American Culture

Real heroes refuse to shut up and sing

A few weeks ago I watched The US vs. John Lennon, a documentary chronicling the extraordinary lengths the American government went to in order to silence an artist who had the audacity to speak out against corruption and injustice. Of course, Lennon came from an age when artists did that sort of thing, and he wasn’t the only musician to get on the nerves of the authorities during the tumultuous ’60s and ’70s. I imagine the FBI had a file on folks like Bob Dylan, too.

But we don’t live that world anymore, do we? These days the pressure to shut up and sing is greater than ever, and those who benefit most from our silence have engineered newer and more effective means for muzzling the consciences of those whose voices can actually be heard above the deafening white noise.

Last night my wife and I watched Shut Up and Sing, another documentary about an artist who had the temerity to speak the truth.

In 2003, the female country band, The Dixie Chicks, are at the top of their game being one of the most successful bands of all time. However with the US invasion of Iraq about to begin over frustrated worldwide objections about this needless war, one of the Chick vents off the cuff in concert about being ashamed of US President George W. Bush. This statement sparks a firestorm of organized and personal right wing attacks against the Chicks for daring to think they have the right to express a negative personal opinion about the President. This film covers the band’s effort to ride out the turmoil that would leave their careers under a cloud, but would eventually give them a opportunity to grow as great artists who bow to no one.

I’ve never been a big country music fan, but as soon as C&W stations starting censoring the Chicks I went out and bought Wide Open Spaces and encouraged everybody I knew to do the same. Not all country fans abandoned them, though – their next record actually debuted at the top of the C&W charts, if I’m not mistaken. Still, somewhere in here they ceased being a country band, and the deftness with which they reached this realization and adapted to face a new audience is a credit to their intelligence.

History is going to be far kinder to Natalie Maines than to George Bush, and this film illustrates why. It’s been a long time since an artist or a band was asked to endure so much. A firestorm of backlash from legions of ignorant country music fans. Obscene displays of gutlessness throughout the radio industry (ironic, given how much of the genre is all about macho shitkicker posturing). An active corporate radio conspiracy to destroy their careers. Ridicule at the hands of America’s stupidest entertainers (FUTK). And at least one death threat. But through it all Maines displays an intelligence, character and toughness that we might have thought was long and forever gone from our musical landscape.

To their credit, bandmates Martie Maguire and Emily Robison have her back at every step along the path. They’re not the firebrands that Maines is, but they share the same moral compass, and it’s revealing to watch as they all realize that there’s no backing down here. It’s not just self-consolation when they say that this is the best thing that could possibly have happened to them.

Toward the end Angela asked me a good question: “do you think it would have been this bad for them if they’d been men?” Well, let’s see – what do we know about the Dubya-worshiping country music base in the US?

Natalie Maines is a genuine hero who understands better than most, I think, exactly what it means to stand up for the rights that her toothless hillbilly former fans say are the most important things in the world to them.

So I highly recommend Shut Up and Sing, and their latest release, Taking the Long Way, is now perched at the top of my to-buy list. In parting, I think I’ll let the Dixie Chicks speak for themselves. Thank you for singing, and please, don’t ever shut up.

42 replies »

  1. You pinko commie junkie. I’m writing my Congressman right now to have your ass deported to Siburia with all the other Nazis.

    Um… who is my Congressman again?

  2. That’s the first time I’ve heard the Dixie Chicks. Wow. There ain’t much music out there any more that puts tears in my eyes, but this one did.

    And to think, I may be off soon to buy my first “country” CD….

    Thanks, Sam.

  3. I have it on good authority that the guy in the picture above expressing the “being ashamed of our president means being ashamed of our country” sentiment actually created that sign during the Clinton years. He kept it so he wouldn’t have to make another one when Hillary is elected.

  4. What puzzles me is why country artists do better rock than most rock artists these days.

    Maybe it’s because they’re relevant.

  5. I saw this doc, it was pretty sweet. I find it funny that some of the the “classic” country artists like Hank and others were at some point in their life basically hated by the Nashville establishment.

    I predict in 10 or more years the Chicks will be the few bands/artists in county music that will be considered classic.

