Country Music, Politics & the Lingering Fear of 'Getting Dixie Chicked'

The Dixie Chicks perform live on stage at The Point Theatre Sept. 18, 2003 in Dublin, Ireland. Images

The Dixie Chicks perform live on stage at The Point Theatre Sept. 18, 2003 in Dublin, Ireland. 

The cliche goes that country is all about the song, but one of the seismic events in the genre's recent history actually had nothing to do with music: "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas," the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines told a London crowd in March of 2003. These words were rapidly transformed into a weapon and turned on Maines and her band, who were accused of treachery during wartime. Their No. 1 single, "Travelin' Soldier," disappeared from the charts before you could say "southern Democrat"; the group never again cracked the top 30 at country radio.

That was more than a decade ago, but singer-songwriter Radney Foster believes that anyone hoping to be played on the country airwaves still has to reckon with the ghost of the Dixie Chicks' radio career. "I can tell you that the Dixie Chicks' black cloud looms over the entire industry in Nashville," he tells Billboard. Popular music has become increasingly politically charged of late, with many musicians voicing their objections to the policies of President Trump, but country singers who might feel similarly have a different set of calculations to make. "[The backlash against the Dixie Chicks] put the fear of God in any country artist out there," Foster continues. "Anyone who's trying to playing the mainstream radio game, at least."

Though country has a reputation as a conservative genre, especially to coastal outsiders, the genre's political leanings were not always clear-cut. "In the '60s, you had country radio playing political statements from both sides of the aisle," Foster asserts. The genre featured plenty of patriotic songs (Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets," Ernest Tubb's "It's For God, and Country, and You Mom (That's Why I'm Fighting in Vietnam)"), but another strand stream of tunes pointed to the painful consequences of the Vietnam war at home: Glen Campbell's "Galveston," Kenny Rogers' "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town." And there was a scad of what preeminent country music historian Bill Malone calls "protesting the protester" songs, a more antagonistic genre epitomized by Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee" and Tubb's "It's America (Love It or Leave It)." 

Country music also attracted a new, party-specific affiliation during this period, as President Nixon decided to foster an alliance with the genre in order to win over southern white voters. "[Republicans] courted the industry; [Nixon] appeared at the opening of the new Grand Ole Opry," Diane Pecknold, Associate Professor of Women's and Gender studies at the University of Louisville and the author of The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry, tells Billboard. "Since then, the association [between Republicans and country music] has been very strong in the public mind."

However, the anti-protester tracks that offered the strongest evidence of this association soon fell out of favor, according to Malone, and they were replaced by one of country's most vital threads: tales of working-class struggle. "People got tired of the war, and more and more people began to see the weakness of our cause," Malone explains. "Country songwriters got more into the business of writing about truck drivers, factory workers. In the late '60s, early '70s, they began to do that quite a lot -- especially after magazines like Time and Newsweek began to feature people like Merle and Loretta Lynn, they began to see a niche there that could be filled." Around the same time, the post-war economic boom also started to taper off, adding a different urgency to working-class stories.

These tales weren't particularly partisan. That doesn't mean they were apolitical, just that they did not map directly to the ballot box in the manner of "It's America (Love It or Leave It)." As Nadine Hubbs -- Professor of Women's Studies and Music at the University of Michigan and author of Red Necks, Queers, & Country Music -- points out in an interview, "the ways in which country music and working-class people are political often don't get called political." She references Alan Jackson's "Little Man," a lament about the impacts of modern capitalism as clear-eyed as anything by noted lefty Bruce Springsteen, while Pecknold and Malone mention Aaron Tippin's "Working Man's Ph.D.", which commends the skills of those holding down manufacturing jobs. 

It's far easier for a casual listener to classify some of the jingoist songs that came out of the genre following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In a manner that echoed country's '60s self, Toby Keith and Darryl Worley waded in with fists flying, while John Michael Montgomery and SheDaisy wrote about those left behind when soldiers go to war. And the Dixie Chicks fell victim to another "protesting the protester" moment -- only this one did not fade away like it had in the '60s. "I remember being on the radio at the time," says Gerry House, a longtime songwriter and former host on the airwaves. "If I played a Dixie Chicks song, the vitriol that came from the audience? I was shocked." 

