2006-10-27 (Limited release)

Wouldn’t kiss all the asses they told me to.

— Natalie Maines

These are callow, foolish women who deserve to be slapped around.

— Bill O’Reilly

“Well, to quote the great Simpsons, ‘Hah-Hah.'” Natalie Maines’ use of Nelson Muntz to voice her feelings about winning Best Country Album at the Grammys on 11 February was as entertaining and righteously snotty as anything she’s said over the past three years. On one hand, the Dixie Chicks sweep of the awards — winning every one for which they were nominated — seemed a vindication of their decision not to “make nice” with their erstwhile country fans. On another hand, all the love that night won’t likely make up for the contretemps over Maines’ assertion on 10 March 2003 that, “We’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

Responses to Maines’ statement led to all kinds of changes for the Chicks’ career and marketing strategies, recounted in Barbara Kopple and Cecelia Peck’s Shut Up & Sing — now released to a sadly extrasless DVD, though reviewing the film only makes it better. Almost as soon as she said the words at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire, they were on the wire, sending conservative and country radio stations into a tizzy. Faced with sudden, loud outrage — and drops in radio play and record sales — Maines, Martie Maguire, Emily Robison, and manager Simon Renshaw figure what to do about the upset. At first, they think, okay, everyone knows Natalie mouths off occasionally, so we’ll treat it as “misunderstood.” Still on tour, Maines appears on a radio show to say, “It wasn’t even a political statement, it was a joke made to get cheers and applause. And it did. But it didn’t entertain America.”

As the film shows, this approach doesn’t mollify “America.” Crowds gather to smash CDs with a tractor. In the film’s chronology, sisters Maguire and Robison worry about the effects of the media coverage on their mother, while Maines identifies “the people who got it all started,” that is, the Free Republic. Using its website to organize protests and ignite interest in the “American media,” the group deems Maines “the Dixie Bitch,” inspiring Renshaw — pacing while on his cell phone — to declare, “The girls are gonna get whacked.” Hyperbolic as it sounds, the phrase rather aptly captures their imminent fate.

Eager to “go home and set the record straight,” Maines soon learns that she cannot. Though she repeats again and again that she is “patriotic” and “supports the troops,” she no longer has a say in how she’s perceived (if she ever did, as this would be the happy self-delusion of marketing). Though just weeks before, the Chicks sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Superbowl and their very support-the-troops anthem “Travelin’ Soldier” was a hit, Maines is now tagged “bad.” While the mad ex-fans take her words personally (declaring their self-images in language evoking an exclusive national identity and faith in fearless leaders), the trouble facing the Chicks is also about money. Meeting with a rep from Lipton Tea, the company sponsoring the 2003 “Top of the World” tour, the Chicks learn the company might need to de-affiliate itself from the controversy. “At the end of the day,” says the rep, while you’re great musicians, you are a brand.” And so the Chicks must grapple with what it means to be simultaneously responsible to expectations of that brand (which “now has ‘issues’ circulating around it”) and to their own sense of who they are.

This sense evolves over the course of the film, as the Chicks discover that the uproar will not blow over, and that their careers are now changed forever. Now seeing themselves as the Post-Comment Dixie Chicks (Maines observes, “It is a part of who we are as a band now”), they make a decision: they reframe the controversy as a matter of free speech.

With that, the Chicks’ PR team goes to work. The film includes a scene at the photo shoot for the now famous Entertainment Weekly cover that went on to serve as Shut Up & Sing poster and DVD cover, where the artists appear naked, with words written over their bodies. Maines’ chest is emblazoned, “Big Mouth,” and she continues to defend her right to say what she thinks, even when Toby Keith produces a photoshopped image of Maines cuddling up to Saddam Hussein, former fans send hate mail and death threats, and Pat Buchanan pronounces them the “Dixie Twits, the dumbest bimbos, with due respect, I have seen.”

Two years later (the film cuts back and forth between 2003 and 2005), the Chicks are ready to tour with a new album, Taking the Long Way (the one for which they won their Grammys). Produced by Rick Rubin (who appears here in his usual mode, his stuffed polar bear looming behind the sofa on which he sits, barefoot, with prayer beads in hand), the album takes the group in another direction, musically and politically, embracing new fans as they take their leave of the old ones. While, as Maguire remarks, the record is “like our therapy,” it expands the boundaries of what counts as country, working key elements (violin, steel guitar, themes like infidelity and revenge) into a new aesthetic.

Marketing the record presents another challenge. While Sony remains supportive, the Chicks and Renshaw take the decision concerning country radio, not sending cuts to the stations that used to play them in the past, refusing, as Renshaw puts it, “to go back and put [themselves] in the crosshairs.” Maines uses the occasion of the documentary to show off their newfound sense of freedom. On learning that George Bush has told Tom Brokaw, “The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind.. But they shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t wanna buy their records when they speak out,” Maines turns to the documentary camera to tell the president, “You’re a dumb fuck.”

The film makes a special point of showing the Chicks on the road and at home (dressing their kids for Halloween, at the hospital where Robison has twins), underscoring how these experiences are intertwined. Their shows are attended by adoring fans and protested by others (“Freedom of speech is fine,” says one man in a cap identifying him as “Combat Wounded,” “But by God, you don’t do it outside of the country and you don’t do it in mass public place”). Discussing the continued, unnamed “boycott” by country stations, Renshaw submits that with time, they’ll get another shot, given that wife beater Tracy Lawrence got one. “I don’t want another shot, Maines says, the film cutting from their green room conversation to a show where she sings defiantly, “Stayed too long! Whoo!”

As much as the film shows their healthy integration of professional and personal politics, it also makes clear the significance of the Chicks in broader contexts, including free speech, the growing anti-war movement, and their experience as women in the music industry. While they offer, during a chat with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer Chad Smith, that girl groups are different than boys, they note as well the expectations of them as girls, to be “well behaved” and stick to certain themes in their music.

The radio boycotting — never named as such — led to a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in July 2003. As reported in Freepress, the senators (including John McCain) sought to discover, among other things, “whether or not the radio ban on the Dixie Chicks during the Iraq war constitutes a concern related to concentration of ownership.” As the senators and witnesses (including Renshaw, identified on C-Span as representing the Recording Artists’ Coalition) weigh in, Cumulus Media’s Lewis Dickey comes up with this most remarkable assessment, that the decision to boycott the Chicks’ songs “was a collaborative decision-making process. Everybody fell in line.” Even the senators are flummoxed by that one.

While the first post-comment tour was, in Maines’ words, “the first non-success we’ve had” in terms of ticket sales, Shut Up & Sing shows that this concern is the least important for them. “If you gauge your career by how many people buy your albums or are at the concert, I don’t think we’ll ever be at that place again. But you know, it’s given us this fire back… that want to garner new fans or just prove yourself all over again.” Introducing the Chicks’ Grammys performance, Joan Baez called them “three brave women who are still ‘not ready to make nice.'” It may be the long way, but it’s the right way too.

RATING 9 / 10