On Sunday night at the 49th annual Grammy awards, the Dixie Chicks took home five awards, including best album, record and song of the year.
It was a long road, indeed, for the Chicks, whose enormous fan base and ticket sales famously plummeted in 2003 after lead singer Natalie Maines remarked on the eve of the Iraq war that the group was "ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." Within days, radio stations were refusing to play their music, and fans were demanding refunds. Death threats were later issued.
Throughout the ordeal, the group remained admirably unapologetic, insisting that dissent is (or at least should be) a vital liberty in America. They further maintained this position in their album Taking the Long Way (which won the Grammy for best album) and especially in the song "Not Ready To Make Nice," in which they directly addressed their critics: "It's too late to make it right/ I probably wouldn't if I could/ Cause I'm mad as hell/ Can't bring myself to do what it is/ You think I should."
Despite the group's successes, the grudge has held, particularly among the Nashville music establishment. The Country Music Association completely snubbed the Chicks at its awards ceremony in May.
Such an affront on the part of country music is not only cowardly, but also quite antithetical to the genre's history. For, while country music today is often equated with pickup trucks, rebel flags, and men with mullets, it also has a brave and, dare I say, liberal streak in its closet.
Take Johnny Cash, for instance. Not only did many of his most famous lyrics center on "the poor and the beaten down," including a poignant attack on this country's treatment of American Indians, but also Cash was a vocal critic of the Vietnam War, as in his famous song "Man in Black": "I wear the black in mourning for the lives that could have been/ Each week we lose a hundred fine young men."
And then there is Willie Nelson, who on Valentine's Day 2006 released a love song about gay cowboys, titled, "Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly (Fond of Each Other)." Perhaps more seriously, he has been an avid supporter of presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich, who, while arguing for universal health care and a swift withdrawal from Iraq, is probably the furthest left of any Democratic candidate.
Women in country music - like the Dixie Chicks - have a long tradition of being particularly bold in speaking out against some of the very conventions their record labels and conservative fan base celebrate. Back in 1933, the Carter Family, which consisted of A.P. Carter; his wife, Sara Doughtery Carter; and her cousin, the groundbreaking guitar player Maybelle Addington Carter, sang about a young woman who chose to commit suicide rather than marry. In Sara's sorrowful croon, we hear her say, "I never will marry/ I'll be no man's wife/ I expect to live single all the days of my life." Needless to say, she later divorced A.P.
Perhaps most memorable are some of Loretta Lynn's lyrics, particularly from the 1960s and 1970s. Released in 1966, her song "Dear Uncle Sam" was an early anti-Vietnam protest song. And though she once feigned dozing off while listening to feminist advocate Betty Friedan speak as a fellow guest on The David Frost Show, Lynn was a pretty controversial women's advocate. In "I Wanna Be Free," she wrote of the liberating effect of divorce: "I'm gonna take this chain from around my finger/ And throw it just as far as I can sling 'er." She did the same thing for birth control in "The Pill": "The feelin' good comes easy now/ Since I've got the pill."
As daring as some outlaw artists have been, the country music establishment has often proved even more dogged in its conservative views. Lynn has purportedly had more songs banned than any other country music singer. And Cash, never completely at home in the country music world, once said that "the very idea of unconventional or even original ideas ending up on 'country' radio" was "absurd." No wonder, then, that in his gay cowboy song, Willie Nelson lamented that "you won't hear this song on the radio/ Not on your local TV."
With the November election, particularly with strong Democratic gains in Virginia and Missouri, Republican politicians may have to rethink their long-standing Southern strategy. Similarly, with last Sunday night's awards, country music should embrace the fact that its greatest assets have never been scared of controversy or doing the right thing.
To quote the great Dolly Parton - who has sung a few feminist, antiwar, and progressive anthems herself - "You'll never do a whole lot unless you're brave enough to try."
Ashley Sayeau is a freelance writer living in Buffalo, N.Y.