    It was no shock to me when they got ousted like that. I lived in Nashville and worked in the industry, need I say more.

    The state of country music is just sad. I wish I had the link to an article a music critic for the Buffalo News wrote about a Toby Keith concert. It’s one of the greatest reviews i’ve ever read, just classic. It sums up almost all country bands today.

    As far as the last Chicks album, I personally didn’t like “Taking the Long Way” as much as the others. But it’s still pretty solid.

    Oh yeah for the record “Goodbye Earl” is one of the all time great country songs, period!

  6. Oh yeah before I forget. When I was interning in Nashvegas, Sony was acting like, well Sony, and not giving the Chicks their graduated royalties (basically they get a higher % of royalties when they reach a certain amount of sales). Basically they blamed a clerical error and the Chicks got eventually got some of their money. Sony got pissed and delayed the release of their album Home.

    Sony was giving them crap becasue they thought it was too bluegrass and it wouldn’t sell. I rememebr hearing that album months before it was finally released. Hands down that album is one of the best country albums in the last 10 years even if they did have to throw in a popular cover song.

  7. I was very annoyed by the recent country music quiz at where a huge majority of quiz takers said that they either hated or disliked country music. I’m afraid that they answered that way out of huge, incredible ignorance.

    I might have answered that way when I was a boy 25 or 30 years ago, but a lot of “country music” is just plain old delightful pop music.

    I recently started watching CMT late at night and in the morning, as an addition to my MTV- and VH1-watching, so that I would be able to find and enjoy as many delightful videos and quality songs as possible. If I weren’t watching CMT, I would have missed out on so much–Josh Turner and the dance mix version of “Hick Chick” by Cowboy Troy, etc., etc., etc.

    Closing your eyes to all of the good stuff that comes under the country music rubric is like this idiot-snob co-worker I once had who sneered at all of the works of Walt Disney–ALL of it–because it was all just so much sentimental pap.

    Listening to country music does not mean you have to sit on bales of hay while twangy-voiced hillbillies play the jug or the mouth-harp.

  8. Darrell:

    A bit surprised to hear that you know as much about C&W as you do, but I probably shouldn’t be. I’m not an expert on country at all, but I will say that I don’t think I’ve ever heard any Dixie Chicks that I didn’t like (and their credibility went way up in my book when I found that they’d done a Maria McKee song on Wide Open Spaces). And now Dan Wilson (of Semisonic and Trip Shakespeare) is all over the new disc. Mike Campbell puts in an appearance, too. So they work with some good people.

    Shortly after I posted this yesterday my wife went to the store and bought the new CD, and after a listen or two I’m really liking it a lot. It’s still the Dixie Chicks, but we’re going to have to stop calling them a country band. I’ve heard rock records that were nearly this country.

    Good on ’em. They’re proving that as artists they’re a lot bigger than one genre, and that isn’t easy, especially for players like Emily and Martie who have never really known much else as professionals.

  9. have been a casual fan of country over the years. my wife is a devotee and has introduced me to songs such as “earl” and other gut wrenchers. as with jack nicholsons trite line in “a few good men”, ” you can’t stand the truth ” these sheep will continue their march over the cliff, while the chicks and the rest of us miscreants will thrive and watch these poor impotent throngs continue to try to absolve the sins of this dastardly administration. they have elevated the term chicks to woman of powerful and insightful courage who have the will to question onerous behavior regardless of who is commiting it. shut up has always been a derisive term to me since childhood. yet it is the anthem of the right, when they cannot use fact or reason.

  10. It demeans both you and us to refer to a segment of the public as “toothless hillbilly former fans”. I’m not a big fan of country music, and I am aware that many ill-informed conservatives live in rural areas, but I think this kind of writing does not contribute to the progresive cause.

    The whole idea of America in 1776 was supposed to be that an informed citizenry would debate issues, and that the citizens would then determine, through voting, how the government would behave. Now, by seeking to silence dissent, disseminating misinformation, and buying journalists, we have the government determining how the citizens should think and behave.

  11. It demeans both you and us to refer to a segment of the public as “toothless hillbilly former fans”. I’m not a big fan of country music, and I am aware that many ill-informed conservatives live in rural areas, but I think this kind of writing does not contribute to the progresive cause.

