I heart the Dixie Chicks.

I know, I can't believe it either.

If you'd told me a week ago that I would be saying this, I wouldn't have thought it was possible. Sure, I love alt country gals like Lucinda Williams and Neko Case, and who doesn't love Dolly? But heartland darlings who sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl? Not exactly my cup of Bud Light. However, thanks to a piece I'm writing about music in the movies, Barbara Kopple's Dixie doc Shut Up and Sing arrived in my mailbox. I put on the DVD because it was my job, and I watched it for the third time last night because – I know, this sounds laughably corny – I feel like the Dixie Chicks are my friends. Watching the film, I teared up over their struggles and their strengths, and I think their story is an inspiration to all Americans.

Again, I know! What am I talking about, spouting grandiose platitudes about “all Americans”?! But the simple fact is, in this era of political double talk, celebrity handling, and corporate art, the Dixie Chicks – the biggest selling female group in history – were willing to stake their zillion-dollar career on freedom of expression and a moral opposition to the war on Iraq. To put this in perspective, last week Britney Spears publicly apologized for flashing pink at the paparazzi, saying she'd taken her newfound freedom “too far” and that she was looking forward to a “new year” and a “new me.” In 2003 Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines dissed the President on a London stage before thousands of people, and although she apologized for how she said what she said (her exact words were “We're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas”), she stood by her criticism of Bush's actions and her right to do so. And then, instead of censoring all discussion of W from that day on, she called him a “dumbfuck.” On camera. (This moment is actually featured in an ad for the movie that NBC refused to air.)

Shut Up and Sing documents the journey of this self-described “sisterhood” (all of whom are mothers) from #1 country sweethearts to boycotted musicians, political pariahs (the Red Cross even refused a $1 million donation from them) and punching bags of conservative America. Country radio banned them. Angry flag wavers told news crews that the Chicks deserved to be deported, tried for treason, or simply, strapped to a bomb and dropped on Iraq. Toby Keith wrote a song about them whose chorus went, “We'll put a boot in your ass, it's the American way.” One especially wrathful Texan issued a death threat, declaring that Natalie Maines would be shot dead at their show in Dallas. When the singer was shown a photograph of her would-be assassin she said, “He's kinda cute.”

With humor and talent on their side, these women turned the ordeal into great artistic and personal growth. Working with guru/producer Rick Rubin (and, thankfully, stylist Arianne Phillips, who did away with the awful “punk” stage clothes they wore in 2003), the Chicks redefined themselves and created an album that even self-respecting rock fans could listen to, Taking the Long Way. The recording sessions at Sunset Sound in L.A. with members of the Heartbreakers and Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers on drums, are definitely a highlight of the movie, as is a peek at Rubin's lair, where books line the walls and a taxidermied polar bear stands guard. I'll be honest: I've never heard any other Dixie Chicks album, but I'm pretty sure none of them have songs like the heartfelt, courageous “Not Ready to Make Nice,” or “Lubbock or Leave It,” a country punk kiss-off to Natalie Maines' hometown, Lubbock, TX, which also put Buddy Holly through the wringer.

At one point in the film just before the record's release, when their red wine-loving British manager, Simon, is talking about potential TV appearances on shows like Regis and Kathi Lee, Maines, lying on a couch, asks, “Can't we be the Bruce Springsteen and the Bob Dylan? I just don't CARE.” In the end the Chicks decided not to service Taking the Long Way to country radio because it had banned them, and then turned down sponsorship on their 2006 tour because it was the “safe” route to take; they preferred to take the risk and hope the fan support was behind them. Shut Up and Sing's final message is hopeful but slightly bittersweet, as an artistically recharged, fashionably dressed Dixie Chicks sets off on a tour that, for the first time in years, isn't selling out.

However, as of last week there's a coda to the story: on Thursday, the Dixie Chicks received five Grammy nominations, including album of the year for Taking the Long Way and song and record of the year for “Not Ready to Make Nice.” Oh, and apparently they got some country nominations, too, and the single is in heavy rotation on CMT, but who needs those dumbfucks anyway?

posted by Steffie Nelson

photo copyright Mark Seliger

LA Weekly