"Can you go back to your husband once he's cheated on you? Once he's done you wrong?" The question is the stuff of classic country tear-jerkers, but Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks wasn't talking about some new song lyric. In her mind, she was done wrong by Nashville and the country radio establishment, and a divorce may be pending. "I'm not sure there's anything there for us anymore."
In March 2003, Maines and her partners in the Dixie Chicks, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, were plunged into a country music melodrama after Maines disparaged President Bush from a concert stage in London. The result -- radio station bans, CD bonfires and peer venom -- did not break the Chicks, but it certainly bruised them.
Now, Maines and company are putting themselves back in the spotlight, and they won't be standing alone this time.
On Friday, they join a coalition of music stars, including Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam, who will perform concerts under the Vote for Change banner in key battleground states to raise money for causes united against Bush's reelection. In all, there will be 36 shows in 11 states.
The Chicks will team up with James Taylor, starting in Pittsburgh, for their road run, and the trio already has been rehearsing with him to meld their songbooks into a show that, Maines says, "will hopefully be a one-of-a-kind special event for fans."
That is, if the fans know about it. The Chicks-Taylor tandem have shows in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Missouri and Florida, places where Chicks hits such as "Wide Open Spaces" and "Goodbye Earl" have pulled in arena crowds in the past.
"We haven't sold out the Fox Theatre in St. Louis," Maines said glumly about the tour's stop Wednesday at the 4,200-seat venue. "No one there would know from the radio that there's even a show. At least I'm hoping that's the reason. I hope we still have enough loyal fans in St. Louis to fill a theater."
The country music establishment and fan base is different from any other sector of pop music, and while it evinces a down-home, familial unity, it also can show a small-town ruthlessness when its bylaws are broken.
When Texan Maines told that London audience that she was "ashamed" that Bush also hailed from the Lone Star State, she started a furor in country radio and industry circles, where patriotism is an exalted virtue and conservatism the most familiar political path. The comments came on the eve of the March 19 airstrikes on Baghdad that marked the start of the war, and as the conflict filled television screens nationwide, the Chicks all but disappeared overnight from country radio.
The blackout was all the more dramatic because the group had a top hit at the time (in a wry twist, it was "Travelin' Solider," an ode to military sacrifice) and was one of the top acts in all of country. The band has sold more than 23 million albums in the U.S. since its 1998 debut and has twice been nominated for the album of the year Grammy.
The Chicks apologized at various times and in varying degrees, but Maines said this week that her only regret now is that some ears heard her comments as a slight to troops or a discouragement to their morale. "Nothing could be farther from what I meant," she said on that point. As for the rest? "I guess I could tuck my tail between my legs and go back, but that's not us."
The Chicks are now working on a new album for late 2005 release, and Maines says candidly that "it has to be our best" after everything that has happened. Even then it's not clear to her what kind of audience will be waiting or even aware of the music. The Chicks had a solid road outing in arenas after the tumult in London, but tickets to those shows had been sold in advance of the controversy.
Times have changed, and public sentiment toward the conflict is more fractured than it was in March 2003. That, along with the impending election, has braced a sizable protest movement in rock music that is peaking now with the Vote for Change concerts series, whose participants also include the Dave Matthews Band, John Mellencamp, John Fogerty and others, and concludes with a finale in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 11.
"That's going to be a cool hang right there," Maines said of the final show. "I want to be backstage that night. It's also the chance to see everybody else perform."
Maines was one of the catalysts for the concert series. She was on a long plane flight reading Michael Moore's book "Dude, Where's My Country?" when she read a passage that encouraged musicians to use high-profile concerts to stump for Bush's ouster.
The Chicks' manager, Simon Renshaw, was a key organizer through the months of planning, as were Jon Landau and Bertis Downs, managers for Springsteen and R.E.M., respectively.
"There is a component of preaching to the choir" in the concerts, Maines conceded, adding that she would rather play her music for crowds of undecided voters. But the shows are expected to raise millions for political groups united against Bush.
"We're keeping costs way down; there's just three buses," Maines said of her group's tour with Taylor, their bands and crew. "With everyone bringing their kids, it's going to be a scene." Maines spoke Tuesday by cellphone from a New York City bowling alley where, in the background, came the sounds of pins crashing and her toddler son laughing. "We have a very full life outside of music, so that helps with everything that has happened."
Maines said she recently watched a documentary about the late Johnny Cash and, learning about the establishment beat-downs he got for his political and musical choices, she found tears coming to her eyes. "I got so much strength from that, and inspiration."
The Chicks may well find themselves, like Cash, among the ranks of critically acclaimed but radio-ignored mavericks such as Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris -- artists whose definitions of country music cover a wide range but don't gibe with country radio or its promotion machine.
"It looks like it, yes," Maines said, "but we just play our music, and that's all we can do."