Natalie Maines is one of those people born middle finger first.
As a high school senior in Lubbock, Texas, she'd skip a class a day in an attempt to prove that because she never got caught and some Mexican students did, the system was racist. After Maines joined the Dixie Chicks, and the Dixie Chicks became the biggest-selling female group in music history--with suspiciously little cash to show for it--she and her bandmates told their record label, Sony, they were declaring themselves free agents. (In the high school that is Nashville, this is way worse than skipping class.) Now that she's truly notorious, having told a London audience in 2003, on the eve of the Iraq war, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas," Maines has one regret: the apology she offered George W. Bush at the onset of her infamy. "I apologized for disrespecting the office of the President," says Maines. "But I don't feel that way anymore. I don't feel he is owed any respect whatsoever."
A sizable chunk of their once adoring audience feels the same way about the Dixie Chicks. After Maines' pronouncement, which was vigorously seconded by bandmates Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, the group received death threats and was banned by thousands of country radio stations, many of which still have informal bans in place. The Dixie Chicks have mass appeal--you can't sell 10 million copies of two of your three albums without engaging lots of different people--but country radio is an indispensable part of how they reach people. Programmers say that even now a heartfelt apology could help set things right with listeners, but it's not happening. "If people are going to ask me to apologize based on who I am," says Maines, "I don't know what to do about that. I can't change who I am."
As proof, the first single from the Dixie Chicks' new album, Taking the Long Way (out May 23), is called Not Ready to Make Nice. It is, as one country radio programmer says, "a four-minute f___-you to the format and our listeners. I like the Chicks, and I won't play it." Few other stations are playing Not Ready to Make Nice, and while it has done well on iTunes, it's quite possible that in singing about their anger at people who were already livid with them and were once their target audience, the Chicks have written their own ticket to the pop-culture glue factory. "I guess if we really cared, we wouldn't have released that single first," says Maguire. "That was just making people mad. But I don't think it was a mistake."
Whether the Dixie Chicks recover their sales luster or not, the choice of single has turned their album release into a referendum. Taking the Long Way's existence is designed to thumb its nose at country's intolerance for ideological hell raising, and buying it or cursing it reveals something about you and your politics--or at least your ability to put a grudge above your listening pleasure. And however you vote, it's tough to deny that by gambling their careers, three Texas women have the biggest balls in American music.