(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

So, what to make of the Natalie Maines mess? Because that’s just exactly what it is, a big mess. Maines seems afflicted with chronic foot-in-mouth disease.

In her latest lecture, on March 10 at a Dixie Chicks concert in London, Maines felt compelled to tell the audience, “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” She could not have made a stupider mistake. First of all, if she really has strong convictions about the war, she should spell them out. And stand up for them. Most sensible people will respect her right to do that. But don’t make what amounts to a personal attack on Bush.

And secondly, since she obviously has no strong convictions, she apologized. But, it took her four days — after the implications of an audience groundswell of protest resulting in radio boycotts of the Chicks began sinking in and the commercial implications of career suicide became apparent. Then, the apology that came actually felt scripted, mealy-mouthed and insincere. Never mind all the clich├ęs about arrogant, airhead celebrities mouthing off about foreign policy or anything else. Hey, Natalie Maines has the same qualifications to speak out on U.S. foreign policy as does Sean Penn, say. Or Martin Sheen or Madonna or Charlie Daniels. Which is to say: no qualifications at all.

What is really surprising is that the Chicks, their record label, their management and their PR firm seemed to have been caught with their pants down by the firestorm of protest and had absolutely no idea how to respond. Country music fans are largely conservative and patriotic — as is well-known — and the U.S. was only days away from a possible war. What do you expect country fans to say when a country star dumps on the president? That tells me that none of them — Chicks, label, PR, management — knows anything about the country music audience. That audience is usually loyal to a favored country artist for life. And that audience is tolerant of artists’ mistakes and foibles: drunkenness, drug use, adultery, no-shows and any amount of indulgent behavior. What that audience will not tolerate is an artist turning on that audience. And Maines’ attack on Bush was in effect a direct attack on the country music audience. And its values. And its patriotism.

The reaction was unprecedented in country music history. Listeners bombarded country radio stations with protests. Large numbers of influential country radio stations banned the Chicks’ current single “Travelin’ Soldier.” Many stations organized public rallies to destroy the Chicks’ CDs.

Just as many or more stations refused to ban the Chicks, laudably citing freedom of speech. One Houston station began playing Bruce Robison’s version of “Travelin’ Soldier” (he and Farrah Braniff co-wrote the song) to demonstrate the song’s beauty and its relevance to the current war situation.

Chicks’ manager Simon Renshaw suggested, in an e-mail that the Chicks’ label Sony Music sent to country radio stations, that the protest against the Chicks was orchestrated by the Free Republic, a right-wing Web site. The Free Republic certainly had — and still has — its share of anti-Chicks postings. But I also have read literally hundreds of Chicks postings the last few days on a number of Web sites across the political spectrum, and they show a genuine consensus from country fans saying that Maines in effect filed for divorce from country audiences.

What I’m starting to wonder about is the actual career damage the Chicks have sustained. As I said, country fans are incredibly loyal. But how many angered country fans will once again embrace the Chicks? In the half-week of charting after Maines’ sermonette, the Chicks dropped on Nielsen Soundscan sales charts: their current album Home dipped 22,000 copies in sales, although it’s still No. 1 on the Billboard country album chart. The video sales of the Chicks’ live An Evening With the Dixie Chicks dropped by 3,000 copies and the single release of “Landslide” dropped by about 1,200 in sales.

They also lost at least 15 percent of radio spins for “Travelin’ Soldier” and it dropped from No. 1 to No. 3 this week on the Billboard Hot Country Singles and Tracks chart.

And another lingering question is: how much of a steadfast country audience base have the Chicks actually built? A look at the Chicks’ career suggests that much of their audience pull has been teenage girls, whose musical attention span traditionally has not been long and which certainly does not translate into the long-term loyalty that country artists have enjoyed.

Further, in looking over reader polls over the last few months, I see a decided lack of support for the Chicks. In the most recent poll, on March 15, in response to the question, “How do you feel about the Dixie Chicks following Natalie Maines’ comment regarding President Bush?,” 68 percent of respondents said, “I don’t like them at all.” Even back on Feb. 21, when asked readers if they would attend any of the Chicks’ shows on their upcoming tour, 69 percent answered that they would rather stay home. On Feb. 8, a poll question said that the Chicks’ Home was selling well and asked readers if they had bought it. The response? “No way, I don’t care for them,” said 53 percent of respondents.

The Chicks’ upcoming tour will be the litmus test. The tickets have already been sold and Ticketmaster, in its certain wisdom, gives no refunds. Will angry fans will tear up their tickets? Already, a talk show host on influential Texas radio station WBAP is talking about organizing a boycott of the Chicks’ Dallas-Fort Worth show. And a conservative talk show host in South Carolina is organizing an alternative concert to the Chicks’ U.S. tour kickoff date in Greenville, S.C., on May 1.

You know, there have been many activist artists who have made a difference. Two who come to mind recently are Bono, with his worldwide AIDS efforts, and Emmylou Harris, whose efforts to ban and remove landmines have been significant. And their good works speak for them. Unfortunately, there are many other artists who are patriotic blowhards, whose contributions consist mainly of issuing self-serving press releases — and those are coming fast and furious in these war-torn days.

Memo to Natalie Maines: You’re an artist? And you have a message? Hey, put it in a song. We’ll listen to that. But, otherwise — shut up and sing.