CMT News Special Explores Maines-Keith Controversy

The ongoing feud between Dixie Chicks lead vocalist Natalie Maines and Toby Keith will be examined in the CMT News special, Natalie vs. Toby: Both Sides of the War, debuting Friday (June 20) at 10 p.m. The show will re-air Sunday (June 22) at 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Additional airings are scheduled for June 23 at 7:30 p.m., June 24 at 10:30 p.m. and June 25 at 11:30 p.m. (All times ET/PT).

In Nashville, a lot of things begin with a song, but it’s usually not a heated conflict between two of country music’s most successful artists.

Whether you love it or hate it, Toby Keith definitely struck a nerve with his 2002 chart-topping single, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).” When Natalie Maines expressed her opinion during an Aug. 8, 2002, interview with L.A. Daily News writer Fred Shuster, it began a series of public exchanges between the Dixie Chicks’ lead vocalist and Keith.

“She said that anyone could write a song with lyrics like ‘let’s go kick some Iraqi ass,’” Shuster said in an interview for the CMT News special, Natalie vs. Toby: Both Sides of the War. “She said it made everyone look stupid — the singer, the audience, country music radio … anyone who would play a song so blatantly jingoistic.”

It was an unprecedented comment in a music community known for displaying a façade of unity and friendship. KZLA-FM/Los Angeles morning show host Peter Tilden added, “Historically, there hasn’t been a lot of in-fighting in country, so this is an incredible story.”

Keith responded to Maines’ criticism during a Dec. 14, 2002, interview with CMT.com writer Craig Shelburne. During the conversation, Keith said, “I’m a songwriter. She’s not. She can say my song is ignorant, then it’s ignorant for her to say that because she’s not a songwriter.”

In March, Maines made international news when she told a crowd at a London concert that she was ashamed the president was from their home state of Texas. Although Maines later issued a written apology, Tilden said, “Natalie’s comment, especially on foreign soil, just was a slap in the face of country music.”

Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, questioned the media’s selectivity in explaining what happened at the London concert. “As soon as Natalie Maines made her remark about being embarrassed the president is from Texas, another member of the band stepped forward and said, ‘But you know we’re behind the troops 100 percent.’ You have to wonder why people keep reporting the first, but not the latter.”

The CMT special includes a New Zealand television network’s interview with the Dixie Chicks just days after the London concert. During the interview, Maines is asked to repeat the exact words she used during the concert. After doing so, she claimed her remark about President Bush was intended to be a joke.

Just before their Top of the World tour kicked off on May 1 in Greenville, S.C., the Dixie Chicks discussed the controversy during an hour-long interview with ABC-TV’s Diane Saywer. Tilden said, “I think the Chicks had to address it finally. They were getting ready to go out on tour. They were worried about security. They were worried about their families. Plus, I think they owed it to the country audience to address it.”

After enduring so much adverse publicity, Maines baffled fans when she appeared onstage in Greenville wearing a T-shirt with the words “Dare to Be Free.” And although the dialog between Maines and Keith had seemed to die down, her fashion choices became an issue again in May when the Dixie Chicks performed live on the Academy of Country Music Awards show. Maines wore a T-shirt with the letters “F.U.T.K.”

Maines’ publicist later told USA Today that the letters stood for “freedom, understanding, tolerance, knowledge,” but the overwhelming opinion among country fans was that it was a message aimed directly at Keith. “Only Natalie can tell us why she wore it,” said Country Music Hall of Fame Senior Editor Jay Orr. “I have no idea why she wore it. We can speculate about her motives, but that would be a mistake.”

It’s unclear whether the dialog will continue between Maines and Keith. And while the controversy has polarized some segments of the country music fan base, Shuster noted, “I think it illustrates the freedom we have to say whatever we want. To me, it’s a mere diversion from the real issues going on in the world.”