August 30, 2006

Chicks row looms large for country music liberals

By Pat Harris

NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - Ever since the Dixie
Chicks were boycotted by radio stations for insulting President
George W. Bush in 2003, country music liberals have felt under
siege but that doesn't mean there aren't any in Nashville.

With 75 million country albums sold a year, and 2,000 radio
stations devoted to it, country music is more than hillbillies
in cowboy hats line dancing and singing "Stand by Your Man" --
it's big business, and it encompasses a broad range of fans and
musicians, across the political spectrum.

The difference is some shout louder than others, and those
who might agree with the Dixie Chicks often keep quiet.

"I had one artist manager tell me, 'We might have artists
who feel that way, but they're not going to put a record out
and see it get 'Dixie Chicked,"' said Wade Jessen, director of
the country charts for Billboard magazine.

The Dixie Chicks controversy stems from lead singer Natalie
Maines' March 2003 comments in London that the band was
"ashamed" of fellow Texan Bush. Many country radio stations
dropped them from their playlists.

Tammy Genovese, chief operating officer of the Country
Music Association, plays down the furor over the Dixie Chicks,
saying "I just don't see that it's been a big issue."

"I don't know what causes the decision to play them or not
(on the radio), whether it's (pressure from) the station or the
fans," Genovese said. Asked how many stations were involved,
she said it was "significant" but could not give specifics.

Jessen said patriotic, support-the-troops songs had been a
mainstay of the genre since World War Two, partly because the
armed forces recruit heavily in poor, rural areas.

But country also includes anti-establishment figures like
Willie Nelson, who recorded a song this year about gay cowboys.
A group of writers, producers and other professionals started a
group called Music Row Democrats in 2003 that has posted
political songs on a Web site to raise campaign funds.

Jessen said after 9/11 country-music radio took on a much
more political bent, nearly always conservative. Now, even
though the Iraq war is increasingly unpopular and Bush's
personal ratings are low, critical statements are still rare in
country music, he said.


Though their album "Taking the Long Way Round" has been one
of the biggest country hits this year, the Dixie Chicks were
noticeably absent from the Country Music Association's annual
awards nominations announced on Wednesday.

"Apparently there's been a complete divorce from the
country community," said Peter Cooper, senior music writer for
The Tennessean. "The CMA awards tend to go to people who are
successful on country radio and the Dixie Chicks right now are
not. They've not gotten play for this album."

The band was not immediately reachable for comment.

Robert Oermann, a prominent author of country music books,
said the Dixie Chicks controversy had an impact on others,
particularly emerging acts who depend on radio to make their

"I've had friends in the country music business tell me
honestly that they're afraid to speak out politically because
their records won't be played by corporate radio," Oermann
said. "Corporate radio did a number on the Dixie Chicks."

Rick Carnes, president of the Songwriters' Guild in
Nashville, said there was "an inherent conservatism" in country
music. However, Davidson County, Tennessee, which includes the
home of country music, Nashville, voted for Democrat John Kerry
over Republican Bush 55 percent to 45 percent in the 2004

Country superstar Toby Keith is known for a post 9/11 song
with the lyrics "We'll put a boot in your ass/It's the American
way," but his representative said he was a lifelong Democrat.

Loudilla Johnson of the "Johnson Sisters" said politics was
nothing new to Nashville. But, she said, "labels like
conservative and liberal are rankling," and it was wrong to say
most fans were "conservative and mainly Republican."

(Additional reporting by Claudia Parsons in New York and
Andy Sullivan in Washington)