    I don’t feel remotely demeaned. If you feel demeaned that’s up to you. And you can be progressive however best suits you. But I grew up among the toothless hillbillies – you’d probably play hell finding a Dixie Chicks record in my old neighborhood – and I feel more than okay in talking about my own in straightforward terms. There’s a time for anger, even amongst the noblest of us, and I’m not bothered when people call a spade a spade.

    The whole idea of America in 1776 was supposed to be that an informed citizenry would debate issues, and that the citizens would then determine, through voting, how the government would behave. Now, by seeking to silence dissent, disseminating misinformation, and buying journalists, we have the government determining how the citizens should think and behave.

    My point exactly.

  12. Jeff:

    shut up has always been a derisive term to me since childhood. yet it is the anthem of the right, when they cannot use fact or reason.

    Yup. After several readings and re-readings of the 1st Amendment I’ve concluded that if “shut up” is all you’ve got, you’re not much of an American. I’m sure we all want people to shut up all the time, but if you can’t defeat their ignorance with reason then maybe you’re the one who needs a few moments of silent reflection.

  13. Wow ! Thanks for posting the video. That song and album garnered FIVE Grammy awards this year, yet The Chicks were panned by the Country Music Association awards, indicating that rednecks are still motivated by FEAR above all else. No change there, over the centuries, These are awesome musicians, and deserve all the accolades plus more – and I am not a Country music fan. When I first heard the Dixie Chicks I was absolutely amazed at their musical virtuosity, their incredible voices, and their genre defying lyrical content. There are MILLIONS of fellow Texans who are likewise embarrased and ashamed at being “linked” to this New England prep-school carpetbagger, miserable failure, closet-case, fascist wanna-be, blood swimmer, loser, war criminal, smirking sociopath. Shut Up and Sing is a very sad tale of the crumbling of American society, as fear-mongering is substituted for patriotism, cowardice becomes a virtue, and anyone with the guts to voice a contrary opinion is placed on the Terror Watch List along with 700,000 others. I only wish our so-called Democratic party would display this kind of love of country and refuse to make nice with the liars, thieves, torturers, and muderers who have stolen two elections to massively enrich their families and cronies, and sent our nation into a death spiral. What does it say about our country when minor dissent is met with such a massive orchestrated attempt to destroy the careers of people who are making a valuable and genuine contribution to our culture? What the hell are you afraid of ? NEVER FORGET ! NEVER AGAIN ! Live free or die. Fight now or surrender your children to .Big Brother. Stand up like free people, or subject future generations to a life of fear and subservience. The oath of office has been subverted in the extreme, and good people must shout out – The Emperor Wears No Clothes !

  14. Jim Booth said

    “What puzzles me is why country artists do better rock than most rock artists these days.

    Maybe it’s because they’re relevant.”

    Although I’m a fan of rock, I still like to listen to a lot of country music. I sometimes like to sit down, grab my guitar, and belt out a couple of tunes by Hank, Jerry Jeff, Willie, and the boys. Country music, like salsa, is delightful.

    I think Jim knows what kind of country music I really like. I’m always glad to send out samples to anyone who wants to listen to Good Country.

    I bought the “Chicks” last album, and my lovely wife and I didn’t think that it was their best. It was still pretty good.

    Mike responded to a post:

    ““I’m not bothered when people call a spade a spade.”

    Of all the expressions to use…”

    That expression is one of the oldest poker terms around, and it has been bastardized.


  15. I remember riding in my dad’s truck, singing along to a Willie and Waylon cassette (it was my job to select and play music in the truck and I took it very seriously). My favorite song for quite a while went:

    Take back the weed, take back the cocaine, baby,
    Take back the pills, take back the whiskey, too.
    Don’t need it now, your love was all I was after,
    I’ll make it now that I can get off on you…

    I may not have understood the words coming out of my mouth, but I knew good music when I heard it.

