Chicks Tour Kicking Off Thursday

Not that one concert can make or break a tour, but there’s a lot riding on the Dixie Chicks ’ Thursday night (May 1) concert in Greenville, S.C. The show at the Bi-Lo Center is the first North American stop on the group’s Top of the World tour that will hit 52 U.S. cities by the time it wraps up Aug. 4 in Nashville.

More to the point, though, it’s the Texas trio’s first public appearance on American soil since a March 10 concert in London, where lead vocalist Natalie Maines’ anti-war sentiment prompted her to say that they were ashamed that President Bush was from their home state.

Major concert tours typically begin in smaller cities to avoid scrutiny from the national media while the musicians and crew fine-tune the production. As a result of the backlash from Maines’ comment, Greenville has suddenly become an entertainment capital — at least for a day.

The Dixie Chicks arrived in Greenville on Tuesday (April 29) and spent the following day in rehearsals at the Bi-Lo Center. The group’s safety concerns have prompted them to require metal detectors at all venues during the tour. However, the Greenville audience is accustomed to such checks because the Bi-Lo Center instituted the use of metal detectors at some shows following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Anticipating public demonstrations, the venue’s management team is providing a designated area outside the building for pre-approved protesters. More than 30 people have registered for the space.

Much of the national controversy has been stirred by country and talk radio stations. Near the top of the list is talk show host Mike Gallagher whose nationally-syndicated program is heard in several major markets, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Washington. Gallagher, who once hosted a local talk show in Greenville, is spearheading a concert in nearby Spartanburg, S.C., to coincide with the Dixie Chicks show. Tickets are being sold to Gallagher’s concert featuring the Marshall Tucker Band, although VIP admission is free to anyone presenting a ticket to the Chicks’ Greenville show.

At least one recent radio development should help the Dixie Chicks. Cumulus Media, a company owning more than 260 radio stations in mid-sized markets throughout the nation, has now rescinded an across-the-board decision against playing the Dixie Chicks on its stations. Local programmers at each Cumulus station will now be deciding whether or not to give airtime to the Chicks’ music.

Competing radio programmers generally work hard to align themselves with country artists, especially when their station can get a major promotional boost through ticket giveaways and backstage meet-and-greets for listeners. In the case of WESC-FM, one of two Greenville stations owned by Clear Channel Communications, the tone was surprisingly non-committal in a disclaimer posted on its Web site. Noting that the station is “contractually obligated” to give away tickets to the sold-out concert, the station also adds that it is “very aware of the strong sentiments on both sides about the Dixie Chicks.” After encouraging listeners to participate in the contests for Dixie Chicks tickets, the message goes on to say, “We have no preference what you do with them after you win. Go to the show, support the Chicks and enjoy a night of cutting edge country. Or, if you choose, win them and don’t use them — your empty seat will send your message loud and clear. 92.5 WESC loves our country music and we LOVE our country! Thanks for your understanding.”

Virtually every date on the 59-show tour is sold out, resulting in ticket sales estimated at $49 million. Again, one concert alone won’t decide the Dixie Chicks’ future, but the show in Greenville gives the band members the first chance to directly check the pulse of their most devoted fans. For the Chicks, it could portend three months of triumphant performances — or the longest summer of their lives.