Chicks In the Line of Fire

Three years ago they apologized for dissing the President. Now, they're back with a new album - and a retraction of the apology

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Over lunch in decidedly uncountry Santa Monica, Calif., where they have lived part time while recording Long Way, the Dixie Chicks--in fancy jeans, tank tops and designer sunglasses--seem less like provocateurs than busy moms (they have seven kids in all, ages 1 to 5) amped up by a little free time. In conversation they are loud and unembarrassable, celebrating their lack of boundaries in that escalating, I-can-be-more-blunt-than-you way unique to sisters (which Maguire and Robison are) and women who have shared a tour-bus bathroom. They eagerly discuss the soullessness of Tom Cruise, the creepiness of Charlie Sheen and the price-fixing practices of hair colorists. But sex is the perennial champ, and they are in a constant state of speculation about which of their kids' nannies is most likely to "get some" on tour this summer. "We're all married," says Maguire, "so it's not like we're going to."

One product of their decade together is that the Chicks are loose with pronouns (they use I and we interchangeably) and agree on almost everything, although the ways they agree can be revealing. When the conversation turns to childhood pets and I mention a beloved one-eyed dog, they all make empathetic faces, but Maguire, 36, gets teary, Robison, 33, laughs at her sister's sensitivity, and Maines, 31, says she would have poked around the empty socket "just to check it out." On Iraq, Maguire begins, "The night we sent missiles over ..." while Maines prefers, "When we bombed the s___ out of ..."

In the days preceding the March 2003 U.S. invasion, the Dixie Chicks were touring Europe. They don't subscribe to Foreign Affairs, but they are daily newspaper readers who back up their positions with a solid understanding of current events. It struck them as natural that in front of a largely antiwar crowd in London, Maines would preface Travelin' Soldier, an apolitical ballad about a heartsick Vietnam G.I., with a reference to the world outside the theater. As Maines spoke, though, Robison admits, "I got hot from my head to my toes--just kind of this rush of 'Ohhh, s___.' It wasn't that I didn't agree with her 100%; it was just, 'Oh, this is going to stir something up.'"

The celebrity playbook for navigating a scandal is one word long: repent. But apologies are for lapses of character, not revelations of it, and sensing that they were being asked to apologize for their beliefs as much as their timing, the Chicks decided not to back down. "Natalie knows we could have totally convinced her to apologize," says Maguire. "But the fact is, any one of us could have said what she said." Their demure response to the bans and threats--one of which arrived with the date, time and method of Maines' planned assassination--was to appear nude on the cover of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY with slurs (SADDAM'S ANGELS) scrawled on their naked bodies. That did not placate the offended. More fans and friends were lost. Gradually, though, the need for round-the-clock security faded.

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