RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The Country Music Association has announced the nominees for its 40th annual awards. Brad Paisley and Brooks & Dunn led the nominations with six each. Not surprisingly, the Dixie Chicks received no nominations from the CMA.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's been more than three years since singer Natalie Maines told a London audience she was ashamed that President Bush was from the Dixie Chicks' home state of Texas. Those words got the group banned from many country radio stations, and some predicted that the best-selling female group in history would suffer long-term consequences.
MONTAGNE: Now that the Dixie Chicks are in the midst of a tour supporting their new album, Taking the Long Way, the group's financial future is becoming a little clearer.
Craig Havighurst of Nashville Public Radio has this report.
CRAIG HAVIGHURST reporting:
The Dixie Chicks call it the incident; a throwaway line that became a career turning point. The band had the number one song on country radio at the time, and in a week it vanished from the charts.
Many fans turned against them. Country radio stopped playing even their established hits, and the group installed metal detectors at shows after a death threat.
Three years later, some radio programmers believe that the band was well positioned to put the controversy behind it.
Clay Hunnicutt, who oversees programming for Clear Channel Radio's 200 country stations, was one of them.
Mr. CLAY HUNNICUTT (Vice-President of Country Programming, Clear Channel Radio): The older music started to come back with the fans and people started asking for them again and, you know, they'd kind of forgiven and forgotten a little bit. And then as the highly anticipated new album came out and they started doing interviews again and got back into the public eye, I think that's where things went askew again.
(Soundbite of song, I'm Not Ready to Make Nice)
DIXIE CHICKS (Singing Group): (Singing) I'm not ready to make nice. I'm not ready to back down. Still mad as hell and I don't have time to go round and round and round.
HAVIGHURST: Not Ready to Make Nice, the first single from the new album, arrived like a finger in the eye of a country music industry that had regarded the Dixie Chicks as its biggest stars between 1999 and 2003.
The song crystallized their anger toward listeners and radio programmers who stoked the backlash with lines like: How in the world can the words that I said send somebody so over the edge?
(Soundbite of song I'm Not Ready to Make Nice)
DIXIE CHICKS: (Singing) That they'd write me a letter saying that I better shut up and sing or my life would be over...
HAVIGHURST: The musicians told Entertainment Weekly they didn't consider themselves part of country music anymore. And they made comments in Time magazine that some interpreted as a snub of country music fans. Again, Clay Hunnicutt:
Mr. HUNNICUTT: Almost seems like they gave a, you know, threw a very broad blanket and made a lot of generalizations about who country listeners are, who country program directors are, and what this format is all about.
So, you know, I think if, you know, they don't want to be a part of it, I think there's a lot of people that are happy to oblige them in that.
HAVIGHURST: Although they received relatively little pop radio airplay during their heyday, the Dixie Chicks were a crossover success story. Their first two albums reached fans well beyond the core country base.
In hiring rock producer Rick Rubin to steer the new album, some believe the band was taking deliberate aim at rock and pop audiences. But three months after its release, no major radio format has embraced the new music.
After debuting at number one on the Billboard sales charts, the album has dropped out of the top 20. It's sold 1.5 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, but industry insiders say without radio airplay, it will be nearly impossible for the CD to approach the band's previous sales of six to ten million copies per album.
Mr. CHRIS WILLMAN (Senior Writer, Entertainment Weekly): It's been a bizarre saga.
HAVIGHURST: Chris Willman has covered the band for Entertainment Weekly. And his recent book, Rednecks and Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music, includes the incident and its political implications.
Mr. WILLMAN: I think it's unprecedented that you see a group of the Dixie Chicks' level basically willingly estrange themselves from their former audience.
You know, I can think of a few examples in history where maybe a group or an artist said good-bye to some of their fans and hello to others, but certainly not the sort of mass-scale turnover the Dixie Chicks seem to be going for.
HAVIGHURST: Sales data from the current tour suggest the Chicks are still finding their new audience. According to Pollstar magazine, which tracks the concert business, the first nine dates of this year's Accidents and Accusations Tour averaged about $630,000 in gross ticket sales per show.
By contrast, the 2003 Top of the World Tour grossed over a million dollars per night and played two nights at seven key venues, including Washington, New York and Philadelphia. There are no two-night stands on this tour.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the band is bearing the financial risk for the tour, opting for 95 percent of ticket sales instead of demanding a nightly guarantee.
Pollstar editor Gary Bongiovanni says that gave the Dixie Chicks the flexibility to adapt the tour to the post-incident marketplace.
Mr. GARY BONGIOVANNI (Editor-in-Chief, Pollstar Magazine): If they do business, they make money. If they don't do business, you know, the promoter doesn't have to support that lack. And I think it's actually a very good business move on their part because they, in fact, are a group in transition right now and there are going to be some dates that are going to be far less than sell-outs.
HAVIGHURST: The slowest selling dates on the original itinerary were in the red states of Dixie. The band didn't change its name but it did reroute the tour. This month they cancelled 14 shows in places like Houston and Greensboro, North Carolina, and added at least as many dates in Canada and Australia, perhaps more politically welcoming territory.
Pollstar's Bongiovanni says this all suggests that the Dixie Chicks, while perhaps diminished, are far from over.
Mr. BONGIOVANNI: There's definitely an audience there. It may not be the same people that were buying their music three years ago, or parts of it anyway, but they are an artist with a career.
HAVIGHURST: The Dixie Chicks declined requests for comment about how they see the tour going, but some of their actions speak for themselves. The band is going without the high-tech staging it enjoyed on its last outing. It's also supplementing the $60 average ticket price by selling $40 basic T-shirts and tank tops.
Reviews of the show's music, it should be said, have been positive.
Next month a documentary approved by the band premieres at the Toronto Film Festival. It covers the incident and its aftermath from an insider's perspective. It's title is an ironic nod to those who believe the Dixie Chicks have done a much better job at music than public relations. It's called Shut Up and Sing.
For NPR News, I'm Craig Havighurst.
MONTAGNE: You can hear tunes from the Dixie Chicks' new album, Taking the Long Way, at npr.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.
(Soundbite of song, I'm Not Ready to Make Nice)
DIXIE CHICKS: (Singing) Because I'm made as hell, can't bring myself to do what it is you think I should do, what it is you think I should. Forgive sounds good. Forget, I'm not sure I could. They say time heals everything, but I'm still waiting.