Saturday, May 31, 2014

Dixie Chicks - Hits That Will Never Be

My girlfriend and I play a game I made up one time when I was channel surfing our cable system.  Toward the high channel portion of our cable service, we have a load of strictly music channels.  They show different photos and facts from whichever band they are playing a song at that moment, and one night I told her to close her eyes as I moved from country channel to country channel and identify the songs she heard.  The channels range from current country, to pop country to 90’s country to classic country.  So, pretty much all of the artist are represented in the batch, save folk and bluegrass music. 

In short order, this became a competition between us.  We now both close our eyes and use our music recognition skills to recognize and call out the song before the other.  See, she grew up out in the country surrounded by country music, and I grew up in Studio City on ‘70’s and 80’s rock and roll.  So one would think that she would beat me at this game all the time.  But in the years since 1997, when I discovered how much I liked country music, I have brushed up on my listening repertoire, and so I win a lot of these games.  But we’re actually pretty even when all is said and done because there is some deep country stuff that she knows from her mom and her gramma’s years of listening that I just don’t have the reserve of knowledge for.

So last night, after we had watched a few of our DVR’d shows, before we turned off the T.V., I said, “Hey, let’s try a few,” and I went to those upper country music channels.  I think the first one was a Tim McGraw tune, then a Dolly Parton tune, then a Clint Black with Lisa Hartman tune.  We probably did about ten or twelve of them when I hit one of the channels that was beginning a song with a familiar arpeggio acoustic guitar.  Right away I recognized it as, “Cowboy Take Me Away,” by the Dixie Chicks and called it out before my girlfriend did.  “Ha! Won that one!” We both laughed, and yet, simultaneously my heart panged with sadness as it often does when I hear a Dixie Chicks tune.  I enjoy hearing their songs so much, but for the last ten years, I’ve always felt a mixture of enjoyment and sadness with their music. 

I first discovered the Dixie Chicks in 1998 the same year or two that probably everyone else did.  It was during the release of “ Wide Open Spaces.”  It was so clear to me when I heard this song and the album that this was an extremely talented, and original sounding group.  I loved the freshness of the acoustic instruments they used and the tight female harmonies.  And I thought that the lead singer, Natalie Maines’, voice cut through the other vocalists on the radio with a determination and spit that I hadn’t heard before.  They won the Country Music Association’s Horizon Award, an award that at the time I had hoped the Wilkinsons would take home.  I sensed that the Dixie Chicks were on their way to stardom.

I remember one night as I was driving up California Highway 14 on my way from Burbank to Ridgecrest to visit a friend, that I was in an area that was pitch black between Mojave and Red Rock Canyon.  “There’s Your Trouble” came on the radio, and as I sort of floated along the highway at seventy-five miles per hour, I felt energized by the Dixie Chicks’ song in the little cockpit space of my Mustang in the middle of the desert.  I have a lot of great memories of places and times enjoying their tunes.

As time went on I heard more of their music, and as people started knowing that I was enjoying country music, the Dixie Chicks were one of the groups with which friends and colleagues would connect to me.  There was a woman I worked with at Walt Disney with whom I had a lot of tension throughout our years there, and literally the one moment of enjoyment that I remember sharing with her was when she came into my office late one evening, again as a person who knew of my newly found appreciation of country music, and she showed me that she had bought a CD of, “Fly” because she had heard that song, “Cowboy Take Me Away” was on it.  She asked me what I thought of the album, which I felt was a nice gesture on her part, and I told her what a great choice she had made in selecting it and talked a little bit about the album with her.  It was a nice few moments for us.

I’ve thought about what the meteoric rise of the Dixie Chicks must have seemed like to Laura Lynch and Robin Macy, who had left the group before Natalie Maines joined Martie McGuire and Emily Robison.  It must have been the same for them as the fifth Beatle or the drummer that Keith Moon replaced in The Who.  They saw a band that they had previously been a part of ascend into the stratosphere.  The Dixie Chicks sold millions of records, were in music videos and constantly lived on the radio.  It was a phenomenal rise.

