In 2003, the Dixie Chicks, (pictured left to right) Emily Robison, Martie Maguire and Natalie Maines, were the most popular female group in country music history, with a number one single, millions in sales, multiple Grammy awards, legions of fans and sold-out concerts across the world.
Then, during a concert in London on March 10, 2003, just days before the U.S. military would invade Iraq, Natalie felt she had to say something about what was happening in the world. To those English fans—whose own government joined America's Iraqi invasion—she said, "We do not want this war, this violence. And we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas."
The controversy that followed—documented in the film Shut Up & Sing—came swiftly and harshly. Radio stations refused to play their once-popular songs, conservative political commentators offered outraged judgments, they were labeled un-American and traitors, their concerts and CDs were boycotted, and they received death threats.
Natalie says the infamous comment in London wasn't really planned. They had been in London for a couple of weeks and, like the rest of the world, were following the news of the run-up to the Iraqi invasion very closely.
"We talked about it nonstop, all the time, and were very into politics and things at the time. We just talked about how silly it felt and how trite it felt to have to put on a show when such serious things were going on in the world," she says. "But we've always known that our job is to perform and that people spend their money to see the music and to see a show. I think a part of me knew I had to say something about it just so people don't think that we're shallow and we don't care what's going on. But I also didn't want to get too heavy because we are performers and are on stage."
Immediately after Natalie said it, Emily knew she'd hear all about it. But thought it would be from a far smaller audience—her mom! "I didn't think it would go around the world," she says.
Martie says the group's manager, an Englishman, didn't initially see the big deal either. "I mean, in England I think they're used to criticizing politicians all the time, and he said, 'Three days tops. Three days tops it will blow over,'" she says. "So we believed it and then it just kept going."
The Dixie Chicks say that losing some album sales was a fine way for fans to express their freedom of speech…which is exactly what Natalie did in making her comment in London. What they didn't expect was violence and anger over the response.
"We know people have the right to not buy your CDs—that's never bothered us. A true referendum on whether you agree with us or not and want to buy our music, that's all fine. What was happening was people trying to destroy our career because we spoke out," Emily says. "I think that was the biggest disappointment, was that it was so organized and it was so vicious. It wasn't just someone saying, 'I don't like what she said. I don't think I'm going buy their next album.'"
In fact, it was much more than that. In Shut Up & Sing, the filmmakers highlight a death threat incident against Natalie in Dallas. Even though police considered the threat to be legitimate, the Dixie Chicks still performed that night.
Four days after the incident in London, Natalie issued a statement that read: "As a concerned American citizen, I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful. I feel that whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect."
Does she continue to feel that way? Would she make the same apology today? "At the time, a lot of things hadn't happened—a lot of people hadn't died and Hurricane Katrina hadn't happened. I did feel that the office of the President should be shown respect, but I have to say you just sometimes…you have to earn people's respect," Natalie says. "I was not about to say, 'Oh, sorry. Didn't mean it, I was drunk. Let's go to rehab.'"
Instead, Natalie says she does have a major regret about the incident. "I would have said something super-brilliant if I had known anybody was listening," she says. "But it probably would have gotten me in way more trouble."
Emily and Martie say they never wavered in support of Natalie. "I've disagreed with her over much lesser things," Martie says.
"There's a sisterhood here that I don't think everyone understands. It got so crazy, when something like that happens, you circle the wagons," Emily says. "It's self-preservation."
More than three years after the comment in London turned their world around, the Dixie Chicks treat that moment as a rebirth. "Maybe we were resting on our laurels a little," Emily says. "We were having a lot of success and there wasn't that want and that need and desire to reach those pinnacles again. Now I feel like we're earning fans back one at a time and that feels really good."
"And you know that they're there for the right reasons," Natalie adds.
The Dixie Chicks reveal that they have a secret pact in their group. "If any of us are ever unhappy, we are free to move on with our lives and be happy and at peace," Martie says. "We don't owe it to each other to keep this going."
"So it would just be two chicks or one chick," Oprah says. "Or you'll be chick-less."
"We have seven chicks amongst the three of us, so we'll be moms," Natalie says.
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