Film Looks at Dixie Chicks on the Road, Under Fire

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The country music trio, the Dixie Chicks, faced severe public backlash after singer Natalie Maines told a concert crowd she was ashamed President Bush was from Texas. Documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple has been following the band since Maines made that controversial comment in 2003. Madeleine Brand talks to Kopple about her film Shut Up and Sing.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Off the cuff criticism of the Iraq War is risky business for public figures, just look at the fallout from Senator John Kerry's botched joke about the president's war strategy this week. Perhaps no one appreciates the danger of speaking out against the war more than the band, the Dixie Chicks. Just days before the 2003 Iraq invasion, Chicks' lead singer Natalie Maines told a London concert crowd that the band was ashamed that President Bush was from her home state, Texas.

What happened next is the subject of a new documentary called Shut Up and Sing.

(Soundbite of Shut Up and Sing)

Unidentified Man #1: Move to France, Dixie Chicks.

Unidentified Woman #1: Be proud of your country! Be ashamed of the Dixie Chicks!

Unidentified Woman #2: 98.61 Country.

Unidentified Man #2: They should send Natalie over to Iraq, strap her to a bomb, and just drop her over Baghdad.

BRAND: Earlier, I spoke with Shut Up and Sing's co-director Barbara Kopple. She says it wasn't just what Natalie Maines said; it was when she said it.

Ms. BARBARA KOPPLE (Co-Director, Shut Up and Sing): You know, a lot of people didn't want to disagree with the Bush administration about terrorism and going to war. And so, everything was just coming head-to-head. And Natalie, probably moved by seeing the images of the tanks rolling up, and seeing the demonstrations in the streets, came up with this. And she is very anti-war.

BRAND: And then, they carry on with the concert. They're in London so they don't really realize what's happening back home. And meanwhile, back home...

Ms. KOPPLE: There is a huge movement abreast. A group called the Free Republic - which is sort of an anonymous group - has just, you know, heard this and gone on their blogs and riled people up. And people are demonstrating and speaking out, and country music cannot believe that these All-American women could possibly say anything like this. And so, in a sense, country music feels betrayed by them. So they become then a target for an unprecedented campaign to silence them.

BRAND: And there are radio boycotts and...

Ms. KOPPLE: Their CDs are crushed and a death threat on their life.

BRAND: Did the other two Chicks, Martie McGuire and Emily Robeson - they're actually real sisters, in real life they're sisters - did they ever resent Natalie Maines for putting them in this situation?

Ms. KOPPLE: No, they never resented Natalie. And they stuck with her and believed in her, and they also are very anti-war. They went through tough times with their families and explaining it to their families - particularly Emily and Martie whose mother is rather conservative. But it just made them grow stronger. They just became more independent. They suddenly became free to do the kind of music that they wanted to do. They didn't have to be beholden to anyone.

And that's where this new album came from. They wrote songs about infertility. They wrote songs about love. They wrote songs about politics. And it just brought up the best in each one of them.

BRAND: There's a funny scene in the movie, because around this time, they get into this public feud with country music star Toby Keith.

Ms. KOPPLE: Yes.

BRAND: And listeners may remember he wrote that song, Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue, where he talks about where he wants to put his boot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Tell us about that.

Ms. KOPPLE: Well, Toby Keith had been doing some things to Natalie that she didn't like, which was at his concert, pairing her picture with Saddam. And Natalie just felt that she wanted to do something back to Toby Keith. And she had a T-shirt that she thought was would be totally safe that said, F-You, Toby Keith.

BRAND: The shirt actually said F.U.T.K., right?

Ms. KOPPLE: Yes, it did. And, of course, that then polarized their fans and polarized the Toby Keith fans, because they would have shirts that said F.U.D.C., the fans of Toby Keith. The Dixie Chicks, right. And then Natalie says in the movie...

Ms. NATALIE MAINES (Lead Singer, Dixie Chicks): See that person?

Unidentified Woman #3: Shaking their sign with so much energy, it said F.U.D.C.?

Ms. MAINES: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman #3: I almost said...

Ms. MAINES: You should have said...

Unidentified Woman #3: I almost said...

Unidentified Woman #4: ...you shouldn't hate us. It's not nice to get caught.

Unidentified Woman #3: We love y'all's signs, but what do you have against Dick Cheney?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KOPPLE: They felt that this just allowed them to transform and to grow, and to mature, and to become much more political beings.

BRAND: And the band took the next two years off.

Ms. KOPPLE: Well, they were writing their new album. Between them, they had seven babies. So that's a lot of work.

BRAND: That's a lot. That's a lot of work. And I don't think I've ever seen so many babies in a movie about a rock band before. May be in the Metallica documentary, not as many babies. But...

Ms. KOPPLE: It's not about sex, drugs and rock and roll. It's about motherhood, sisterhood, writing of music, great musicianship, and most importantly free speech and not being silenced.

BRAND: And it's also about the struggle about where they're going to go with their music, and if they're going to be country music stars, or stars of a different stripe. And they bring in legendary producer Rick Ruben for this new album. And tell us a bit about what they decided in terms of which fan base they now want to appeal to.

Ms. KOPPLE: Well, I think they just want to appeal to a fan base that will like them for who they are, and like their music. And they write about the things that they care about. Anything that they say now, and it's not in their songs, feels very false to them.

BRAND: And this new album, it debuted at number one. It went platinum. So record sales alone would seem to indicate that they are still wildly popular.

Ms. KOPPLE: Wildly popular, but their tour didn't sell out as much as they thought that it would. And they have about eight to 10,000 people that come to their concerts and it's growing all the time.

BRAND: And are these country music fans?

Ms. KOPPLE: I think some of them are country music fans, but most of them are a whole new audience.

BRAND: Have they been forgiven for that comment yet?

Ms. KOPPLE: I don't know if they want to be forgiven for that comment. They felt strongly about something, they said it, and they did not want to be silenced. Their whole issues of freedom of speech were more important than anything else. So I think they just want to be accepted and understood. And I also think, too, that they're such role models for the next generation. When people say to the next generation, you know, shut up and be nice, maybe the next generation will speak up.

BRAND: Issues of free speech are still swirling around this. Because just last week, NBC announced it won't carry ads for your movie. The network said they don't accept ads dealing with a, quote, "Public controversy."

Ms. KOPPLE: Yes. That's absolutely true, which seems a little ironic since this is a film about censorship and free speech. But as of today, they have decided to re-look at the spots and are showing them.

BRAND: Barbara Kopple, her new documentary about the Dixie Chicks is called Shut Up and Sing.

Barbara Kopple, thank you for joining us.

Ms. KOPPLE: Oh, thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of song The Long Way Around)

DIXIE CHICKS (BAND): (Singing) It's been two long years now since the top of the world came crashing down. And I'm getting it back on the road now, but I'm taking the long way. Taking the long way around. I'm taking the long way. Taking the long way.

BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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