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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Now when they talk about "the Incident," as they unfailingly call it, the Dixie Chicks try to write it off as an absurdity. Maines has powerful gusts of indignation and real disdain for a few right-wing websites and talk-show hosts, but what seems to linger most is disappointment in her pre-controversy self. "I think I'd gotten too comfortable living my life," she says. "I didn't know people thought about us a certain way--that we were Republican and pro-war."

With George Bush the official piƱata of the music industry (see chart, above) the Dixie Chicks' ordeal should have cooled by now. "We struggle with that all the time," says Maguire. "Are we picking the scab of something that's already healed? Because we don't know what people are thinking." Radio programmers make it their business to know. "They're still through the floor," says Dale Carter, program director at KFKF in Kansas City, Mo. "There's a technology called the Dial where listeners react to songs, and every time we test the Dixie Chicks ..." Carter makes a noise like a boulder falling from a high cliff. "It's not the music, because we're playing them the hits they used to love. It's something visceral. I've never seen anything like it."

The unwillingness of audiences to forgive the band is inseparable from politics. Market research indicates the average country listener is white, suburban and leans to the right, and they need not lean too far to file away an insult against a wartime President. Still, as the President's support has eroded and growing numbers of Americans (presumably some country-music fans among them) have come to disapprove of both his performance and the decision to go to war, shouldn't there be a proportional feeling of forgiveness toward the Dixie Chicks?

Country Music Television (CMT) has conducted numerous focus groups on the band. "And they're all a great study in the American psyche," says Brian Philips, the channel's executive vice president. "What comes up over and over again is, 'It would have been one thing if they'd said it on American soil, but it's the fact that they said it in Europe that really sets me off!'" There's an accusation of cowardice in there--although Maines insists, "I said it there 'cause that's where I was"--but if the way Philips draws out the syllables in Europe is to be believed, there's also a more personal grievance, an uneasy cocktail of resentment and abandonment. As Tim McGraw, one of the few vocal Democrats in country, and the only major artist who would speak on the record about the Dixie Chicks, says, "You've got to remember this is a family skirmish, and it's possible there's more than one thing going on."

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