In response to the critical comments made about him by Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush offered this response: “The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. They can say what they want to say.” Of the backlash the Dixie Chicks were then facing within the world of country music, President Bush added: “They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out.” This music-related sideshow to the biggest international news story of the year began on March 12, 2003, when the British newspaper The Guardian published its review of a Dixie Chicks concert at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London two nights earlier.
In that review, The Guardian‘s Betty Clarke included the following line: “‘Just so you know,’ says singer Natalie Maines, ‘we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.'” (Clarke left out the middle of the full quotation, which was, “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.”) That line quickly became fodder for a grassroots anti-Dixie Chicks backlash. It began with thousands of phone calls flooding country-music radio stations from Denver to Nashville—calls demanding that the Dixie Chicks be removed from the stations’ playlists. Soon some of those same stations were calling for a boycott of the recent Dixie Chicks’ album and of their upcoming U.S. tour. Fellow country star Toby Keith famously joined the fray by performing in front of a backdrop that featured a gigantic image of Natalie Maines beside Saddam Hussein.
The economic and emotional impact of all this on the members of the Dixie Chicks is documented in the 2006 documentary Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing. In its opening sequence, one can see how popular and how far from controversial the Dixie Chicks were just prior to this controversy, when they sang the national anthem at the 2003 Super Bowl. The film also captures a scene in which the Dixie Chicks’ own media handler is counseling Maines not to speak her mind too openly about President Bush in an upcoming interview with Diane Sawyer. “I’ll tell you why,” says the PR man. “He’s got sky-high approval. The war couldn’t be going better. By the time this interview airs…the looting will be done, the rebuilding of Iraq will be started….Two weeks from now, it’s going to be even a more positive situation.” And although the outcome of the war in Iraq remains unknown, the concern expressed about Maines’s outspokenness on the professional prospects of the Dixie Chicks proved to be extremely well placed.