Shut up and sing: the Dixie Chicks.

I remember reading an article in Rolling Stone over ten years ago on the subject of "Spring Break"—a time when many North American college students like to blow off steam in Bacchanalian revelry on Florida beaches.

The author of the piece was amused at these expressions of rebellion by adolescents who would soon settle into a "lifetime of obedience." A cynical perspective perhaps, but one that had the ring of sober truth. Even in this era of "free agent nation" the vast majority of Americans work for somebody else—and, by most accounts, not happily.

Here at blfr we admire individuals—and teams of individuals—who refuse to be obedient and who demand freedom and autonomy in their work. (Many of the best companies encourage their teams to think for themselves—as will be discussed in future posts.) And of course we admire those unruly business teams who play music for a living—and push the creative envelope of what's possible in business at large.

One band that epitomizes the spirit of independence and defiance is the hyper-talented alt-country-rock group, the Dixie Chicks. Natalie Maines and sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, who rocketed to fame thirteen years ago on the basis of their instrumental virtuosity and smart vocals, have made a practice of thumbing their noses at authority—in lyrics, lawsuits, and political statements.

After amassing three #1 country albums, scores of hit singles, and seven Grammy awards, the Dixie Chicks set off their biggest firestorm when lead singer Maines, from a London stage, voiced her displeasure with US President Bush and his preparations for an invasion of Iraq.

Despite Maine's subsequent clarifications of (and a partial apology for) her remarks, reactionary forces were unleashed against these insubordinate Chicks. After all, Country music stars—especially girrrls—don't usually question political authority.

As a result, Country fans attacked the group's patriotism, while Country radio effectively banned their music. Support for the band from Bruce Springsteen and Madonna (and even from that radical Bolshevik, Merle Haggard) did not prevent record-burnings, hate mail, and death threats.

But the Chicks weathered the tempest, successfully completed their 2003 "Top of The World" tour, then took a break from performing. Three years later they were back at it with a new album, "Taking the Long Way," which hit #1 on the country and pop album charts—with no country radio support.

They also released a provocative single, "Not Ready to Make Nice," and launched their "Accidents and Accusations" tour—during which they formally retracted their 2003 apology!

Their album and tour won them cross-over acceptance for the first time—and five more Grammys.

Many in the mainstream came to appreciate their blunt honesty—not to mention their prescient warning three years earlier about a costly war effort. On top of that, their documentary film, "Shut Up and Sing"—about the backlash they unleashed and how they coped with it—won six film awards.

Today they are the biggest-selling female band of all time, with thirteen Grammys to their credit.

This is one small business team that has never been reluctant to take risks, stand strong for what they believed, and deal with the consequences. (No lifetime of obedience for these Chicks.)

As Time magazine concluded: "One country and one form of music aren't enough to contain them or stifle their passion. They'll sing but they won't shut up."

Here's my favorite live clip of them, doing what I think is their best track, "Long Time Gone."


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15 Comments

  1. a great band but the spice girls have sold more records. not to compare the two groups though...

  2. If you're talking about various groups or ensembles of women, that would be correct. The Spice Girls and the Supremes have each sold over 100 million records. But neither qualifies as a "band" (by my definition anyway) because they didn't play their own instruments and needed musical accompaniment to perform. The Chicks play their own instruments (and very WELL I might add), and although they use plenty of musicians to accompany them, they're capable of performing live as just a trio if they choose to.

    There was a time when they were knocked for being too glamorous, with the implication that they couldn't really PLAY. But ANY musician who's heard them live knows that's bullshit. They're strong vocally as well. Natalie Maines is in a class by herself as an alt-country singer.

  3. Very interesting. I like their music, and chicks who think, and follow their own path turn me on.

    Rock on Guru John!

  4. Yes, the Chicks are the real deal. They're on sabbatical at the moment, while Martie Macguire and Emily Robison perform with their other band, the Court Yard Hounds, whom I also like. I hope to catch them when they get up to the Boston area this summer.

  5. I recall the statements they made about Bush and the war -- which IMHO were extreme, but not worthy of demonstrations and boycotts! Some people just need to get a life. But I didn't know of any other controversies they caused. I never followed them too closely because I'm not a big country fan. Nice video tho. They always had good songs.
    Claudia

  6. Claudia, Natalie's initial remark about the Prez made me wince (though I understood the sentiment). But the backlash was completely over the top—reminding me of the hysteria over John Lennon's ill-advised comments about Jesus 37 years earlier. So I quickly sympathized with the Chicks. The conservative media went beserk, calling the band stupid and untalented. (I wish I were that stupid and untalented.) FOX's Bill O'Reilly said they should be "slapped around."

  7. No lifetime of obedience for The Dixie Chicks? I disagree: they seem to have given a lifetime of obedience to their conscience and their courage to give an opinion, even if it's controversial. Top marks to them.

    They're not terribly well known over here in the UK but I have and love their Taking The Long Way album. Thanks for highlighting them, John. I'm off to try some of their other albums.

  8. Mark, Wide Open Spaces — their first major album — is the most popular of their CDs in my corner of the world. But Fly — their second major album — has "Ready to Run" and "Cowboy Take Me Away" (my favorite of theirs, which Martie co-wrote). I saw them play in Boston in 2006 and it was the most frenzied reception for a band I've seen in 40 years. (I thought I was at a political rally.)

    BTW, the song in the video, "Long Time Gone," kicked up a bit of controversy because some listeners took it as a knock against Nashville at the time (2000). Great lyrics:
    "They sound tired but they don't sound Haggard/They got money but they don't have Cash/They got Junior but they don't have Hank."

  9. Claudia (if you're still checking in): I forgot to comment on your question about other Dixie Chicks' controversies... Two of the songs from their Fly album were banned from most radio playlists: "Sin City" (because of the scandalous line "mattress dancing"); and "Goodbye Earl" (because of its comedic treatment of a wife killing her abusive spouse). The Chicks also sued their record label, Sony, for underpayment of royalties (it was settled out of court, but clearly to the band's benefit). Then there was their public feud with Toby Keith. Of course this was all just a warm up for taking on the leader of the free world in 2003 — and becoming the first major musical act to question the US war effort.

  10. Yeah, I left a comment a few days ago that's gone. I think Google isn't paying a lot of attention to their Blogger product. Stay tuned. I'll be moving to WordPress soon.

  11. It's nice to know the audience of spammers we attract has an international flavor to it. We pride ourselves on our cosmopolitan appeal here at BLFR.

  12. Yup, they're the real deal. I hope they regroup and hit the road in 2012. In the meantime their side project, The Court Yard Hounds (featuring Emily & Martie), are on tour this summer.

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