  16. Here’s one of my faves. Y’all might know it as the theme song to the landmark series “Austin City Limits.”

    Gary P Nunn

    1st verse
    Well, when you’re down on your luck,
    and you ain’t got a buck,
    in London you’re a goner.
    Even London Bridge has fallen down,
    and moved to Arizona,
    now I know why.
    And I’ll substantiate the rumor that the English sense of humor
    is drier than than the Texas sand.
    You can put up your dukes, and you can bet your boots
    that I’m leavin’ just as fast as I can.

    I wanna go home with the armadillo
    Good country music from Amarillo and Abilene
    The friendliest people and the prettiest women you’ve ever

    2nd Verse
    Well, it’s cold over here, and I swear
    I wish they’d turn the heat on.
    And where in the world is that English girl
    I promised I would meet on the third floor.
    And of the whole damn lot, the only friend I’ve got
    is a smoke and a cheap guitar.
    My mind keeps roamin’, my heart keeps longin’
    to be home in a Texas bar.


    3rd Verse
    Well, I decided that I’d get my cowboy hat
    and go down to Marble Arch Station.
    ‘Cause when a Texan fancies, he’ll take his chances.
    Chances will be taken, that’s for sure.
    And them Limey eyes, they were eyein’ the prize
    that some people call manly footwear.
    And they said you’re from down South,
    and when you open your mouth,
    you always seem to put your foot there.

    Repeat chorus ’til the cows come home

  17. Jeff,

    The rock tent used to be a big one, but when the splintering of rock channels began back in the ’80’s, only the most overarching of country rock acts got played on rock stations (mostly those from The Byrds/Buffalo Springfield tree – Poco, Firefall, and, of course, The Eagles).

    Rock’s loss was country’s gain. It took a while to shake out, but the music emerged as alt. country and now is mainstream. That’s why country doesn’t simply seem more vital than rock now – it is more vital in many ways….

  18. Rented it and watched it last night. Very enjoyable.

    And I’ll be buying a lot of Dixie Chicks CDs in the near future.

  19. Jim,

    I like the Byrds/Springfield tree and all of them, but the Austin sound is my favorite. It’s a good blend of country, western, Texas swing, and of course, rock. Frummox, “Man With a Big Hat” was the quintessential Austin act. I like the old Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

    Country is so relevant. In a way, I’m glad that some audiences are too refined in their musical tastes to enjoy country music. It allows us old rednecks to have it all to ourselves:) Of course, we’re willing to spread the gospel.

    Right now, I’m listening to a whacked out Rap/Jazz fusion that my son sent to me. It’s good music.

    There might be bad songs, but there’s no such thing as bad music.


  20. Just have to weigh in on the Dixie Chicks, both County and Western music, and the morphing of rock into a country “branch.”
    I’m not a country music fan – grew up in the midwest, amongst “goat-ropers,” real cowboys and lots of good people, but I never developed a taste for what was then country. (Although I still enjoy my old David Allen Coe albums and live bluegrass.) I blew out my eardrums to Pure Prairie League, Eagles, Little Feat and Flying Burrito Brothers (along with Zepplin, Tull, Cat Stevens, and Jimmy Buffett). They all borrowed from country music (along with blues and other influences) to create their own sound. In the 1990’s country artists began returning the favor – borrowing rock-n-roll riffs and arrangements. Lots of country today would be “pop” on an earlier playlist. And since the 80’s country artists forged some interesting professional friendships such as when Tammy Wynette provided backup vocals (and had a featured role in the video) for rapper’s KLF’s “Justified and Ancient.”
    I didn’t put much stock in the Dixie Chicks until I saw a PBS concert they did a few years ago and was blown away by their performances. It didn’t make me a “fan” after that, I just didn’t mind if my wife (a real country fan) had the radio in the car when a Dixie Chicks song came on. Then came Taking the Long Way. Damned fine in my uninformed, backward, west-coast-centric opinion.
    I don’t think their lack of awards at the CMA or other country awards shows for this album is as much a result of country music not being “ready to make nice” as much as it is a reaction to the fact that the album was produced in L.A. and not Nashville and used a studio team that was known for making pop and rock albums. It was “home cookin’.” I think the west-coast experience expands their musical horizons but that may be why country fans don’t think it is their best work while others like me enjoy this album so much.
    Sorry, gotta end this post, return to the top of the thread and restart the music.
    Everyone play nice.

    The Chief