Country music is associated with a lot of things- the Southern states of America; men in cowboy hats plucking away at banjos; worship of the red-white-and-blue and entrenched patriotism.
Some things that Country music is NOT associated with are- left wing, progressive politics, criticism of US government foreign policy and political protest.
But this is to fundamentally misunderstand country music and its radical roots. Country music comes from a tradition of protest, challenge and controversy and although this may have been lost in contemporary Country, some artists still demonstrate these early values.
One thing that country music has been quite good at, is having a fair share of female representation in its repertoire of commercially successful artists. Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Leann Rimes and of course Taylor Swift are some of the best-selling and most successful female artists of all time, and that includes from any genre. Dolly Parton has her own theme park for goodness sake! Country has produced some absolute megastars and there is a lot of money to be made and records to be sold.
One of the most successful Country music groups to come out of the last 30 years is The Dixie Chicks- three musicians from Dallas, Texas who have sold over 30 million albums worldwide, won 13 Grammys and have become part of the enduring legacy of American Country music, part of the fabric of the musical history of the USA.
The Dixie Chicks formed in 1989 in their home-state of Texas and comprise of siblings Emily Robison and Martie Maguire with Natalie Maines on vocals. In true Country music tradition, the members of the band can play an impressive array of traditional bluegrass instruments between them including fiddle; mandolin; viola; banjo and dobro (no me neither but apparently dobro is a type of guitar). They followed in the tradition of Country artists before them in honing their musical prowess by playing live; writing songs that tell stories of love and life in small town America and looking to fund their own recording as quickly as possible. In 1990 they spent $5000 to record their first album- Thank Heavens for Dale Evans– and a glittering and influential career was born.
The Dixie Chicks have released an impressive 8 studio albums from 1990. The band did have an extended recording hiatus between 2006 and 2019 however, although they did not record an album as a band in that time, they continued to perform shows together and work on their solo projects. They are accomplished musicians in their own, individual right with Maguire competing in National Fiddling Championships and the members regularly playing multiple instruments on stage and in the studio.
The Dixie Chicks are no strangers to tackling difficult and challenging topics in their songs which makes them closer to the true roots of Country music than a lot of other contemporary country artists. Their most famous single was 2000s Goodbye Earl, a song that documents the lives of two high school friends- Wanda and Mary Ann. Wanda experiences domestic abuse at the hands of the eponymous Earl and after attempting unsuccessfully to get protection through the courts, she enlists the help of Mary Ann to poison Earl by lacing his Black Eyed Peas with a toxic substance. The song was considered controversial and many radio stations refused to play it.
The Dixie Chicks have never been afraid to express their political opinions and there have been instances where they have experienced an inevitable backlash from the more conservative corners of Country music artists and fans. The most notable being their denouncing of President Bush whilst they were performing in the UK in 2003. They criticised the decision to go to war in Iraq and stated they were ashamed of the then-President. The Chicks had violated an unwritten rule of American Patriotism for public figures- you do not criticise the President whilst on foreign soil. A swift backlash ensued with the Dixie Chicks being blacklisted from many radio stations; their sponsors being pressured to drop them and receiving the cold shoulder of many of their musical peers.
However, they were not perturbed. Natalie Maines put her head above the parapet again by criticising the chart-topping country hit Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue by star Toby Keith. The song is a macho love letter to the Armed Forces and revels in the sheer brute force that American troops can flex on their overseas enemies. Maines stated:
I hate it. It’s ignorant, and it makes country music sound ignorant. It targets an entire culture—and not just the bad people who did bad things. You’ve got to have some tact.
Maines has also been an active critic of the conviction in 1994 of the West Memphis Three- three teenagers who were accused of murdering three children in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. Many felt the conviction was the result of Police bungling the initial investigation and wanting scapegoats which they found in the form of three awkward, goth teenagers who were marginalised and misunderstood by the small town they grew up in. This criticism of the judgement of the US Justice System has cemented the Dixie Chicks frontwoman as a progressive and challenging voice in a genre of music that has come to be synonymous with conservatism.
Musically, The Dixie Chicks are a delight to listen to. Maine’s Texas accent makes her storytelling feel authentic as well as being capable of beautiful harmonies with her bandmates that make songs such as When You Were Mine and Travellin’ Soldier bring a tear to your eye. The lyrical skill in telling so many stories of love, loss and redemption is palpable across their back catalogue which is varied and numerous.
Politically, The Dixie Chicks have weathered many controversies and PR nightmares and those who criticise them for being too politically challenging obviously don’t know much about the origins of Country and Bluegrass music. Country music was pioneering in telling the stories of those who had no voice and was never a friend to the elites in government. On that basis, and in the context of modern America and where Country music sits in that landscape, The Dixie Chicks are more radical and rebellious than most rock and punk musicians around now.