Is Dixie Chicks’ Sweep a Strong Message?

The Controversy Still Won't Go Away

LOS ANGELES — When they didn’t show up to collect their Grammy in one of many categories announced prior to TV broadcast of the awards show, it seemed that Sunday night (Feb. 11) would be just another anti-climatic chapter in the long-running Dixie Chicks saga.

Not for long.

As their five-for-five sweep began to play out, it quickly became apparent that Grammy voters were both wholeheartedly endorsing the Dixie Chicks and sending a hearty “F-U” message to both Nashville and country music. By the end of the night, the trio’s “Not Ready to Make Nice” was named all-genre song and record of the year and best country performance by a duo or group. Their latest CD, Taking the Long Way, won for best country album and overall album of the year.

Judging from conversations I’ve had with many fellow Grammy voters and with audience members at the awards show, there is a strong blanket endorsement of the Chicks as a political statement.

And the raucous ovation they received from journalists at a backstage appearance after the show reinforced that feeling.

Not to say the Chicks didn’t deserve their wins. They delivered a great album. But there were other musical deliveries just as great or greater. Justin Timberlake in the album category was the logical (but not the sentimental) favorite, Mary J. Blige seemed destined for record of the year, “Jesus, Take the Wheel” seemed blessed for overall song of the year, Little Big Town’s “Boondocks” had a huge country impact while “Not Ready to Make Nice” had little to none, and Alan Jackson’s Like Red on a Rose had far greater impact as a country album than did Taking the Long Way.

But as Emily Robison of the Chicks pointed out in their post-show press conference, “Every Grammy year tells a story, like with O Brother, Where Art Thou? What happened to us drove us to make an album that said a lot. It made it political, if you see it that way.”

“We’re just past that,” said lead singer Natalie Maines, who first ignited the controversy when she criticized President Bush during a London concert in 2003. “I totally lost it backstage [at the Grammy Awards] at the end. It was my first cry in three years.”

Asked if she is done with the controversy once and for all, Maines replied, “I have no idea. I’m not angry on a daily basis.”

During the awards show, Maines said Grammy voters were obviously exercising their right to free speech. Backstage, she elaborated, “It’s hard to put into words. We were up against a lot of great music. People had different motivations behind voting for us to win five of five. I think people were using their voice.”

During the backstage press conference, Recording Academy president Neil Portnow was asked if he felt the Chicks’ sweep was a political statement.

“I think the Grammy voters think about the music,” he replied. “They [the Dixie Chicks] made good music with commentary. Voters recognized the music and were sensitive to the commentary.”

The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium was nominated for album of the year. The band’s drummer, Chad Smith, who also played on the Chicks’ winning album, said frankly, “I think the Academy was making a bit of a statement by giving them everything. I’m happy they won.”