Dixie Chicks: Will They Be Welcomed Back?

Industry Observers Say Upcoming Tour Could Begin Widening Trio's Audience

More about the Dixie Chicks and the initial reactions to their upcoming tour will be featured this weekend on the CMT Insider episode debuting Friday (Aug. 13) at 11 p.m. ET/PT.

The Dixie Chicks are ready to return to the stage, but are Americans ready to accept them with open arms?

Even former Vice President Al Gore provided support to the group Thursday (Aug. 12) during a gathering of the Music Row Democrats, a political organization formed by a group of artists and music industry executives in Nashville. Noting that the Dixie Chicks shouldn’t be ostracized for voicing their political views, Gore commended them for “having the guts to speak their mind and say what they really believe.”

Dixie Chicks lead vocalist Natalie Maines created a major controversy in March 2003 when she told a concert audience in London she’s ashamed George W. Bush is from their home state of Texas. Now the Chicks are teaming with James Taylor for six shows as their contribution to the Vote for Change tour — a concert series specifically intended to help defeat Bush in the November presidential election. Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, the Dave Matthews Band, Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt are also among more than 20 acts scheduled to perform in nine swing states over eight days in early October.

If nothing else, news of the concert tour is raising the Dixie Chicks’ profile 16 months after country radio stations essentially stopped playing their music because of the backlash created by Maines’ comments. In a recent online chat with fans on the Dixie Chicks’ official Web site, Maines admitted that the trio’s career has been seriously impacted by the controversy.

“I think [some] people will not like us forever … because of it,” Maines said. “I think it definitely has some permanency. I don’t think we’ll go back to 7 seven million [albums] and that sort of thing.” She also noted, “Time’s going to tell, and there hasn’t been a true test of where are the fans are … and I don’t know. I just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Interviewed by CMT News, Entertainment Weekly writer Chris Willman said, “I’ll take bets now that they will never again have a No. 1 country single — maybe not even another Top 10 country single — ever. But they will have No. 1 albums and continue to be superstars with part of the country audience that has stuck with them and the pop and rock fans that are coming along, too. I think that will all add up to continuing a big superstar status for them, even though country radio may find them untouchable to a certain extent.”

USA Today writer Brian Mansfield suggests that the Vote for Change tour could be the Chicks’ first step toward expanding their non-country audience. “If they’ve lost a good chunk of the country audience,” he told CMT News, “their next most likely audience is going to be from the people that listen to Bonnie Raitt or Jackson Browne or John Mellencamp or Bruce Springsteen. That’s where their new fans base is bound to be. … This is going to be the best place for them to go if they’re looking for new fans.”

In research groups to determine which artists get played on their stations, some country radio executives are noticing that listeners are beginning to have a better reaction to the Dixie Chicks’ music. Future airplay will hinge on the merits of the Chicks’ next album, said Bob Raleigh, corporate director of country programming of Cumulus Media, a company that owns radio stations throughout the U.S.

“I think they can come back,” Raleigh said. “I think that time is healing all wounds, and I think it was actually very smart of them to sort of lay low for a little while and let some time pass. I think the political climate has shifted a little bit since they first initially made their remarks.”

Raleigh added, “I think the Chicks will come back. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of them.”