“Because of the Bush comments.”
Well, yeah, but then how come country artists were allowed to have differing opinions during the Vietnam War? How come Merle Haggard could release “America First” with little reception? If anything, the banning of Dixie Chicks from the country music establishment had more to do with an unfortunate sign of the times than anything else, one that continues to loom over country music’s current culture.
The Dixie Chicks weren’t on the verge of irrelevancy, either. At the time radio stations decided to drop their music, they had the No. 1 country song with “Travelin’ Soldier.” They even had the one entity artists strive for – freedom to do what they wanted. By 2002, they exercised this control to release an acoustic album with bluegrass tinges in Home, with the lead single “Long Time Gone” throwing out a biting criticism of the country music industry (ironically, it was also a huge pop hit). By the time Natalie Maines uttered those infamous comments in London in 2003, they were one of the most successful groups in country music. Their Top Of The World tour was already on its way to becoming one of the highest grossing country music tours ever.
For those who forgot the comments made –
“Just so you know we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas,” Maines said. The statement, spoken 10 days before the Iraq War, was picked up by a review in the British newspaper The Guardian before being transported across the Atlantic through internet message boards (one of which was the now defunct countrynation.com), and was, shall we say, not so well received back in the United States.
When the group returned from London in May, their world was thrown into chaos, with Maines even receiving a letter saying that she would “be shot dead at her show in Dallas.” Their single “Landslide” went from No. 10 on the Billboard charts, to No. 44 in 1 week, and the next week fell off the charts completely. Radio stations forbade their music on the airwaves. They stuck to their guns, too, as some DJ’s who played their music – sympathetic to their side – were fired. Concerts were canceled in the U.S. because the Dixie Chicks couldn’t sell tickets. They lost their sponsor, Lipton, and The Red Cross denied a million dollar endorsement from the band.
As for why country radio stations pulled their music, Chuck Browning, who ran the Cox chain, said, “we did some callout research, and the vast majority said, ‘we don’t want it.’ ”
Browning wasn’t technically wrong, but the percentage of country music fans who actually wanted their music completely eradicated was actually a small (but extremely vocal) minority. Remember, by 2003, the Internet was in full force, and with people just beginning to learn how to share things with one another over the web, it didn’t take long for information to spread.
Bush supporters quickly encouraged other supporters through message boards to call local radio stations in protest … even if those supporters didn’t actually normally listen to the country stations they were protesting.
As previously mentioned, too, Merle Haggard released a song called “America First” and received little, if any, criticism. Willie Nelson went so far as to call 9/11 a conspiracy by the Bush administration for garnering support for the war.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996
So, if country legends were saying arguably worse things during this time and poor callout research couldn’t be blamed, what was the reason behind this swift eradication of the Dixie Chicks’ music?
Well, aside from the genre not giving a care about any of its legends by the late ’80s, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed by President Bill Clinton, forever changed the way the music industry operated. In a nutshell, it opened the doors for country music to become a genre of strict formats. In the 1940s, the United States Federal Communications Commission had strictly limited corporate conglomerates to owning a single station. The passage of time loosened those guidelines, as by 1996, the ownership was capped at 40 per owner. With the 1996 act, owners could now own an unlimited number of radio stations.
Naturally, this led to consolidation and homogenization. Clear Channel Communications, the biggest radio owner of all, grew to own over 1,200 radio stations. As of 2002, only 10 companies controlled a 65 percent share of the radio audience; these radio stations all operated in uniform fashion.
At first, country music merely saw two effects of this act. One, stars could now compete in stature with stars of other categories. Two, and on the other hand, certain stars had worn out their welcome on country radio. While George Strait, Alan Jackson and Reba McEntire transitioned just fine into the 2000s, artists like Shania Twain and Garth Brooks essentially vanished by this point.
Back to the point of homogenization, country music (or rather, country radio) had found its ideal sound without a huge star image to complicate matters. Country was happy with just being … well, country. It was actually a problem for country music to get too “hot.” Radio, in other words, needed a bigger piece of the listening demographic to stay relevant to the record industry and advertisers.
Basically, sit down, shut up, look pretty and don’t draw too much attention. Getting on the wrong side of the broadcasting corporation spelled the end. Starting in 2001, Clear Channel was even more restrictive over what was and wasn’t acceptable for the general public to hear in a post 9/11 world. Shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center, a list containing more than 150 popular music songs, which were now deemed unfit for airplay, was sent to Clear Channel owned radio stations. Sure, there were concerns over the grieving public, but more importantly, they were concerned with programming which might paint the President or U.S. foreign policy in a bad light.
Through their inherited power, then, Cumulus and Cox companies banned Dixie Chicks music from being played on radio stations.
Ironically, one person who came out in support of the Dixie Chicks during this time was Senator John McCain (an ally of Bush), who cited the ban as an example of how deregulation could lead to “an erosion of the First Amendment.” He further said, “Would you do that to me? Then why do it a group of entertainers?”
The effects of the Dixie Chicks ban are ones we’re still seeing in country music today. As Bob Walker, program director at WCTK in Providence, Rhode Island, told Billboard in 2015, “We are not in the music business. We are in the business of connecting our audience with our clients.”
What that means is, ever since the incident over a decade ago, most songs now have been expected to fit neatly into a prescribed format, with one song’s features similar to the next one in line.
If it isn’t clear by now, the Dixie Chicks ban runs deeper than just what Maines said. There was legitimate anger, as said before, but their virtual erasing from the establishment is one that reflected something more than words.
By the time the group released their comeback album, Taking the Long Way in 2006, the Dixie Chicks had been shunned by the establishment. They took home five Grammy Awards for the album and lead single, “Not Ready to Make Nice,” in 2007, but the group had still received no love from the country industry, despite the song reaching No. 4 on the pop charts (it went to No. 36 at country). Sales for their 2006 Accidents and Accusations tour were low in previously well-selling markets.
Since that time, the group has remained together, with every member exploring their own side projects at one point or another. On November 2, 2016, the band performed “Daddy Lessons” alongside Beyoncé at the 50th anniversary of the Country Music Association Awards. A studio version of the performance was released to digital outlets the following day and reached No. 41 on the pop charts.
Whether you agree, disagree, love or hate the Dixie Chicks, it’s clear to see their removal from the country music industry was based more around a sign of the times rather than the actual words said. Perhaps most unfortunately, though, the event typecast a country music fan as close-minded and backward, a legacy that still haunts country music today.
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
“Ashamed the President is from Texas” – Country Music Vs. The Dixie Chicks by Christopher Mark (2013). Retrieved from <https://christophermarkjournalism.wordpress.com/2013/03/11/country-music-vs-the-dixie-chicks/>
- Climbing the Charts: What Radio Airplay Tells Us about the Diffusion of Innovation by Gabriel Rossman (2012).
Is Country Radio ‘The Place Where Difference Goes To Die’? Nashville Insiders Are Divided by Phyllis Stark (2015). Retrieved from <https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/country/6784700/country-radio-homogenized-sound-nashville-experts>
- Rednecks and Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Musicby Chris Willman (2007).
- The Oxford Handbook of Country Music edited by Travis Stimeling with excerpts taken from Eric Weisbard’s Country Radio: Format and Genre (2017).
- Will The Circle Be Unbroken by Paul Kingsbury and Alanna Nash (2006).