Even as President Bush told the nation Thursday night that the major conflict in Iraq is over and it’s time for rebuilding, the beleaguered Dixie Chicks came to this Southern city hoping for a similar message regarding their country music career.
Judging by the boisterous cheers, warmth and standing ovations that greeted them here at the first stop of their national tour, they may have that renewal. The reception here at the 14,000-seat BI-LO Center was in sharp contrast to the vitriol directed at the group after lead singer Natalie Maines criticized Bush on the eve of the war. On March 10, Maines was on a London stage when she told the crowd she was “embarrassed” that Bush was a fellow Texan.
That offhand remark touched off a firestorm. In the following weeks there were anti-Chicks rallies, endless talk-show screeds, and bans on Chicks songs at some country radio stations. The Chicks, who have sold more albums than any female group in music history, saw their newest release, “Home,” plunge on the charts.
That context made the kick-off show here in conservative South Carolina a dicey proposition. There was talk that fans would boo, not show or stir up trouble. Instead, it was a landslide of fan love, especially for Maines, who wore a black tank top emblazoned with “Dare to be Free.” It was clear the audience was ready to reach out to the trio of Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison: Before they even arrived onstage, the audience was doing “the wave.”
The Chicks opened with the rambunctious, black comedy of “Goodbye Earl” and, two songs later, Maines addressed the tension of the night: “If you are here to boo, that’s fine. We welcome freedom of speech. We’re gonna give you 15 seconds to get out all of it you want.” She started a countdown and the audience cheered with glee.
About 80 protesters did show up, but they were on the sidewalks outside. They were divided, though, and it appeared a majority were there supporting the Chicks and freedom of speech, so the placards ranged from “Former Fan” to “We Support Natalie” to “My Dad Is a Soldier. I Support Him and I Support You.”
While Hollywood stars and rock bands have weighed in on Bush or the war with no major turbulence, the Chicks have been caught in a hurricane. Lon Helton, country music editor for Radio & Records, a music trade publication, said the Heartland fan base has different expectations: “Country music is for the people who live in between the Hudson and the Hollywood sign and they have a different view.”
Maines has apologized for the wording of her comment, but the issue continues to roil here in Greenville, where the tour kickoff was scheduled and sold out weeks before the London incident. The city is home to conservative Bob Jones University and falls in line with this state’s stalwart support of Republicans. The state House of Representatives even passed a resolution demanding the musicians perform for troops as a gesture of apology.
The Chicks have declined to do newspaper interviews, but the trio did speak to Entertainment Weekly magazine and ABC’s Diane Sawyer; in those interviews, the group members said they were stunned by the reaction and unnerved by death threats.
“I feel patriotic-and strong,” Maines said in the magazine interview. “We will continue to be who we are.”
In the music industry, there is no consensus on the group’s future, although the strong showing in such a conservative setting may bode well for the band. Sales of their album also rose 30% last week after the two nationally visible interviews. Country radio, meanwhile, is listening to market research and tour coverage to see when -- or if -- the group can return as a force on the airwaves. In country music, there has been mostly silence on the Chicks matter, but there is a clear sense that the genre is at ideological odds with the group.
On the Billboard charts for the genre, there are six songs this week with patriotic or anti-Iraq imagery, led by the No. 1 song, Darryl Worley’s “Have You Forgotten,” which warns U.S. enemies of smart bombs. In concert, Toby Keith has been getting cheers when his overhead screens flash fabricated photos of a beaming Maines in an embrace with Saddam Hussein.
The Chicks themselves also had some fun with pointed messages: Before they took the stage, the Greenville arena sound system played songs such as “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears, “Our Lips are Sealed” by the Go-Go’s and “Band on the Run” by Wings.