Teaching a (history) lesson

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Robert Brooks has been a devoted Dixie Chicks fan for six years, from the time he and his wife first saw them perform at an American Airlines company picnic at Sandy Lake Amusement Park. Since then, he has followed the band like a debt collector, doggedly tracking the Dixie Chicks' every up and down, from the lean years spent touring West Texas high school cafeterias in a beat-up van to the unexpected double-platinum success of its 1998 major-label debut, Wide Open Spaces, which garnered the band two honors at this year's Country Music Association awards show. And, like any computer-literate fan, the 31-year-old computer programmer created a Web site dedicated to the band, titled "The All-Inclusive Dixie Chicks Page" (www.dallas.net/~totoro/dixiechicks), an exhaustive look at Nashville's latest overnight sensation, going all the way back to the band's humble beginnings on a Deep Ellum street corner.

The only problem is, as Brooks was working to preserve the Dixie Chicks' past, the band was trying to forget it.

Like most other fan sites, his online shrine was unauthorized and technically illegal, at least where his use of downloadable audio clips was concerned. He had included a handful of 30-second snippets of songs, concentrating on the Dixie Chicks' back catalog, which is currently out of print: 1990's Thank Heavens for Dale Evans, 1992's Little Ol' Cowgirl, and 1993's Shouldn't A Told You That. Brooks didn't mean any harm; he just wanted to let the band's new fans in on what they didn't know they were missing. Although the band's meteoric rise had spawned more online activity than nude photos of Dr. Laura, Brooks' site was the only one that focused on the band's original sound, a mix of traditional country and bluegrass. He wanted people to hear the band he had fallen in love with at Sandy Lake six years ago, the one that sounded more like Bill Monroe sitting in with the Andrews Sisters than the Spice Girls belting out Shania Twain covers.

"I wanted to show some of the fiddle playing, some of the banjo playing," Brooks says. "Wide Open Spaces has better fiddle than just about anything else out of Nashville, but you can hardly ever hear the banjo, and even the fiddle gets drowned out by the generic background instruments. I put the sound site together to show what they're capable of--not even just as an advertisement for their old material, but for their new material, and maybe encourage fans to listen and ask for it, demand that they let those girls play."

Although the clips were in the controversial MP3 format--meaning they were of CD-quality--Brooks didn't think he was doing anything wrong. He even sent the band a letter describing his page, inviting them to check it out. Unfortunately for him, someone did.

On November 12, less than two months after he added the sound clips to his page, he received a letter from John Beiter--an attorney with the Nashville-based law firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips--demanding that he "immediately cease and desist [his] infringement of the rights of the Dixie Chicks." Brooks had no choice but to conform to Beiter's request. As he puts it, his "legal defense fund is limited to the change caught between the cushions of the sofa."

"I thought about the possibility [of legal trouble] when I first put together the sound samples," Brooks says. "Almost all of them were 30-second to one-minute sound samples with a lot of text explaining the context of the sample, what to listen for in the sample. I included one full song, but I put big disclaimers around it: 'If this album ever gets re-released, I will delete this immediately.' I really did feel that they were presented under what I've heard is called the fair-use doctrine of copyright law. They're presented in the context of a review of the artist's work. There are several other what I call 'new' Chicks sites, and they have sound samples. One has sound samples of every track on the new album."

In person, Brooks is so polite and soft-spoken, he looks as if the only contact he'd have with lawyers would be from Law & Order reruns. As he speaks, he still has the same wide-eyed enthusiasm that sparked him to start the Web site in the first place. He didn't make a dime from the page, and since the clips were only 30 seconds, it was hardly a grand moneymaking scheme to begin with. The fact is, however, Brooks didn't have permission for the copyrighted material he used. Still, on the Internet, using audio clips without permission is like driving through a tollbooth without paying: Everyone does it, and only an unfortunate few ever get caught.

"The bottom line to me is very simple," says Beiter, whose firm was hired by Senior Management, the band's Nashville-based management company. "To me, it's just not fair. It's not fair for him to take their copyright and decide that he's unilaterally going to give it away out on the Internet. It's not fair for him to do that. He may try to cast it as David versus Goliath or Robin Hood or whatever, but it's just not fair for him to do that. He never even asked.

"They're the ones who sweated to make this music and, you know, they have the right to decide what to do with it," he continues, speaking quickly, sounding as though he's in a rush to take another call. "That's the bottom line as far as I'm concerned. It's not fair, it's not fair, it's not fair."

Senior Management's Simon Renshaw, the band's manager, insists the only reason the band went after Brooks was that the sound bites were in MP3 form. "I will just say one thing: His site with MP3 files...is a huge red flag," Renshaw says. "And that's all I really want to say about that, quite honestly."

The band and Sony Music were all unavailable for comment regarding Brooks' Web site.

Most of the other unofficial Web sites dedicated to the band also feature unauthorized sound clips, but none of them have been forced to remove the files and disable the links to them, as Brooks was. Of course, all the other sites only feature songs from Wide Open Spaces. Brooks understands why the band is trying to distance itself from its independent releases. He just doesn't think it's necessary.

