Dixie Down

When does a benign anti-war comment become the death of open discourse?

It's an accountability that a Cumulus station such as KRMD requires a public apology to acknowledge. In other circles, that's called extortion.

The most intense criticism of the Chicks, and the one that seems to have spread like a brush fire through the country music orthodoxy, is that the Chicks aren't supportive of the troops. "Travelin' Soldier," mind you, is about a boy who goes off to war, and the girl he leaves behind, who will never see him alive again. A touching, honest meditation on the way war affects loved ones, it's hardly an anti-war screed.

"I've seen remarkably little of the people who are trying to make hay about this even talking about what the song is about because, to tell you the truth, I don't think that suits their agenda," Robison says.

Mark Poutenis

Montgomery and Shannon's opposition is understandable--their stations have in common a proximity to large military bases. That's a crucible for a virulent mix of patriotism and political correctness. But it's something that can cut both ways.

Toby Keith, who suggested Maines "shut her big mouth" during this latest flap (after she called him "ignorant" in August of last year), can attest to the evils of censorship. After being booked for a televised Fourth of July special, his hot-button song "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" was pulled after producers decided his brand of boot-up-your-ass patriotism was too aggressive for national audiences.

Darryl Worley, who declined to be interviewed for this story because he doesn't have anything to say about the Chicks imbroglio (even though he should; his single "Have You Forgotten" replaced "Travelin' Soldier" at No. 1), has felt it necessary to defend his song, which finds a connection between Osama bin Laden and Iraq where Bush couldn't.

"We're not trying to be politically correct. We're trying to put out a message that we believe everybody needs to hear, whether they agree with it or not," Worley recently told one newspaper.

Other once-brighter stars smell a similar opportunity. Clint Black is seeking to regain a higher profile with his new single "I Raq and Roll." Meanwhile, Charlie Daniels is spending his time penning open letters to Hollywood suggesting they drop the political stance and concentrate on entertainment. Perhaps someone should explain irony to him. And what's Merle "Okie From Muskogee" Haggard doing at a propitious time like this? Not talking publicly, that's for sure. As the war drums bang louder, no one else is, either--all the artists mentioned here chose not to comment.

"My own opinion is that I don't believe anyone is being patriotic by trying to shut someone else up," Robison says.

The blame for all this shame over the "ashamed" stage banter may lie ultimately with the rising media plutocracy. Looking to capitalize on all things war, the conglomerates smell scandal and pimp it. Montgomery's decision to pull the Dixie Chicks song was picked up almost immediately by a local television affiliate that just happens to be co-owned by KAJA's parent company, Clear Channel Communications (whose offices sit down the block in San Antonio). That interview was picked up and rebroadcast on CNN, which led to Montgomery's appearance on three conservative talk shows. Montgomery later appeared on the local, parent-company-owned talk radio station. So concerned about his high media profile, Montgomery finally took a week off to "let things settle down."

With the controversy showing legs, Clear Channel stations decided to host pro-war rallies for those fanned to fury by coverage of the Dixie Chicks and eager to show their patriotism, which earned brief spots on the evening news, which the company may also have owned. Closest competitor Cumulus (which is like saying the Vatican is a close competitor to China) then decided to hold its own rallies and one-upped Clear Channel by going even further with its systemwide Dixie Chicks ban.

Neither Clear Channel nor Cumulus responded to requests for comment.

It doesn't help, either, that these media outlets are increasingly controlled by fewer people; with fewer eyeballs determining a larger fate, artists naturally will feel more pressure to either toe the line or do an end around (as the Beastie Boys, Zack de la Rocha and DJ Shadow and John Mellencamp have done in posting their protest songs on the Internet). In a sense, can you really blame Sony for forcing Maines to apologize for her comments, when you consider the millions the label spent promoting them?

With the Fairness Doctrine--which forced media outlets to present opposing political viewpoints--now a matter for the history books, rallies such as those by Clear Channel and Cumulus are par for the course. No one complains. But how would you feel about a New York Times "pro-troops" rally?

Leave it to Earle, who's caught enough dung to fill a barn in his career, to perhaps put it best, exposing a cultural wound Maines may have irrevocably opened.

"The idea that any radio outlet will decide because someone expresses an opinion in a democracy that they're going to deny them access," Earle says, "that's more similar to how broadcast media is run in Iraq than what I grew up with."

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