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Boxscore Flashback: The Chicks Kick Off Biggest Tour Yet With Bush Comment Heard 'Round the World

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

As concert tours remain on hold due to COVID-19, Billboard is looking back at notable tours from the archives in a new series of Boxscore Flashbacks.

January and February 2003 were something of a victory lap for The Chicks. Fresh off singing the national anthem at Super Bowl XXXVII and a return to the top of the Billboard 200, the three-woman band’s 2002 album Home won a trio of Grammys in the country field, with an album of the year nomination as a cherry on top.

About two weeks later, the actual victory lap was to commence: The Chicks (then billed The Dixie Chicks) were embarking on a sold-out world tour -- the aptly named Top of the World Tour.

Their previous outing, 2000’s Fly Tour, was a massive success, grossing $46 million and selling more than 1 million tickets over 86 shows in North America, according to figures reported to Billboard Boxscore. The Top of the World Tour, set to run throughout 2003, was routed to expand The Chicks’ touring footprint, with their first headline legs in Europe in Australia.

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The run began with three intimate “warm-up” shows in small venues overseas, the first of which played at London’s Shepard’s Bush Empire exactly 18 years ago, on March 10, 2003.

Playing for a sold-out crowd of 2,000 fans, lead singer Natalie Maines lit a fire that would burn across the Atlantic. On opening night, days in advance of the impending Iraq war, she told the crowd, “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 that the president of the United States is from Texas.”

When word of Maines’ comments hit the U.S. days later (the virality of social media was still a few years away), country radio swiftly and uniformly removed the group from all programming, as the group’s then-current single “Travelin’ Soldier” fell from Billboard’s Country Airplay chart from 1-3 to off the chart. The Chicks never made it higher than No. 36 again on the survey despite a history of six No. 1 singles and 14 top 10s.

But while industry gatekeepers closed their doors, the group’s core fanbase was intact. Backlash persisted, well-documented in the group’s 2006 documentary Shut Up and Sing, but business stayed strong, as the Top of the World Tour became the biggest ever for The Chicks, a trophy it still holds today.

Like any tour, tickets for the Top of the World Tour were sold months in advance of the shows and, therefore, in advance of The Chicks’ sudden backlash. Nonrefundable ticket sales during the group’s aforementioned country chart-topping, Grammy-winning “heyday” guaranteed big numbers, but they still were weary of a lukewarm reception in sold-out North American arenas.

Maines told a Greeneville, S.C., crowd, “I heard some of you want to boo -- that's fine too. We believe in free speech. I'll give you 15 seconds to boo if you want to.” Expected boos turned into roaring cheers, and the group played a rousing set to the Bi-Lo Center’s sold-out 14,811 attendees, earning $855,000 on the tour’s first Stateside show.

The good times rolled on, albeit amidst a swirl of protests and death threats. The U.S. leg of the Top of the World Tour earned nearly $60 million, averaging $968,000 and 16,000 tickets per night. Peaking in major markets like Philadelphia, Chicago and New York, The Chicks earned more than $1 million from 28 individual shows, hitting a double-header-high with $2.4 million at Philly’s Wachovia Center (now known as the Wells Fargo Center) on June 16-17.

Business was intentionally smaller internationally for the group’s first headline trip abroad. Venue capacities shrunk from 16,000 in North America to 10,000 in Australia and to less than 4,000 in European theaters. Further, tickets prices were cut by 25-30%, from $60.26 in North America, to $45.76 and $42.71 in Europe and Australia, respectively. Still, without any local tour history and country music’s less bankable reputation overseas, The Chicks sold 83% of tickets in Australia and 97% in Europe, adding $3 million to the tour’s total gross.

Ultimately, the Top of the World Tour grossed $64.2 million and sold 1.05 million tickets from 73 reported shows. On Billboard’s 2003 Year-End Top Tours ranking, The Chicks came in at No. 5, higher than any other country act. Notably, political and musical adversary Toby Keith was No. 12 on the same list, grossing $41 million with the Shock’N Y’all Tour.

The Chicks took 2004-05 to regroup before returning with 2006’s Taking the Long Way and its corresponding tour, the Accidents & Accusations Tour. It was here that the group would face the effects of the polarization that split fans, musically and politically.

The Accidents & Accusations Tour was routed quite differently than its predecessor. The Top of the World Tour played 61 shows in North America, split with an expected slant toward the U.S. -- 55 domestic shows and six in Canada. Three years later, there were just 25 concerts in the U.S. and a bulked-up 15 in Canada, forced to consolidate and look north when traditionally reliable markets like Houston proved financially impossible due to a lack of radio support.

The band was smart to shift their attention away from the American Midwest and South, as the U.S. per-show average dropped 39% from $980,000 in 2003 to $598,000 in 2006, while the Canadian average dipped just 10% from $869,000 to $784,000. Those downward grosses were despite slightly increased ticket prices -- average domestic attendance slumped 41% from 16,511 tickets sold to 9,698, a number that belied the arena-conquering confidence the group boasted on previous tours.

Conversely, the band returned to Australia and, thousands of miles away from country music’s backlash, saw their per-show gross increase 74% from $394,000 to $683,000.

The Chicks then spent nearly a decade off the road, except for the Long Time Gone Tour, 13 shows in Canada and Europe in 2013-14.

In the final months of the Obama administration, they returned in earnest with the DCX Tour, spanning North America, Europe and Australia throughout 2016-17. Entering an entirely new political minefield 13 years after that infamous London show, Natalie, Emily and Marnie found a different welcoming throughout the U.S., punching back up to $871,000 and 12,817 tickets per night, up 46% from their domestic average 10 years earlier. In total, the tour played 67 shows and earned $58.5 million from 809,000 tickets sold.

Since their first headline tour in 2000, The Chicks have grossed a reported $198.5 million and sold 3.5 million tickets; 78% of those earnings have come in after Maines made her divisive comments, and therefore after country radio and many of its listeners cut the cord and ran over their CDs with a truck.