The Dixie Chicks are Nashville refugees for reasons of politics and personality -- after stinging comments about President Bush, country radio banned them and country fans shunned them -- but on Sunday the trio found blue-state redemption at the 49th annual Grammy Awards with five awards, including song, record and album of the year.
Intense R&B; singer Mary J. Blige and the rock veterans of the Red Hot Chili Peppers were among the other notable winners, but by the end, the show belonged to the Chicks, who became the first act in 13 years to sweep all three prestigious categories.
The avalanche of honors at Staples Center in Los Angeles came just three months after the Chicks and their defiant album "Taking the Long Way" were snubbed at the Country Music Assn. Awards, creating a divide that turned into something resembling a pop-culture election.
"I think people are using their freedom of speech tonight with all these awards," said Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Texas-bred band and a firebrand figure for much of America.
It was Maines who in 2003, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, told a London concert crowd: "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." That led to radio bans, CD burnings, death threats and the Nashville career collapse for a group that had been among country music's most bankable acts.
Maines, a lifelong Texan, moved to an L.A. beach house and her music partners, sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, joined her in California to record "Taking the Long Way" with rock producer Rick Rubin and rock session musicians.
There was also "Shut Up and Sing," a documentary film that gave the back-stage story of the public furor, enraging critics even more. The group, which began as a bluegrass outfit, had surrendered much of its musical identity, but songs such as "Lubbock or Leave It" signaled that the musicians were not in ideological retreat.
Maines joked Sunday night that Middle America might not be happy with the Chicks' romp, which came from the votes of the Recording Academy, which is centered in the industry hubs of Los Angeles and New York.
"A lot of people just turned their TVs off right now," the newly dark-haired Maines said with a laugh. "I'm very sorry about that."
The first single from their album, "Not Ready to Make Nice," won record of the year, which honors the best overall recording, and song of the year, a songwriter's award, which they shared with their collaborator Dan Wilson, formerly of the band Semisonic. The Chicks ran the table Sunday -- they won all five categories in which they were nominated.
Folk singer Joan Baez introduced them as "three brave women" and also asked the audience to "please listen closely" to their performance of "Not Ready to Make Nice," which the trio performed on a small pedestal stage at the center of the venue.
Norah Jones, in 2003, was the last act to win three of the four marquee awards. This year, the only top award the Chicks did not take home was the one they were not eligible for -- best new artist, which went to Carrie Underwood, the country singer whose career was minted by "American Idol," Fox's popular talent show.
"I love country music first of all," said the 23-year-old native of Muskogee, Okla. "There are so many people to thank. I'm going to start at the top: Thank you God, thank you Mom and Dad, thank you Simon Fuller, who created the show 'American Idol' that got me here. I owe everything to Simon Fuller...."
Last year, "American Idol" was head-to-head with the Grammys and thumped the awards show in ratings.
This year, acknowledging the new physics of musical stardom, the Grammys added a talent-show component to its broadcast.
A 19-year-old Texas unknown named Robyn Troup sang a duet with Justin Timberlake and got an ovation just as loud as the singers who went home to mansions.
Rick Rubin was named producer of the year (non-classical) for his work during the eligibility period with the Peppers, Dixie Chicks, Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond. He also contributed a song to the Timberlake album, giving him a credit on three CDs in the best album category.
The 43-year-old, who was a co-founder of the rap-pioneering Def Jam Records, came into the evening with five previous nominations in the prestigious category but had never taken a trophy home.
The show's gramophone trophies celebrated music that was released between October 2005 and the end of last September, but some of the most memorable moments of the gala honored music of the past.
The broadcast on CBS opened with the reunited Police performing their first hit, the torchy tango "Roxanne" (the band, which broke up in the mid-1980s, will announce a major tour today with a club performance and news conference in West Hollywood), and there was also a tribute to the late James Brown that included Christina Aguilera performing a forlorn version of "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," the 1966 song Brown wrote with Betty Newsome.
If the Chicks were celebrated for overcoming public travails, Blige and the Peppers took home awards that were especially poignant given the struggles in their personal lives.
Blige, whose performances are often riveting and wrenching, was choking back tears as she spoke on stage -- "There was a time in my life I couldn't love myself enough to love anyone else," she said.
Her three awards in R&B; categories add to the success of her album "Breakthrough," the most uplifting music for an artist who has weathered drug abuse, physical abuse and despair.
The Peppers picked up four Grammys and had the final performance, a magical hometown moment for a longtime Los Angeles band that has dealt in the past with overdoses, defections and critical apathy. They scored the first No. 1 album of their career and some of their best reviews ever last year with "Stadium Arcadium."
For the music industry elite who gathered for "the biggest night in music," the gala was just as much about escapism as it was exultation.
The recent headlines have been disconcerting even in an industry growing accustomed to bad news: Tower Records shuttered its stores, layoffs are underway at Virgin and Capitol Records and, most distressing of all, last month the best-selling album in the country managed only to sell an anemic 60,000 copies during a week in stores.
Top award winners
Record of the year
"Not Ready to Make Nice," Dixie Chicks
Album of the year
"Taking the Long Way," Dixie Chicks
Song of the year
"Not Ready to Make Nice," Dixie Chicks and Dan Wilson
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