In general, House believes country music and explicit political statements are oil and water. "It really irritates the country crowd, regardless of your political stance," he says. "They don't want to be preached at from a perspective, liberal or conservative." Although several prominent country singers voiced support for President Trump during his campaign and Toby Keith and Big & Rich performed at the inauguration, there haven't been any explicitly pro-Trump songs in the mainstream. "The business side is gonna tell you, stick to painting by numbers," Ronnie Dunn, an ardent conservative with an abundance of hits, told Chris Willman in his 2005 book Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music. "They don't want you to make any statements."

Of course, pop music of all stripes has always been more escapist than political, and country is no different. It's not a coincidence that Kenny Chesney's kick-back-on-the-beach paeans became popular after 9/11 -- he had his first No. 1 album in 2002. And when Alan Jackson teamed up with Jimmy Buffet on his forget-the-world-let's-drink anthem "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere" in 2003, the result was the biggest pop hit of Jackson's career, more commercially successful than his 9/11 response track, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)." 

But "Where Were You" provides a template for successful comment on current events in a highly polarized era -- it's from the more nuanced strand of country, with intimations of partisanship defused by Jackson's assertion that, "I'm just a singer of simple songs/ I'm not a real political man." Hubbs calls the track "really brilliantly politically inoffensive." "What he does, and I think it's worthwhile, is to take a position that he was comfortable with but still address the issue," she says. "Not who is right and who is wrong, but rather, Americans are wounded and in pain, and here's what I can offer. He knows how to address issues of hurting: he's a country singer." 

There are recent songs that operate in a similar mode: they don't name names but acknowledge of societal distress. It's hard not to read "Humble and Kind," an ode to gentle virtue that Tim McGraw took to No. 1 last year, as a soft rebuke to the actions of President Trump throughout his presidential campaign. It's unerringly saintly, seemingly backlash-proof.

And Eric Church's "Kill A Word," currently at No. 9 on the Country Airplay chart, condemns "lies and hate" at a time when both appear omnipresent. The song's violent imagery is so overwhelming it threatens to obscure its meaning -- possibly an intentional method of camouflaging a statement. But Church ruefully acknowledged the single's resonance in the current political moment backstage at last year's CMAs. "Unfortunately, it's relevant," he said, according to CMT. "I wish it wasn't." He then added a safely nonpartisan addendum: "The whole world has lost their mind."

Radney Foster also made a nuanced point on "All That I Require," a song that he released last fall: the track addresses a dangerous rise in authoritarian rhetoric in political discourse, but does not mention President Trump -- or any contemporary figure -- by name. "When I put that out, I had friends that said, 'you better be careful, you might get Dixie Chicked,'" Foster says with a laugh. But he figured he was immune, since, as he puts it, "I've already been Dixie Chicked!" 

Rewind to 2003: It was Foster's "Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)," first released on his 1999 album See What You Want to See, that the Dixie Chicks decided to re-record and put out as the follow-up to "Travelin' Soldier." The day the group was set to play their version of Foster's track live from Austin during an Academy of Country Music Awards broadcast, Maines took the stage wearing an "FUTK" shirt. The official line, according to publicists quoted in Willman's book, was that it stood for "Freedom, Understanding, Truth and Knowledge." But those four letters also stand for "Fuck You Toby Keith," and Maines and Keith were involved in a public feud at the time, so some people interpreted them differently. 

"You can ask people what the Dixie Chicks were playing when Natalie Maines wore that shirt," Foster says. "They'll go, 'I have no idea -- I was on my phone, talking to everyone in the nation.'

"That was my song," he continues. "It died a miserable death -- I understand what it's like to have your music get caught in politics." 

Once bitten, twice shy? "I get to play bars in Texas with a band; I get to play 200-seaters all over the world," Foster says. "It's not like they can plow me in the ground any further." He is prepping a new album, Sycamore Creek, for release in September, and when it comes out, "All That I Require" will be on it.