A song of transcendent power that very much bears revisiting now, in the depths of the Trump era, when the horror of the present political reality is apt to nudge us towards an entirely misguided reassessment of the last Republican regime. The Dixie Chicks flourished when George W. Bush and his black-hearted crew of right-wing operatives, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et. al., ruled the roost and worked to carry out the hubristic, disastrous, nationalistic agenda developed in think tanks like the Project for a New American Century. “W” is in the midst of a perhaps inevitable popular rehabilitation these days; after all, compared to The Donald, Bush 43 seems like Thomas Frigging Jefferson, and he’s taken up painting, too, which is kind of sweet. Marble-mouthed, misinformed meathead though he surely was, at least he wasn’t totally nuts, right?
Well, no, but he was a rather witless tool of the forces that set the stage for the present woes, which have their roots in a style of Republican politics that stretches back decades prior to Trump’s ascendancy, all the way to Lee Atwater in the 1970s, and fellow travellers like Roger Ailes, Newt Gingrich, Roger Stone and Karl Rove, on through Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes. Theirs is the politics of white grievance and revanchism, of equating patriotism with militarism, of pitiless disdain for the poor and the weak, and ensuring the accumulation of the overwhelming preponderance of national wealth in the hands of the very few, while striving with tireless enthusiasm to get into wars, always wars, there can never be enough wars. They serve Mammon and worship at the temple of Mars.
In the early 2000s, it was the Dixie Chicks, pride of Texas, who unexpectedly found themselves up against the whole rah-rah, football loving, pickup driving, “USA! USA!” hollering axis that created, and was in turn nurtured by, the modern Republican Party. They seemed an unlikely set of culture warriors. In the late 90s they’d become the darlings of the country music scene, beloved by the sorts of beer drinking guys who pledged allegiance to Garth Brooks and Faith Hill, partly because they were really very talented, partly because their songs were catchy, and mainly, let’s face it, because they were, all three of them, quite beautiful. Anyone listening even a little attentively might have detected the feminist themes of songs like the massive hit Goodbye Earl, but most of their fan base was probably too busy tapping their toes and taking in the scenery to really notice.
It was clearly everyone’s assumption that the Dixie Chicks were the sort of nice, down home girls who were on the right side of the liberal-conservative divide, on their side, and it was thus an almost spasmodic, visceral reaction that greeted the effrontery – the horrible betrayal – with which lead singer Natalie Maines dissed beloved President Bush in front of a foreign audience in London, England. Voicing opposition to the Bush Administration’s bellicose policy toward Iraq, Maines, speaking from the heart to the Shepherd’s Bush crowd as invasion loomed, said:
Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.
Christ! She had the gall to say that to a bunch of foreigners. It was practically treason! The backlash was swift and massive, akin to the reaction to John Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus” quip, except even more intense, complete with boycotts, record burnings, and patriotic radio stations throughout the US South refusing to play their music. There were protests, terrifyingly credible death threats, and so much general, appalling nastiness that it looked like the Dixie Chicks might be finished. The whole miserable affair, rendered all the more ugly by the pervasive drumbeat of threatened violence against uppity women who didn’t know their place, is chronicled in the emotional documentary Shut Up and Sing.
Not Ready to Make Nice is the musical distillation of the controversy, and the Chicks’ stirringly defiant declaration of unyielding principle. They would not bend. They were not sorry. They would not grovel, they would not forget, and y’all could go fuck y’all.
It’s a simply wonderful piece of work, surely their best, and the sort of song that any reputable artist would be satisfied to regard as the culmination of a career. In this remarkable clip from 2011, Maines just belts it out, with all the conviction and emotional honesty borne of rage, pain, and completely unaffected righteous indignation, undimmed despite the intervening years. The crescendo reached in the middle eight – they write me a letter/sayin’ that I better/shut up and sing or my life will be over – could move a lump of granite to goosebumps. You will never see a better live performance.
When the same yahoos who lashed out back then gnash their teeth at the NFL players who today take a knee, remember the Dixie Chicks, and the battle that needs always to be fought by decent people of conscience. The women were, after all, absolutely goddam right – the my-country-right-or-wrong buttheads who supported Bush and threatened to kill Maines would probably look down at their cowboy boots and mumble something incoherent if you asked them how they feel now about the horrendous blunder of Operation Iraqi Freedom. One day, no doubt, they’ll do the same when you try to get them to explain why they were so mindlessly hot and horny for Trump. Or more likely, the chickenshits will deny they ever supported the monster.
Meanwhile, somebody should make them watch these magnificent women sing their hearts out, and slap them upside their empty heads.