The Grammy Award-winning trio, which got its start in Dallas, joined Lady Antebellum as the latest country music group to respond to the overwhelming cultural push against monuments of the Confederacy and Jim Crow bondage. The Chicks, as they’re now known, posted a statement to their website: “We want to meet this moment.”
Actually, they started this latest media flash mob quietly enough — by doing things like changing the URL for their website to thechicks.com (they had to legally acquire the name). But to truly meet this moment, they needed to do more than just shed ‘Dixie,’ a symbolic and belated joining of the movement, at best.
Their new single “March, March,” marches to its own thunderous drumbeat, while the video is a barrage of newsreel and cellphone protest footage of Black Lives Matter crowds, anti-war marchers, gay pride paraders, feminists, environmentalists and gun control activists, along with a lengthy roster of names of African-Americans killed in police custody. The song’s mournful fiddle and banjo and the quiet nasality of Maines’ singing voice keep “March, March” loosely in the country realm. But smartly mixing pop music styles with an outspoken topicality (like their early number, “Goodbye Earl,” about two women planning to poison an abusive husband) — that’s become the Chicks’ brand.
So it was hardly the Chicks’ first loud farewell to some political baggage. Or their first controversial move. The group pretty much said goodbye to traditional-minded country radio a long time ago — after lead singer Natalie Maines’ criticized George Bush and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 during a London concert (“We’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas”) — and followed that with a nude cover on Rolling Stone. In 2006, because of audience backlash riled up by country stations that blacklisted the group and urged listeners to trash their albums, the Dixie Chicks seriously scaled back their national “Accidents & Accusations” tour — even though their new album, Taking the Long Way, went to Number One on the U.S. pop and country charts and the three women won all five Grammy categories they were nominated in.
Even with such apparent acceptance, defiant singles from the LP that seemed to address the entire controversy, like “Not Ready to Make Nice” and “Everybody Knows,” got zero airplay and didn’t fare well.
The group went on hiatus leaving all these mixed signals from the public behind. But it became clear, if the country establishment had no place for the Dixie Chicks, the Chicks would simply go their own way. In 2008, at a rally in Little Rock, Arkansas, Maines expressed support for the West Memphis Three, three men convicted of a 1993 triple murder who many believe to be innocent. This followed a number of benefit concerts for progressive political groups like MoveOn.
But it wasn’t until 2016 — more than 10 years after they last toured the U.S., a lifetime in pop music — that the Chicks returned to Dallas to a sold-out Gexa Pavilion on a mostly sold-out tour. It was a comeback with no new album, no new singles. It was a staggering confirmation of their independent stance and the audience draw of their country-pop mix.
So now, the Chicks have bid goodbye to “Dixie,” also the name of a song long considered the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy, although the word has blurred and come to reference ‘the South’ and white country traditionalism in general.
Two weeks ago, media sites were already asking, first it was Lady Antebellum, will the Dixie Chicks be next? Variety even ran a blunt editorial on June 17 that said after George Floyd’s killing and subsequent protests against institutional racism and police violence, the band’s silence about their name “has been deafening.” (“When white people say they want to hang on to their cultural artifacts, regardless of how they might make minorities feel, it’s the most passive-aggressive expression of white supremacy. They are basically saying their history and heritage is worth more than the history and heritage of Black people.”)
But this time, the Chicks do have some new music and some new tickets to sell. So dropping the Dixie, as right and as overdue one might think the move is, can certainly look like reading the mood in the room and making a savvy commercial move. The decision gets their name in the papers again, but it’s their new name now. It gets ahead of any uproar and it paves the way for a 2020 tour and a new album, their first since Take the Long Way Home, way back in 2006.
Gaslighter drops July 17.