"We gained the right kind of fan": The Chicks reflect on the legacy of their George W Bush controversy

Today (July 24) The Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks) are looking set for a Top 5 finish in the UK charts with Gaslighter – their first album in 14 years.

In our recent cover feature, The Chicks – that's Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer – opened up about their “emotionally raw” new record, working with co-producer Jack Antonoff, their relationship with country music, industry double standards, and the reasons behind their long absence. Part of this was, of course, due to their need to decompress after their infamous disavowal of George W Bush and the impending Iraq War back in 2003.

“We do not want this war, this violence,” said Natalie Maines on March 10, 2003, as The Chicks played London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire. “And we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” 

The intense patriotic backlash they suffered for these words in the white-hot, post-9/11 political climate – as so brilliantly captured in the group’s 2006 documentary Shut Up And Sing – is the stuff of legend. They were branded as anti-troops and anti-American. Fox News presenter Bill O’Reilly despicably labelled them as “callow, foolish women who deserved to be slapped around”. CDs were publicly crushed. Shows were protested and boycotted. On the country radio airwaves they once dominated they became persona non. That’s not to mention the death threats. Shut Up And Sing shows Maines reading a letter saying she would be ‘shot dead Sunday, July 6 in Dallas, Texas’. Not only did the group still play the show, Maines described her suspected assassin’s mugshot as “kinda cute”.

In our cover feature, the group reflected on how – even after they staged a remarkable comeback by releasing their 2006 No.1, Grammy-sweeping album Taking The Long Way – the impact of that period lingered.

“I went backstage [at the Grammys] and was just crying uncontrollably,” Maines told Music Week. “And not because we won awards! I don’t cry over awards. It felt like the end of this whole three, almost four-year chapter. When I’m going through a hard time, I become a fighter. I plough through and I don’t take the time to stop and recognise my feelings. I’m like, ‘Rrrrrrrr!’ I kept saying, ‘I don’t know why I’m crying, but I can’t stop,’ I just needed a big break.”

“I don’t think Emily and I felt the same personal devastation and struggle,” added Maguire. “There’s no way we could have channelled exactly what she was feeling because what she went through was different. It took a lot longer for Natalie to be at peace.”

Here, in an unread extract of our cover feature, Maines, Maguire and Strayer take us further inside the emotional journey they went through in the 14 years that led up to Gaslighter…

In terms of feeling so emotional after the Grammys, how much of that was actually bound up in finally stopping and processing the gravity of everything you had been through? In Shut Up And Sing you notably made light of the death threat at the time…
Natalie Maines: “I haven’t really seen the movie that much since it came out. I came across the second half of it a few years ago, and watched and I just remember looking at that girl and thinking, ‘You're such a baby!’ [laughs]. I felt so tough and so grown. And I look at her now and I just think, ‘Oh my god, you had no idea what was coming.’”

So how are you different now?
NM: “Well, now I absolutely would not give two fucks [laughs]. I wouldn't even do that half-ass apology that I did on Diane Sawyer. I wouldn't allow people to do all of that trying to chase [the controversy] down and fix it. Not that a lot of people did. I would never feel that need again.” 

Natalie said she experienced a form of PTSD from that whole experience. Once the dust had finally settled after Taking The Long Way, how did you feel, Martie?
Martie Maguire: “I felt really clear. You know, when you're going through a shitstorm, you don’t feel clear, you feel discombobulated. And when the dust settled, I really felt clear about what had happened and what was right and what was wrong. And what I wish I had said in interviews. Even though we were all supportive of each other, I wish I'd taken a stronger stance. There's one interview where one of the interviewers said something like, 'Well, didn't you sisters just want to look at Natalie and say, "Why did you say that?"' It was one of our big first answers to things, and I said something like, ‘The fans love that she's who she is.’ And I wish I just had said, ‘Do you really think in this day and age, it's not OK to question the presidency?’ There are lots of great quotes in history about how unpatriotic it is not to question power. I wish I'd had that in my back pocket and just let her have it.”

So are there any lingering misconceptions about The Chicks from that time that still frustrate you?
MM: “I think maybe people don't know that Emily and I are just as opinionated as Natalie, it’s just that she’s the lead singer and decides to be really outspoken on social media. I'm scared to death of social media. Because I do feel like I would say the wrong thing and put my foot in my mouth. I don't like being judged, especially when I know there's all these trolls out there. I think I'm way too sensitive. But we're all equally liberal, opinionated and fiery.” 

