The day that Natalie Maines told an English concert audience that the Dixie Chicks were “ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas” seems like a long time ago. It was three years, 3,000 deaths, and untold billions of dollars ago, in the months of buildup to the Iraq invasion, and it seems to be a more innocent time. Yes, it was a year and a half after Sept. 11, 2001, but it was before Fallujah, before “Mission Accomplished,” before IEDs and “stay the course” and weapons of mass destruction popping up in Pyongyang, not Baghdad.
Maines made that statement as a bit of tossed-off, between-songs patter, and the uproar that ensued shocked everyone involved. Documentarians Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck picked up the story from there, following Maines and her bandmates, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, for three years to track the aftermath of a statement that changed the Chicks’ images and careers immeasurably.
In early 2003 the Dixie Chicks were the best-selling female band of all time. They had a #1 song in “Travelin’ Soldier,” a wistful ballad about a young woman waiting for her boyfriend to come home from Vietnam. With roots firmly entrenched in bluegrass, they were among the first wave of a traditional country revival that saw the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? win a Grammy. And in a moment, they were pariahs to American country music fans.
While Kopple and Peck do examine the ways the band and their handlers (manager Simon Renshaw chief among them) attempt to repair their image, from Maines expressing her support for American servicemen and women to meetings with marketing experts who advise them not to criticize the president further, the film as a whole is less a political document than it is a sensitively detailed backstage portrait of a unique musical phenomenon. Over the three years since The Incident, as the women refer to Maines’s statement, two of the Chicks had babies, they toured in support of their Grammy-winning album Home, and recorded their fourth studio album as a trio, Taking the Long Way.
The personalities — Maines the mischievous firecracker, Robison the mellow country mother, and Maguire the mediator — involved are certainly vibrant enough to sustain the film’s running time, but there’s another layer involved. The reaction to Maines’s comment and the backlash against the Chicks opened up a provocative conversation about how the country music industry treats its artists-especially its young, pretty, female artists. If Brad Paisley had said the exact same words as Natalie Maines, barring the fact that he’s from West Virginia, would the reaction of country fans and radio programmers have been as extreme? What if Willie Nelson or Emmylou Harris had said it?
The writing and recording of Taking the Long Way provides much of the most fascinating material in the film for fans of the Chicks’ music. While they’ve contributed songs to their past albums, this is the first time the trio has written or cowritten all of their music. The result is an album that stands out even in the strong field of the Chicks’ past work, and one of their greatest singles, the protest anthem “Not Ready to Make Nice.” When she sings, quietly, “It’s a sad, sad story when a mother will teach her/daughter that she oughta hate a perfect stranger/and how in the world can the words that I said/send somebody so over the edge/that they’d write me a letter, saying that I better/shut up and sing or my life would be over,” the rage, the outrage sounds as fresh as it must have been when Maines first read the death threat sent during the concert tour.
Dissent and criticism are the essential rights of every American, and they are vital responsibilities of American citizens now as ever. Maines cheekily repeated that incendiary comment in the same venue at the beginning of this summer’s tour for Taking the Long Way, a show of defiance and independence that’s empowering to see. Shut Up & Sing is, at its core, about three quite ordinary women going about their careers, raising their families, and exercising their rights to express an opinion about their elected officials. And there’s some damn fine fiddle-picking as a bonus.