I recall hearing about it on the radio on March 10, 2003; that the Dixie Chicks were somewhere in Europe and had said something about the President and something having to do with war.  It was just a sliver of information, and I kind of passed it off as an entertainer getting political and the news media running with it for a night.  But as the days went on, this thing didn’t seem to go away, and I heard more about how the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, while performing in Shepherds Bush Empire Theater, England, had said that she was ashamed that the President of the U.S. was from Texas, and that she didn’t like the idea of going to war.  These celebrity hiccups still seemed somewhat commonplace in my mind.  Actress and activist Susan Sarandon had said things in very public forums, such as the Oscars, and I’d heard of other celebrities saying things here and there that turned heads or got them into temporary hot water. 

But I must admit that as I was waking up to the idea that this story might play for a while in the media, I was a bit surprised that it was one of the Dixie Chicks who had gone on some sort of political rant.  The reason is that my personal conception of the Dixie Chicks had been that they were these sweet, probably conservative daughters of the south, who had decided to go into music and had formed an astoundingly great trio.  It really never had occurred to me that they might, either as a group, or individually be more liberal than I had imagined.

And while there is nothing wrong with some of this kind of contrast, I found it surprising that she would say something out loud that would so much clash with her public persona of being with this country group.  And I know by writing this that I further ingrain the idea that all country music and musicians are conservative, or that they put out a conservative image.  I know that not to be true.  I think that musicians who struggle over many years tend to experience many sides of life and as a result could have any of a myriad of varying political ideologies.  There is, however, a very large fan base that is conservative that likes country music, and of course, Natalie knew this.  And I think when we love actors or groups, we tend to make fantasies about their lives, and maybe there are ways of not shattering those fantasies for your fans all in one night.  So overall, her straight out criticism did surprise me.  I can’t deny it.  It’s like when I found out that the female cat I had been living with for a year in Venice Canals was actually a neutered male. Whoa!

What went though my mind, and I’m being totally honest here, and of which I am not quite proud, was this.  “Oh boy, here’s yet another celebrity who has decided to use her public face to push her political agenda.”  My feeling was that it’s been the fad of the last couple of decades for celebrities to push political agendas.  And a multitude of Hollywood activists flashed through my mind.  I say that I’m a little ashamed of this reaction because who am I to judge what someone wants to say at their own concert?  But I think a lot of country fans had a similar visceral reaction.  They were surprised and put off by her remarks, and they experienced an immediate change in their perception of who comprised this great band.  It’s the old, paradigm shift causing cognitive dissonance, but in an entire fan base.  

Another thing that surprised me during one mornings was that while I was listening to my clock radio go off, trying desperately to wake me up and get me out of bed and into the shower for work, KZLA, the country station was playing as usual, and then when a song that was playing finally ended, the drive-time host, Peter Tilden, came on and stated that KZLA would not be spinning any Dixie Chicks records.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Really?  Is this THAT serious?  I thought it really strange that Peter Tilden of all people, a cool Philadelphia to L.A. transplant, had to make this announcement.  He often had huge Hollywood friends calling in such as Sylvester Stallone and major stars of all kinds.  I just couldn’t imagine an L.A. radio station taking this stance.  I’ve since found out that a much higher strata of music company executive was involved in this decision-making. 

And that’s when I really started to feel bad for the Dixie Chicks.  Unlike Natalie Maines, I do believe it’s a good thing to be patriotic about one’s nation, especially ours.  The United States is indeed the best nation on this planet by way of giving people the opportunities for work and life dreams, and for people to speak as they wish without fear of retribution.  But now it seemed as though the tables had been turned on the Dixie Chicks.  They had used their American right to free speech and were getting wholly shut out of the country music industry.

And you have to remember, we were about to engage Iraq in war because of the supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction.  At the time, people were really nervous about this.  All of these ingredients made for a really bad time and platform from which to make her remarks.  Whether Natalie Maines likes this fact or not, it really was bout the WORST time she could have said this.  People in mid America had sons and daughters who would soon be shipped out to Iraq, or who were already there. They could die soon.  That was exactly Natalie's point, but I feel that her comments that night sounded like someone making a criticism that had no personal investment in any of it.  And while I know she felt she was invested and didn’t want needless war deaths, I don’t think most fans took her criticism of the President, and later, or patriotism, in a productive way.  An entertainer has to remember that they are in the business of entertainment and in the business of celebrity within whatever genre they are in.  And though I know what she said was spontaneous, I think that people who have that much fame and power need to realize that their words can have permanent consequences and impressions.  It’s the same reason why if Donald Sterling either thought before he spoke, or ran his words by his attorney first, he probably wouldn’t get into so much trouble.  But Natalie Maines did say those things, and now it seemed like the whole nation was against the Dixie Chicks because of it.  But the fact that companies were now banning their music from being played; it was just too much of a reaction in my opinion. 

