The Dixie Chicks didn't become interesting artists on March 10th, when lead singer Natalie Maines decided to take on President Bush. Somehow both more traditional and more liberal than their mainstream country colleagues, the band's megastardom is fascinating because of the way it sweeps up and speaks for a whole new audience -- a generation of Sunbelt suburban cowgirls who prize their independence and don't have much connection to the world of Tammy Wynette or Loretta Lynn. So the Dixie Chicks were a rich and compelling pop phenomenon long before Maines got the band in hot water.
But the Dixie Chicks didn't become the culture heroes of the year in that moment either; Maines' comment was glib, juvenile, and pandered to an audience primed to applaud just such a sentiment. Rather, the band found its voice and, unlikely as it seems, became heroic, in the aftermath of Maines' off-hand rejection. They became heroic for knowing what to apologize for and what not to apologize for. They became heroic for their stubborn refusal to be bullied into a public mea culpa by Diane Sawyer and ABC. Most of all, the Dixie Chicks became heroic as a very public dramatization of embattled citizenship, their spat with Toby "boot in your ass" Keith (whose latest hit, "Beer for My Horses," is an endorsement of vigilantism) presenting a clear choice between two visions of what it means to be a responsible citizen in this America -- and giving a glimpse as to the consequences of the choice.
The Dixie Chicks were banned from most country radio stations in the immediate aftermath of Maines' remarks this spring and widely denounced by the Nashville establishment and right-wing talking heads. But subsequent months have proven that Nashville needs this band a lot more than the band needs Nashville and that America, despite the current administration's best efforts, is still a better country than that. And so, last Saturday night at The Pyramid, the Dixie Chicks took a victory lap before a sellout crowd eager to embrace them all over again.
Opener Michelle Branch out of the way, the band warmed up the crowd with an unapologetically defiant mix of pre-concert music -- including "Our Lips Are Sealed"; "Band on the Run"; and, most perceptively, given their sudden, violent rebuke by the country-music industry, Lynn's "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad."
When this set ended with "Born in the USA," the house lights all came on and 19,000-plus went nuts. My first instinct was "still misunderstood after all these years," and maybe so, but it also felt like an honest affirmation, a feeling bolstered during the opening "Goodbye Earl" when one young woman waved an American flag at Chick Emily Robison, not to taunt but to exult.
The warm-up music wasn't the only acknowledgement of the elephant in the room. Some songs were unmistakably topical -- the utterly decent and apolitical wartime lament "Travelin' Soldier" (where much of the crowd sang along with the last verse) and "Truth No. 2" (which begins, "You don't like the sound of the truth/Coming from my mouth"); other songs became unintentional anthems, Maines, wearing a "Dare to Be Free" T-shirt, making sure the audience could hear the dual meaning in otherwise unconnected lyrics.
Prefacing "Truth No. 2," which came with a companion video celebrating political protest and dissent, Maines made one of her few direct comments on "the Incident," as she called it, encouraging her audience to visit the Rock the Vote registration booth outside, because "voting is a wonderful way to express your opinion." She might not approve of the result: My guess is that most of the crowd Saturday night, if they voted at all, voted Bush and will likely do so again.
But by showing up and cheering along all night, this crowd wasn't affirming Maines' position on the president or his war. They were affirming something more important and more precious: The band's vision of citizenship itself. This wasn't the case of outspoken leftists -- Sleater-Kinney or the Mekons -- preaching to the choir. This is a country-pop band that has sold 30 million records. These are ordinary people asking ordinary questions -- of their government, of their fans, of themselves -- and taking the considerable risk of asking their vast, ordinary audience to come along for a ride that could end up anywhere. That the crowd gladly climbed aboard Saturday night ("They said people in the South might not come to see our show," Maines said from the stage) made the concert feel like the 4th of July.