Perambulating the Bounds

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Dixie Chicks in the desert

I caught the Dixie Chicks doing “Not Ready to Make Nice” on Letterman last night. Natalie Maines is a fine singer, and she really got into it, letting her voice fill with anger just up to the point where it would become something more radical (like what Sleater-Kinney does every day). Then I read in the Tennessean today how the group is getting no radio play for this album, especially on country stations. At first this seems like country music being boneheaded and skipping over music within the traditional and style that sells a lot of records but happens to come up through an unexpected channel. Peter Cooper compares it to O Brother Where Art Thou? But really the guys in the industry aren’t so dumb. The banishment of the Dixie Chicks shows the extent to which consumption of country music as a category is a marker of social and political allegiance. You listen to country music to place yourself within the cultural landscape in a place you feel comfortable and that seems to reflect who you think you are. The music itself hardly has anything to do it, like Christian churches where people seem more interested in politics than theology (cf the piece on NPR about the Delay crony Ed Buckham who basically fleeced his preacher).

Furthermore, when you think about it, this reduction of country music fandom to a badge of social affiliation is not in fact a unique condemnation of country music. Most musical genres that have any sort of identifiable fan base serve as cultural and social markers. Hipness (or inclusion) is accorded in different circles with an association with often very specific musical choices. I remember fearing to confess that I enjoyed KPFT’s Sound of Texas music program around some of my free jazz friends in Houston. There were all sorts of pop and rock music that would have been cool, but not the polished mix of country, rock, and whatnot that makes up that Austin sound. Willie Nelson is cool, but not Tish Hinojosa.

Now it seems inevitable that the Dixie Chicks will get picked up by a lot of people who don’t care about country music who will see them as a cultural marker in the opposite direction. Air America listeners, not today’s KDF. I imagine it will work out fine for them, they will sell a lot of albums, which they deserve to do. The sad thing is some sense that the family of country music has been sundered. The Dixie Chicks are one way of doing country music, they carry on important parts of the tradition, and one wants to see them embraced for that. And one maybe one dreams of cultural spaces where political diversity of opinion can exist. It might be easier to see it when it comes to Ricky Skaggs (prominent on stage at Nashville’s big Bush fundraiser in 2004). But does it also mean you have to listen to Lee Greenwood. Or can we agree that he just makes crappy records?


  • similar case study to Iris DeMent? she's a phenomenal country / americana singer who recorded several in-your-face activist songs (e.g. "wasteland of the free" and "there's a wall in washington") and is largely unrecognized. her last album (?) was all religous songs (christian ones) and that didn't seem to boost her career -- seems her "cred" still exists only outside of red-state country radio.

    By Blogger Jon Morris (Matis), at 1:11 PM  

  • I like Iris DeMent a whole bunch, but I think her situation is different because she's always been pretty "alt" and positioned more as a folk singer, never really operating within the Big Country machine. Given the way Music Row works, I imagine lightening would really have to strike for her to jump into that scene now. Among other things, her age (about my age if I remember correctly) would hold her back. They'd never have a chance to get pissed off about her politics.

    By Blogger David Maddox, at 9:57 PM  

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