Natalie, you said you needed time out to “be a mom”. The music industry is often cited as being particularly poor at catering for artists/execs who want to take a break to enjoy motherhood…
NM: “That was a lot of why I just… [pauses] It's easy to say, ‘Oh, let's just do a song’ but it always feels like a trick. They’ll convince you to do one song then two songs then it's an album! And we've never had an album without touring it. Any time we make a record, it's a whole two or three year cycle. And that's once the record is delivered. I have the oldest kid of our [collective] nine kids, so he was reaching milestones quicker. When they get to school age, it just didn't feel fair to drag him around on tour when this is the time for him to be creating his own friends, his own life and experiencing his childhood. I just wanted him to have that. He had two parents in the industry, and that can already be hard for you to find your own identity, so I really just wanted him to only see me as his mom. And that's a luxury, because we had made enough money where I could do that. I recognise it's very lucky. But that's what I wanted to do: let his life be about him and not me.” 

Emily, it seems that while Natalie wasn't crazy about returning to life in the public eye, both yourself and Martie did want to get back to the being The Chicks sooner?
Emily Strayer: “Well, from a pure musician, creative standpoint, yes. The idea of getting back in the limelight wasn't that attractive to me, but the process of being in a studio or just creating was. It's an outlet for us as musicians. The Chicks was the mothership and that's all we knew about being creative at that moment. And then, out of necessity, came other avenues just because we wanted to play, we wanted to write, we wanted to perform and Nat wasn't ready for that yet.” 

What did you and Martie learn from doing the Courtyard Hounds project together?
ES: “Well, it is kind of a double-edged sword, because I'm really proud of those albums and, of course, I had the security blanket of having my sister with me. So that was something that Natalie didn't have [for her solo career]. Solo’s totally different; Martie and I could still rely on each other. But I think we were able to go into some different style production that doesn't necessarily lend itself to The Chicks. And so that was fun writing songs – some of the songs were from my perspective and mine alone, which was enjoyable to do. I'd never done that before. I got to work with my husband that I had met on tour. We got married and made these albums and he was writing a lot of the riffs and doing a lot of the musical stuff that I was writing from. That was totally, totally fun to have my husband in the band, and a writing and producing partner. There were things that were really great about it, but at the end of the day, no matter what endeavour you're doing, it takes you away from your home, your kids. We had some fun stuff with Courtyard Hounds, and we got to play Lollapalooza and do a bunch of fun festivals and clubs and things like that that were different than we'd done with The Chicks. But to get home and have paid everybody but yourself? OK, I love it but I can't justify doing that for too much longer when I have four kids [laughs].”

One benefit from the whole George Bush controversy and industry backlash was that you no longer had to ‘play the game’. What were some of the hoops you used to have to jump through?
NM: “We had meet and greets, radio stations getting a certain amount of tickets and backstage passes for their listeners. When the controversy happened, that was really the extent. In the beginning I think part of why we were successful is because we worked our asses off on radio tours, back when you used to go to a million radio stations in a week to play acoustic sets. The label wanted us to do that because we could play for ourselves, and so we were just this little trio that would go sing in the conference rooms or sometimes it was on the air, but that is what got you spins and you had to you had to play the game if you wanted to be played on the radio as a new artist. Then when you have success, you can deal with it [laughs]. I mean no offence to the fans, but I’m not a lover of meet and greets. So, the first tour after the controversy, we were like, ‘CANCEL ALL MEET AND GREETS!’ [laughs].”

You also said that, back in the day, you were once reprimanded by a label president…
NM: “We would take a shot onstage before the encore and, yeah, I got called into the principal's office at Sony, Nashville, suggesting maybe I wouldn't do that. And I suggested to him that maybe I still would [laughs]. And I did.”

Sometimes it feels like people talk about The Chicks and go, ‘Oh yeah, the Bush thing’ rather than focus on the music. Is that a frustration?
NM: “I don't mind that. I feel like we gained the right kind of fan with our politics. I feel like it did make us known to a whole different group of people.” 

Subscribers can read the full Chicks cover feature here.

Photo: Robin Harper 


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