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Before Dolly Parton, the Chicks Set the Political Stage for Women in Country

Who's laughing now, Toby Keith? The Chicks were outspoken about social issues before anyone else.EXPAND
Who's laughing now, Toby Keith? The Chicks were outspoken about social issues before anyone else.
Kevin Winter/Getty

Most politically active artists belong to the pop, hip-hop and rock genres; historically, country artists haven't exactly been known to voice their political opinions, especially when those opinions contradict the core beliefs of the majority of the country music fan base.

While Johnny Cash advocated for Native Americans and prisoners, he never aligned himself with one party, and boasted of never having voted in his life. Willie Nelson is one anti-Trump exception, as are others, but for the most part, the closest most country artists will venture into politics is through songs about Southern pride or the struggles of farmers and rural workers.

Another notable exception to the unspoken rule of country is Loretta Lynn, whose 1975 song “The Pill,” about a woman’s right to use birth control, earned her ample backlash. Even Taylor Swift took years to open up about her politics (a decision she made, incidentally, while in Dallas), and that was well after she’d left Nashville behind by establishing herself as a pop icon.

For decades, however, all was quiet on the county and western front — until some “chicks” began to squawk.

When Natalie Maines of the Chicks (formerly called the Dixie Chicks) spoke out against then-President George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq, the band became pariahs in the country music world. After being inundated with calls from angry listeners, some radio stations banned the trio's songs outright. The band received waves of backlash and criticism from fans and fellow artists such as Toby Keith, and they ultimately stepped back from the spotlight as a result.

Most country artists continued business as usual until recent years, when more female country artists — notably country legend Dolly Parton, who recently spoke out in support of Black Lives Matter — have stepped up to the plate and picked up where the Chicks left off by embracing social issues.

The best part: A handful of these artists are from Texas.

Maren Morris, from Arlington, has used her platform in songs like “GIRL,” about the social pressures and mental health issues facing women who feel burdened by the need to be perfect. She is also part of the group The Highwomen, who sing the feminist anthem “Redesigning Women,” which explains how women’s roles have changed over time with increasing pressures and responsibilities. Morris also joined Vince Gill to sing “Dear Hate,” which laments the constant negativity, prejudice and anger in the world, while instilling a sense of hope that, “Love’s gonna conquer all.”

Sunny Sweeney, from Longview, partnered with Brennen Leigh (from North Dakota) to sing “But You Like Country Music” to comically illustrate that a friendship formed over a common love of country music can endure, despite political and cultural differences. Sweeney has also taken to social media to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

Kacey Musgraves is from Golden, Texas, and is best known for her ballad “Rainbow,” which provides hope to those going through a dark time — though it's far from her only song with an important social message. “Follow Your Arrow” encourages people to be their authentic selves, despite social expectations and stereotypes; “Good Ol’ Boys Club” criticizes the systemic oppression and exclusion of people who are not white, cisgender, male, wealthy and straight. The song points out the unfortunate reality that in modern society, connections and nepotism are the way to success, rather than merit, experience and hard work. Musgraves is also supportive of the LGBTQIA and Black communities, and she has been critical of President Donald Trump on social media.

The Chicks announced their return to music after 14 years with their recently released album Gaslighter. It includes the protest song “March March,” which addresses gun violence, sexism and climate change, and praises young people for being politically active. They also dropped the “Dixie” from their name because of its connection to the Civil War-era South. Finally, they performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the last night of the Democratic National Convention last week.

All of these women artists are able to speak and write about politics without the same intense backlash the Chicks endured. While country artists as a whole tend to be cautiously silent on social issues — no matter how urgent — these women have broken the trend of silence and used their platforms to promote and mirror this generations’ values. We have the Chicks to thank for showing the country music world that this genre can be bipartisan.

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