"You can't deny that their old image--their Western and frilly image and their bluegrass and traditional western sound--is very different," Brooks says. "It's different from what they're singing now, and it's very different from what Nashville expects now. I think they're underestimating their fans, but I also think that, as a big-label [band], they have to look at their fans from a marketing viewpoint. And their new fans are like the Web mistress of the best 'new' Chicks site on the net. She's 14 years old, and is a huge fan of the Dixie Chicks. I think the label is concerned that as these girls grow up, meaning from 14 to 16, that they'll lose interest."

Despite Beiter and Renshaw's legal arguments against Brooks' site, the cease-and-desist letter appears to be part of a broader strategy--constructed by the band, its management, and its label, Sony Music subsidiary Monument Records--to rewrite history, mostly with an eraser, and Brooks' Web site is just caught in the middle.

Since signing with Monument in 1995, the Dixie Chicks' story has undergone a page-one polish, excising the contributions of founding members Robin Macy and Laura Lynch. Macy and Lynch are not even mentioned by name in any of the press material distributed by the label, skipping over an integral part of the group's past faster than you can say "two other members," as the band's bio does. The two founding members--who started the band along with the sister team of fiddler Martie Seidel and banjo player Emily Erwin in 1989--are treated as easily replaceable sidemen who never had much of an impact, other than occupying a place in group photos.

A time line on the Sony Music official Chicks Web site (www.sonymusic.com/ labels/nashville/DixieChicks) says that in 1989, "Emily & Martie begin playing for tips on a Dallas street corner; debut club appearance at Poor David's Pub; Martie wins 3rd place at National Fiddle Championships." Anyone looking at that part of the official site would be led to believe the sisters were the entire band until Maines' arrival in 1995, when she quit college to join the Chicks.

According to the band's biography, the original Dale Evans look was strictly a "marketing tool" (so says Martie) and by "mid-decade, the sisters were ready to head toward the country mainstream." To that end, "all the act needed was a charismatic lead singer, [and] in 1995, they went looking for one." As a result, the band simply went "through a couple of member changes"--meaning, of course, Macy and Lynch were ousted.

Brooks is appalled that Erwin and Seidel would treat their own past with such reckless disregard. Then again, when Macy parted ways with the Dixie Chicks in 1992, the party line was that the split came over creative differences. However, a source close to the band says that Macy was kicked out because Martie and Emily thought she was too old and not quite perky enough, crushing her spirit like a tin can. The band even continued with the name she came up with (taken from a Little Feat song) and compositions she wrote. Macy, reached at home in Kansas, doesn't wish to discuss that period of her life, because she says she's moved on.

Lynch may have been the victim of the same fate, even though the Dixie Chicks' camp claims she left of her own accord. Lynch left before the band recorded its first demos for Sony because, according to Seidel in a November 1995 article in the Dallas Observer, the band thought it would send the label a "mixed message." Perhaps by coincidence, the youthful, tow-headed Maines joined the group around the same time that Lynch left. It seems that the Dixie Chicks have become the country version of Menudo, hiring and firing based on age.

When Maines entered the fold, the group's Branson-ready wardrobe was tossed in favor of midriff-skimming tops and fashionable togs, and its music was modernized as well. The band's old sound and look are so incongruous with its new ones, the only thing that the group has in common with the one that appears on the Dixie Chicks' first three albums is the name on the spine.

The first three Dixie Chicks albums are practically treated as bootlegs. Currently, all three albums are out of print, though both Music Boulevard and CD Now, the Internet's two largest music-retail sites, are selling cassettes of Thank Heavens for Dale Evans and Shouldn't A Told You That--even featuring 30-second soundclips of several songs from both albums, all mono quality and in Real Audio format. Of course, those samples exist for the consumer who wants to actually purchase cassettes (both albums are unavailable on CD, according to the sites, and Little Ol' Cowgirl is missing entirely from both sites' discography).

Only a few CDs of the first two albums are floating around, and less than a thousand of Shouldn't A Told You That exist. Crystal Clear Sound had five-year licenses on all three albums, but the band owns all of them now, since the license on Shouldn't A Told You That expired on November 30. According to Crystal Clear Sound owner Sam Paulos, "If you see one in stores, don't count on it being replenished if somebody buys it."

The band hasn't quite hid its first three albums from sight: A time line on the Dixie Chicks' Sony Web site mentions all three independently released discs, even noting that Thank Heavens for Dale Evans cost $5,000 to record. Then again, this is the time line that mentions Natalie Maines' year of birth and doesn't even mention that there were two other members in the band.

Brooks' Web site points out with particular dismay that in a January article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Maines told writer Shirley Jinkins she was overcome by "that sophomore scare thing" and that the Chicks will "work ourselves to death to avoid that." Brooks, who reprints several articles about the bands and adds comments when he thinks something is historically inaccurate, writes on his site that the band should have been worried about the second-album curse "two albums ago!"

As for Brooks, he remains a Dixie Chicks fan, as much as he was at that company picnic in 1992. He prefers the older material, but the new songs have grown on him; he has even taken shots at critics who write negative reviews of Wide Open Spaces. Yet he also hopes the band reconciles itself with its past, for their own good and the fans' benefit.

"Part of what makes them so special to me, and to a lot of people in Dallas I think, is where they've come from and what they've gone through," he says. "It's been a long, hard road. To me, that history only serves to enhance what they are now. Without that history, they're just another Shania."

Send Street Beat your MP3 clips of love to rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com.

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