pa., station WGTY-FM, which is not playing the record. "My question is, what do we do a song about next: school shootings? Just a fun one, one that might raise awareness?"

"I think the line most people have trouble with is the one that says 'Earl had to die,' " said R.J. Curtis, operations manager at Los Angeles country station KZLA-FM (93.9). KZLA has the song in light rotation--about 14-15 plays per week--and is still gauging local response before deciding whether to put it into heavier rotation.

Song Is 'a Little Story With Lots of Attitude'

KZLA competitor KIK-FM (94.3) in Anaheim, however, has it in maximum rotation at 62 times per week. "The response has been 95% positive, 5% negative," said program director Craig Powers.

"Goodbye Earl" songwriter Dennis Linde, who also wrote Elvis Presley's 1972 hit "Burning Love," has said he considers the song "a little story with lots of attitude. No message. . . . I thought I was writing a black comedy like 'Arsenic & Old Lace' or 'The Trouble With Harry.' "

It's also been likened to Martina McBride's 1994 hit "Independence Day," about a woman who torches her house with her abusive husband asleep inside, and Brooks' 1991 hit "The Thunder Rolls," the video for which was banned by the Nashville Network and CMT.

One big difference is the happy ending in "Goodbye Earl." After disposing of the body, the two women set up a roadside stand where they sell ham and jam and "don't lose any sleep at night."

"Initially when I heard the song, my problem was that a man gets killed and everybody walks away scot-free," said Julie Stevens, program director at San Jose's KRTY-FM. "That bugged me. If it was a woman who got killed, nobody would have played it and [the National Organization for Women] would be up in arms."

Stevens decided to hold an on-air town meeting and have listeners help her decide whether to put "Goodbye Earl" on the playlist.

"The response was unbelievable," she said. "I wasn't prepared for the number of women we heard from who had recently come out of domestic violence situations, had been involved in one for years or had removed a grown daughter from one. Almost without exception we were hearing from women who had been there, done that."

She decided to play the record, but with an announcement urging victims of abuse to call 1-800-799-SAFE, the national domestic violence 24-hour hotline.

Despite enthusiastic response the song generated when the group played it at Lilith Fair shows last summer, and fan raves about it on the group's Web site, Dixie Chicks manager Simon Renshaw said that Sony Nashville and Monument Records officials were reluctant to release it as a single when the album came out, but relented once the trio decided to sing it during their moment in the Grammy spotlight.

"Yes, there have been a lot of people who have had qualms about it," said Larry Pareigis, Monument's vice president of national promotion. "Then again, there have been radio stations who have utilized the town-meeting strategy and have used it to great effect. The majority of calls end up being positive enough to ease programmers' possibly queasy feelings about playing it. That's win-win-win around the pike."

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