by Stephanie Zacharek

It's common knowledge how conservative the country music industry is: The bulk of country music is about home, hearth and heartache. Given how flat sales of recorded music are these days, the industry has a lot riding on that image. Toby Keith, whose hit "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (the Angry American)" is suitably, fulsomely flag-waving, must be the golden boy of the country establishment right now.

So what on earth are they going to do with a willful kid like Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks? Maines, a native of Lubbock, Texas, got herself into trouble last week when she told a London audience, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." The London papers barely blinked an eye, but the American media caught on fast. A Nashville radio station was deluged with phone calls on Thursday, some of those callers demanding a boycott of the Dixie Chicks' music. Two radio stations in Dallas (and one in Spokane) stopped playing Dixie Chicks' music. (The group's latest LP, Home, garnered three Grammys last month and has been lodged firmly in the No. 1 slot on the Billboard country charts for the past 28 weeks.)

Maines didn't even rush to clean up the damage. "I feel the president is ignoring the opinion of many in the U.S. and alienating the rest of the world," she explained on Thursday. "My comments were made in frustration, and one of the privileges of being an American is you are free to voice your own point of view."

Apparently that's not a privilege afforded to Grammy-winning singers with top-10 records. By Friday, the suits at Sony, the group's record label, must have gotten to Maines. In a statement, she said, "As a concerned American citizen, I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful. I feel that whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect."

Entertainers in the mainstream, the common wisdom goes, must never dare to do anything but entertain. Other than making pleasantly ambiguous statements like, "Let's all hope for peace" -- would that be before or after we kick Iraq's ass? -- it's best for any artist who hopes to hang onto one of those precious documents called a recording contract to keep mum.

Which is exactly why Maines' comment stands as the boldest thing anyone in the entertainment industry has said since the war flap began. It's not simply what she said, but the words she chose. She used the word ashamed. She didn't say, "We have complicated feelings about the war" or "We hope the war will not happen."

Maines' statement wasn't about hope, that most steadfast of country values, at all. It was about shame -- and who, particularly in the entertainment industry, ever uses so strong a word? Against the ongoing blanding-out of America, a massive country star actually had the guts, for a moment, to say exactly what she thinks.

Because the Dixie Chicks are huge mainstream stars, they're expected to hold mainstream, down-home, Middle American values. (In so vast a country, where, exactly, is the middle?) Criticism of the president surely doesn't fit into that scheme. And of course, by extension, Maines and the other Chicks must be against not just the president but the troops getting ready to fight. Why else would a few hundred protesters in Bossier City, La., gather to run over a heap of Dixie Chicks CDs with a 33,000-pound tractor, as they did earlier this week?

If it takes a tractor to make your point, so be it. But you have to wonder: Have the Bossier City protesters actually listened to the Dixie Chicks' "Travelin' Soldier" (currently the nation's No. 1 country song)? The song, written by Bruce Robison, is about a Vietnam soldier who doesn't come back. You couldn't find a song that's more sensitive to the infantry who actually have to fight wars and to the people at home who suffer as they wait for their soldiers to return.

Country music, despite what its detractors will tell you, is filled with nuance. But unfortunately, some of country's most steadfast fans are also the very people who'd kill what's great about it: These are people who can't be bothered to listen between the notes of "Travelin' Soldier" -- particularly when it's Toby Keith who's spelling out what they really want to hear.

Singers aren't always witty pundits or great thinkers. But I believe that, perhaps because they're so used to using words in very specific ways, they sometimes have a knack for cutting to the core of our most unspeakable thoughts and feelings.

By speaking out so spontaneously, and by saying words that hadn't been mulled over or chewed over or processed to the point of meaning nothing, Maines took a step that few other contemporary country singers would have dared to. It doesn't matter at all whether she did so out of naivet & eacute;. And what's so naive, anyway, about thinking that as an American she should be free to speak her mind? The tradition of making incendiary statements generally belongs to rock 'n' rollers, but as Maines knows by now, there's always a price to pay for saying what you really think. The Beatles were bigger than Jesus. It was coming right out and saying it that got John Lennon into trouble.

Publication date: 03/20/03

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