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In Nashville, Dissent Doesn't Play Well

As the Dixie Chicks learned, country fans demand patriotism.

March 24, 2003|Tamara Conniff | Tamara Conniff is the music editor at the Hollywood Reporter.

Sheryl Crow wore a white T-shirt emblazoned with "War Is Not the Answer" when she accepted her American Music Award in January. Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst was received with cheers when he said, "This war has got to go away as soon as possible" during the Grammy telecast. But when Natalie Maines of the country music trio the Dixie Chicks said from a London stage that she was "ashamed" that President Bush was from Texas, the result was quite different.

Angry fans flooded radio stations in San Diego, Nashville and Dallas with calls demanding that the Dixie Chicks' music be removed from playlists. Many fans-turned-enemies burned posters, and one group of protesters in Louisiana mounted a 33,000-pound tractor and ran over CDs.

First, Maines tried to explain herself. But anti-Chicks warriors continued to destroy CDs, so she took a deep breath and issued a formal apology to Bush, proclaiming that she was "proud to be an American." But South Carolina legislators were not swayed; they passed a resolution asking that the Dixie Chicks apologize directly to South Carolinians and play a free concert for the troops.

No one is mad at Sheryl Crow. No one is burning Limp Bizkit posters. It appears that San Diego, Nashville and Dallas care not at all about the opinion of America's rock stars. But apparently country music and its idols have a duty to be patriotic.

While rock music has its roots in rebellion, country music comes from a storytelling tradition. Considered to be white Anglo-Celtic ethnic music, country was born in the southern Appalachians during the late 19th century; its role was to depict rural life and its hardships. Patriotism stemmed from the fact that people there lived off the fruit of the land; America was feeding them.

While the northern part of the United States continued to industrialize during the early 20th century, the South remained agricultural and politically conservative. Country music then became a reflection of Southerners' desire to preserve their culture and core values: love your country, love God, love your family.

The easy argument to make is that country music fans are patriotic because they're uneducated, poor, white rednecks and hillbillies who don't know any better. This stereotype is justified for some, but not all. According to market research, they are indeed overwhelmingly white but have an average household income of $50,000, and 77% of them own homes.

Being patriotic is also an identity, a badge that country music devotees wear proudly. The more patriotic the better. Take honky-tonk country star Toby Keith's Sept. 11-inspired hit song, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)." Fans embraced the song's lyrics, especially the verses: "You'll be sorry that you messed with the US of A / Cuz we'll put a boot in your ass / It's the American Way."

Country fans want their music to tell tales about their woes, their heartaches, their anger. Keith wasn't being political; he was just mad.

Country enthusiasts don't like their music mixed with politics, but for some reason they do embrace sad tunes about soldiers dying for the United States.

The Dixie Chicks' song "Travelin' Soldier," about a boy who goes to Vietnam and never comes back, follows in the tradition of such classics as Jimmie Rogers' "The Soldier's Sweetheart" and Loretta Lynn's "Dear Uncle Sam."

Aren't these antiwar songs? For Northern liberal Democrats, they are. But for Southern Republicans, dying for your country is patriotic; it's noble.

Of course, now anti-Chicks activists are claiming the trio didn't actually write "Travelin' Soldier." How could they -- anti-American heathens that they are?

Sadly, those who shun the Dixie Chicks have become exactly what they say they are not: anti-American. By burning CDs and posters and throwing verbal stones at Maines, they are violating her most important right and the foundation of this country -- her freedom of speech.

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