I personally don’t think her speech that night was worth it.  There could have been other ways for her to become active gradually in the public eye, but the way she did it was much too costly.  It basically ended the Dixie Chicks' career.  And at the same time, I don’t understand is how this rejection by the country music industry has continued.  It really doesn’t make any sense to me.

I listened to an interview on YouTube in which Natalie Maines is the guest on Howard Stern, and during the show a caller called in from Dallas, Texas and said that he had requested that songs by the Dixie Chicks be played on two different radio stations, and he was shut down with, “We don’t play the Dixie Chicks on this station.”  Both of them!  This was 2013.  You mean, people are still so angry at the Dixie Chicks even now that the stations won’t play their music?  I mean, that is just crazy, as in the definition of “crazy.”  What do they think, that the Dixie Chicks, an American country music group that was from Texas is the ENEMY???  Pardon me, but that IS stupid!  And it’s censorship.  We lived in America where we have the ideology and legal right to free speech.  You as the consumer don’t have to buy their records if you don’t want, but to say they CAN’T be played on radio stations?  I think the music industry needs to rethink what they are doing in the business then.  The documentary, "Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing" covered a lot of the ridiculousness of the radio industry's and fans' reactions.

During a video taped Time Magazine interview with Belinda Luscombe, Maines was asked by Luscombe if she is the current hold-out from being in the Dixie Chicks full time.  She asked if Martie McGuire and Emily Robison would continue to be in the Dixie Chicks if Natalie would, and she said she thought so.  For Natalie, the way they were treated by the country music industry just hurt too much, and it proved to her that, while she had come into country music already a liberal thinking that the community had accepted her, in reality they hadn’t.  In fact, most fans didn’t even know of her political beliefs.  So she feels that the country music community isn’t for her anymore.  She seems to have lost her passion and her fire, and that’s really sad for someone so talented.  And I think again of Laura Lynch and Robin Macy, the women who had previously been members of the group, and what this must have looked like to them too.  From the stratosphere to nothing in no time, like the Challenger explosion or the Hindenberg. I wonder if in a way they were ultimately grateful not to have experienced all of that. 

Now I will reveal that sad part of all of this for me; the thing that pangs my heart when I hear their music.  It’s that musicians, or anyone who has mastered something, have spent countless years honing their craft, and when you get a group that works so beautifully together like the Dixie Chicks, the chances of that are very slim to ever happen again.  If that all gets thrown away because of a poorly time comment fueled by an overreaction and hysteria from the general public, then I really think that it is truly tragic.  And to think that there is a music industry deliberately blocking a talented trio of women from making music?  Well, that makes me close to ill.  There are a few lucky human beings on this planet who have had more than one life making music such as Paul McCartney in the Beatles, then in Wings, and then as a solo artist.  He’s really part feline, isn’t he? And there are some others, but it’s an extremely rare and unlikely scenario to have that kind of longevity that survives multiple self-reinventions.  I have also often felt this sort of sadness with the performing and music-making aspect of Michael Jackson’s life given all of the legal issues that he created for himself that took his focus away from his artistic work.  We missed out on so much potentially incredible music. Martie and Emily seem like innocent casualties in all of this to me.  They stood by Natalie, but there really wasn't any other choice for them, and they had worked so hard to build the Dixie Chicks band for so many years. 

And so during all of these eleven years, though the Dixie Chicks came back in 2006 and won five Grammys for, "Taking The Long Way Home," we could have had another thirty? fifty? hundred hits from the Dixie Chicks that don’t exists because of all of the chaos that ensued.  That is heartbreaking to me.  Because when I hear really great music, it makes my soul soar.  When I listen to the Dixie Chicks’ cover of, “Landslide,” with Natalie Maines' vocal and Martie McGuire and Emily Robison's heavenly harmonies, my heart slides.  It’s music mastery at it’s perfection.  And with all of the Dixie Chicks’ experience together and with their previous iterations with Laura Lynch and Robin Macy, they have so much music playing life under their belts.  That’s irreplaceable. And so I mourn what has been lost with every pang of my heart.

I looked up the website, that seems to sit idly awaiting some kindly hand from God, and I click on the ‘Tour Dates’ tab.  “No upcoming dates.”  Damn!