This week, the KWJJ country radio station in Portland found itself making headlines for a frankly bizarre reason: They dared play the new Taylor Swift single “Soon You’ll Get Better”, a song about her mother’s battle with cancer. The station received a large number of complaints, objecting to the decision to play the clearly inoffensive tune.
So what was the root of the anger? Was it the fact that Swift left the world of country in order to dive into pop music years ago? Actually no (although a few might have taken the opportunity to throw that out there). In fact, it was all because the Dixie Chicks sing backing vocals on the song.
Remember them? The Dixie Chicks were one of the biggest names in country music up until about 16 years ago, during a show in the UK, when they criticized George W. Bush from the stage:
“We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas,” said singer Natalie Maines, possibly oblivious that the statement would all but cancel them from the country music world for the foreseeable future.
But why were people so surprised? The band had built their career and their reputation on being strong outspoken women with a powerful, important message. Their song “Goodbye Earl” quickly became a rallying cry against domestic abuse — feminist, sure, but also one to be embraced by all decent people.
“Well, it wasn’t two weeks after she got married that
Wanda started gettin’ abused
She’d put on dark glasses or long sleeved blouses
Or make-up to cover a bruise
Well she finally got the nerve to file for divorce
And she let the law take it from there
But Earl walked right through that restraining order
And put her in intensive care.”
–Dixie Chicks “Goodbye Earl”
But still, those three women were made an example of by a country music industry and audience that smelled blood and went at them like a shark on a hunk of tuna. When people tried to support them they were quickly put in their place. Two DJs at Colorado station KKCS were suspended for playing their music. The only exception was country giant Merle Haggard who told the Associated Press:
“I don’t even know the Dixie Chicks, but I find it an insult for all the men and women who fought and died in past wars when almost the majority of America jumped down their throats for voicing an opinion. It was like a verbal witch-hunt and lynching.”
Haggard, one of outlaw country’s greats, was a republican for a long time but has been edging left in his old age, talking to Rolling Stone about Trump in 2016:
“He’s not a politician. I don’t think he understands the way things work in Washington, that’s what worries me about him. I don’t think he realizes he can’t just tell somebody to do something and have it done, you know.”
Haggard has a voice that demands respect, and it was important that somebody such as he spoke out in support of the Dixie Chicks. The public flogging that they received only served to reinforce stereotypes many people have about country music, the industry behind it, and the people listening to it. It’s low-hanging fruit but so often it’s handed to us — the trucks and confederate flags and guns and general racist bullshit. That’s a shame, because there are plenty of genuinely talented country musicians with genuinely excellent songs. The presence of right wing awfulness can be a real turn-off for people who might otherwise have been turned on.
Fortunately, there are country musicians who, alongside the Dixie Chicks, are on the side of right. Some of the biggest names too, starting with the great Willie Nelson.
Besides Snoop, is there a bigger stoner/marijuana advocate than Willie? The man is also a supporter of the LGBTQ community, telling Texas Monthly that,“We’ll look back and say it was crazy that we ever even argued about this,” regarding gay marriage. He performed on stage with Beto O’Rourke recently, and has been very critical of Trump’s family separation policy at the border.
And then there’s Garth Brooks — one of the biggest names in contemporary country, and a picture of polished pop perfection. All signs point to Brooks being a good ol’ Republican all the way. But no — you really can’t judge a book by its flannel cover. Brooks surprised many and dismayed many more when he sang at President Obama’s inauguration.
He’s been an avowed socialist for years, siding with the Democrats but generally wanting them to push left. He was a supporter of Bernie Sanders in the past, and applauded him for pushing Hillary Clinton to the left. Two years ago, just six months into Trump’s presidency, Rolling Stone asked Earle about the president.
“I don’t see him finishing the term,” Earle said. “I don’t see how he does it. Although it’s hard to predict what this guy’s gonna do. We’ve never had an orangutan in the White House before. There’s a lot of ‘What does this button do?’ going on. It’s scary. He really is a fascist. Whether he intended to be or not, he’s a real live fascist. That’s what’s going on. What’s happening — and this is what lefties have to keep in mind — [Republicans] are OK with him being there. While we’re paying attention to all the stupid shit he’s doing, they’re methodically seeing to their agenda and they’re getting a lot of shit done under the radar.”
Earle is a reminder that there are good people in the country world. People who understand decency and equality, and the need to fight fascism when they see it. And what the public shouldn’t do is stamp out those fighters when we they emerge.
For that reason, let’s get the Dixie Chicks back on the radio for good.