With a few rash words from their lead singer 13 years ago, the Dixie Chicks found themselves at the center of an enduring cultural dust-up that foreshadowed the trio’s fade as an ongoing musical concern.
If that hadn’t happened, there’s no way I’d have been sitting in a pricey seat in the Blossom Music Center amphitheater on June night amid a crowd estimated at 19,000. That controversy back then pushed away country music fans in droves, but it also pulled me into the Chicks’ orbit over the next few years.
You know the story. The Chicks were playing London in March 2003, 10 days before President George W. Bush unleashed shock and awe on Iraq. Their singer, Natalie Maines, felt the need to comment in a freighted moment.
“Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all,” she told the crowd. “We do not want this war, this violence. And we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.”
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I remember thinking it wasn’t cool for Maines to disrespect the president on foreign soil. But the over-the-top reaction to a singer’s loose talk also turned me off.
Maines tried to walk it back at first, but it didn’t work. In due course, she couldn’t be bothered.
In any event, the Dixie Chicks swiftly became outcasts in country music circles and fell dead silent on country radio. A scheduled U.S. tour went forward, but their career as they’d known it was over.
The Chicks released their next album, “Taking the Long Way,” in the spring of 2006. It explicitly doubled down on the trio’s defiance and sealed off any rapprochement with a lot of alienated fans.
The renewed storyline pulled me into the Chicks’ new music and then into their back catalog. A documentary that came out that fall, “Shut Up & Sing,” chronicled what the band calls “the Incident” and its aftermath and offered a fascinating glimpse into the personalities involved.
I’ve never been much for country, but I learned what the fuss was about. Sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison (now Strayer) could pick, strum, fiddle and harmonize with the best, and Maines could flat-out sing.
“Taking the Long Way” won critical and Grammy acclaim, but didn’t sell like its predecessors. The accompanying tour didn’t draw well at all by the band’s standards. Then the Dixie Chicks just went away.
We’re told that’s been complicated by young children — nine among the three of them — and a couple of divorces. But the Chicks’ career had also blown up and couldn’t be reassembled into what it had been.
In the Divided States of America, the band’s fan base apparently had shifted away from the red and toward the blue. And though they might not have been the same concert draw without country radio behind them, musically and culturally the Chicks had become broader than the category that made them superstars.
Just compare the itinerary of this year’s tour — the first full U.S. run in 10 years — to one from the band’s pre-Incident heyday. These Chicks spend a lot less time in Dixie.
Press accounts indicate ticket sales have been strong this time around. I suspect their long absence and their reputation as a great live band have made the Chicks one of those storied acts you figure you ought to catch now in case you don’t get another chance.
Maines, 41, who put out a solo rock album in 2013, has said she has no appetite for recording new country music and all that comes with fully restarting the Dixie Chicks. Indications are that the band’s future rests on the course of her ambivalence.
By all appearances, however, the reassembled Chicks were having a blast onstage. They certainly demonstrated that their chops, chemistry and charisma are intact, and that they can still command an audience.
It was my first Dixie Chicks show, so I can’t assess how that audience might have changed. But the people-watching was fabulous, the result of a joyful vibe mixing country and hippy under a rainbow flag.
My wife wasn’t feeling well toward the end of the show, so we started the long hike back to the car a bit early. As we walked we could hear Maines belt the defiant chorus of the first encore, one of my favorite Dixie Chicks tunes.
“I’m not ready to make nice, I’m not ready to back down ... .”
Clearly she doesn’t have to.
Dixie Chicks DCXMMXVI World Tour
When: 7 p.m. Friday (July 8).
Where: White River Amphitheatre, 40601 Auburn Enumclaw Road, Auburn.
Tickets: $80-$136 at Ticketmaster.