Love your country

Posted: May 02, 2003 12:00 AM

For the Dixie Chicks, life just isn't fair.

Sean Penn can go on a prewar tour of Iraq that plays into the hands of

Iraqi propagandist Baghdad Bob and be warmly welcomed back to Hollywood. The lead singer of the Dixie Chicks makes a stray insult of President Bush, and the group's radio playtime disappears, its album sales plummet, and the controversy lingers on seven weeks and an apology later.

What the Dixie Chicks forgot is that, as country singers, they might be "artists," but they're not entitled to the alienated self-righteousness assumed by most every other artist in the country. No, they are part of the Country Music Nation, the red-white-and-blue musical heart of America, where our enemies are evil, our cause is righteous, and comments critical of the commander in chief on foreign soil on the eve of a war are, uh, shall we say, not appreciated.

At a London concert on March 10, Texan Natalie Maines told the audience, "We're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas."

In response to the resulting outrage, the group has adopted the sense of victimization favored by all celebrities when they're criticized. One Dixie Chick says the controversy is a sign that people are "scared to speak up, scared to question." Actually, people are speaking up -- driving a tractor over Dixie Chick CDs is a rather robust act of free expression.

The Chicks have also borrowed from the m.o. of female rock stars: When in doubt, take off your clothes. The group appears naked with various slogans related to the brouhaha on their bodies on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. "It's not about the nakedness," says Maines. Uh-huh.

The flap will further convince urban sophisticates that country music is hopelessly simplistic. Actually, country is the deepest and most realistic of all popular music genres. Its audience is not just kids, so its themes and emotional pitch, in contrast to rock, don't have to be aimed perpetually at snotty 16-year-olds.

Country songs deal with the eternal theme of love, but also single fatherhood, alcoholism, prayer, death, fishing, loneliness, the whole gamut of adult life, including its burdens of responsibility, such as having trouble paying the bills. The last is a worry rarely expressed by rock artists whose audience isn't old enough to have thought of it.

As cultural critic Stanley Kurtz has pointed out, country music represents a slice of American life still relatively untouched by the cultural upheaval of the 1970s, including its poisonous distrust of American power. So, country music features the kind of patriotic anger that would have been utterly unremarkable, say, in the America of the 1940s.

A small parade of 9-11 songs are heard on country stations. Most of them are similar in tone to Darryl Worley's "Have You Forgotten?" -- "Some say this country's just out looking for a fight/After 9-11 man I'd have to say that's right."

You wouldn't necessarily want U.S. policy-makers to act on this sentiment, but neither would you want to live in a country that didn't sometimes feel it. It too represents a sort of realism, the hard fact that we have to choose between getting murdered by our enemies and aggressively thwarting them.

The Dixie Chicks have instead resorted to the easy artistic pose of righteousness that condemns the country's "warmongering" president without offering any alternative of how to respond to the threats of the post-9-11 world.

It might be that the Dixie Chicks leave the country format altogether, or -- more likely -- that they perversely benefit from their heightened notoriety. In the meantime, they can at least show the willingness to shoulder individual responsibility that is at the heart of


As a famous lyric from the historic country group The Carter Family has it: "Everybody's got to walk that lonesome valley/We've got to walk it by ourselves/There's nobody here can walk it for us/We've got to walk it by ourselves."