NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Guest Viewpoint on Chicks Controversy

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

Today’s column is devoted to a reply to my column from last week, “Shut Up and Sing?” I received many, many replies to that column about the Dixie Chicks ’ lead singer Natalie Maines’ remarks regarding President Bush. I feel strongly that you should read this response to that column from my old friend and mentor and fellow Texan Bill C. Malone. Bill is the dean of country music historians. His groundbreaking book Country Music USA in 1968 set the standards for country music scholarship, and Bill has kept those standards high with a series of books ever since. Bill sent a response to my column, and it is well worth your attention.

Chet, I have always valued your friendship and the incisive commentaries that you have made about country music over the last 30 years or so. But I think that the viewpoints expressed in your column concerning the Dixie Chicks controversy were dead wrong, and I hope that you will permit my response to your remarks to be circulated among your readers.

In my opinion, you had every right to question the wisdom, timing and context of Natalie Maines’ remarks, but after having done that, you should have asserted her right to express her opinions. You would agree, I hope, that our great virtue as a nation comes from our constitutional liberties. We should not wish to be a nation like Iran or Iraq where criticism of the government is curtailed and punished. Natalie Maines’ right to express her opinions is God-given and constitutionally-protected.

The correctness or non-correctness of her statement has nothing to do with her right to say it. Our democracy is imperiled if we selectively decide who has the right to speak. You declare that “airhead celebrities” like Sean Penn, Madonna and Charlie Daniels have “no qualifications at all” to speak about U.S. foreign policy or anything else. I must respectfully disagree, and would remind you that Americans don’t have to be “qualified” to speak on any issue (just take a look at the First Amendment). I am appalled at the elitism implied by your statement, and by the presumption that you can decide who is eligible for protection under the Constitution.

It is particularly mind-boggling to read in your column that “Maines’ attack on Bush was in effect a direct attack on the country music audience.” Old friend, I am sorely offended by your attempts to argue that the country music audience is monolithic, or that some of us are more patriotic than others because of our attitudes toward the current president. Many of us spend large sums of money on country music concerts, CDs and literature, and have done so for many years and we were part of the majority who voted against George Bush back in 2000. Some of us vehemently oppose the war that Bush has instigated, and, like Natalie Maines, we worry about the consequences that the war will have not only for men and women who have to fight it, but also for other people who may suffer from its ravages. And we insist on our right to assert our dissent.

I also wish you had spoken up against the highly-organized campaign to damage, or even destroy, the Dixie Chicks’ career. I don’t question your assertion that thousands of country fans deplore Natalie’s remark, or that they want to punish her for her statement. But as a reputable and highly-visible columnist, you should equally deplore any concerted effort to stifle freedom of speech. In your column we find not one word of caution or concern about the systematic campaign being waged by radio stations, right wing Internet Web sites and others to stifle the sale of their CDs and concert tickets. And it seems not enough for you to question what the results of these efforts will be, you then go on to question the nature, authenticity and durability of the fan base that the Dixie Chicks already have. You make a snide remark, for example, about “teenage girls, whose musical attention span traditionally has not been long.” Part of the Chicks’ audience, in fact, is made up of the same non-traditional fans who made O Brother such a huge success. In liking the Dixie Chicks, people of disparate ages and incomes have also been introduced to good acoustic music and songs, and to young women who can skillfully play string instruments. I think that we ought to value the contributions that the Dixie Chicks have made, and recognize that none of us really know what the long-term consequences of their popularity will be. I only know that many people are now listening to acoustic string music, and that such interest might persuade other mainstream musicians to make similar experiments.

Finally, Chet, I found your column to be profoundly disappointing because it was patronizing and one-sided. It purports to know what the true views of the country music audience are, and who is and who isn’t qualified to speak on public issues. In your stern lecture to Natalie Maines, you advise her to shut up and put her message in a song. And you conclude with the statement, “We’ll listen to that.” I too would love to hear such a song, but Chet, you know full well that the song would never receive airplay on Top 40 country stations. Corporate sponsors, marketing “specialists” and other censors would never permit the song to see the light of day.

I respectfully urge you to defend Natalie Maines’ right to speak, and ask you to remind your readers and all other fans of country music that the First Amendment and other constitutional liberties should be ardently guaranteed now more than ever.

Bill C. Malone