the dixie chicks

Why Were The Dixie Chicks Banned From Country Radio?

the dixie chicks
Photo credit: AllMusic

Editor’s note: By writing this piece, I am in no way supporting or condemning the Dixie Chicks’ actions in this piece. As always, my focus is on the real story.

“Because of the Bush comments.”

Well yeah, duh, but then how come country artists were allowed to have differing opinions during the Vietnam War? How come Merle Haggard could release “America First” with little reception? If anything, the banning of Dixie Chicks from country radio, country award shows … heck, country EVERYTHING had more to do with an unfortunate sign of the times than anything else.

The Dixie Chicks weren’t on the verge of irrelevancy either. At the time radio stations decided to drop their music, they had the No. 1 country song with “Travelin’ Soldier.” They even had the one thing artists strive for – freedom to do what they wanted. By 2002, they exercised this control to release an acoustic album with bluegrass tinges in Home, with the lead single “Long Time Gone” throwing out a biting criticism of the country music industry (ironically it was also a huge pop hit). By the time Natalie Maines ushered those infamous comments in London in 2003, they were one of the most successful groups in country music. Their Top Of The World tour was already on its way to becoming one of the highest grossing country music tours ever.

For those who forgot the comments made –

“Just so you know we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas”, Maines said. The statement, spoken 10 days before the Iraq War, was picked up by a review in the British newspaper, The Guardian, before being transported across the Atlantic through internet message boards (one of which was the now defunct, and was not so well received back in the United States.

When the group returned from London in in May, their world was thrown into chaos, with Maines even receiving a letter saying that she would “be shot dead at her show in Dallas.” Their single “Landslide” went from No. 10 on the Billboard charts, to No. 44 in 1 week, and the next week fell off the charts completely. Radio stations forbade their music on the airwaves. They stuck to their guns too, as some DJ’s who played their music (sympathetic to their side) were fired. Concerts were canceled in the U.S. as the Dixie Chicks couldn’t sell tickets. They lost their sponsor Lipton, and The Red Cross denied a million dollar endorsement from the band.

As for why country radio stations pulled their music, Chuck Browning, who ran the Cox chain said “we did some callout research, and the vast majority said we don’t want it.

Browning wasn’t technically wrong, but the percentage of country music fans who actually wanted their music completely eradicated was actually a small (but extremely vocal) minority. Remember, by 2003, the Internet was in full force, and with people just beginning to learn how to share things with one another over the web, it didn’t take long for information to spread.

Bush supporters quickly encouraged other supporters through message boards to call local radio stations in protest … even if those supporters didn’t actually normal listen to the country stations they were protesting.

As I said before, Merle Haggard released a song called “America First” and received little, if any criticism. Willie Nelson, God love him, went so far as to call 9/11 a conspiracy by the Bush administration for garnering support for the war. You can see that here since I’m obviously not linking it to the main site.

So if country legends were saying arguably worse things during this time and poor callout research couldn’t be blamed, what was the reason behind this swift eradication of the Dixie Chicks’ music?

Well, aside from the genre not giving a care about any of the legends by the late ’80s, signed by President Bill Clinton, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 forever changed the way the music industry operated. Basically, it opened the doors for country music to become a genre of strict formats. In the 1940s, the United States Federal Communications Commission had strictly limited corporate conglomerates to owning a single station. The passage of time loosened those guidelines, as by 1996, the ownership was now capped at 40 per owner. With the 1996 act, owners could now own an unlimited number of radio stations.

As you might imagine, this led to consolidation and homogenization. Clear Channel Communications, the biggest radio owner of all, grew to own over 1,200 radio stations. As of 2002, only 10 companies controlled a 65 percent share of the radio audience. These radio stations all operated in uniform fashion.

At first, country music merely saw two effects of this act. One, stars could now compete in stature with stars of other categories. Two, and on the other hand, certain stars had worn out their welcome on country radio. While George Strait, Alan Jackson and Reba McEntire transitioned just fine into the 2000s, artists like Shania Twain and Garth Brooks essentially vanished by this point.

Back to the point of homogenization, country music (or rather, country radio) had found its ideal sound without a huge star image to complicate matters. Country was happy with just being well … country. It was actually a problem for country music to get *too* hot. Radio needed a bigger piece of the listening demographic to stay relevant to the record industry and advertisers.

In other words, sit down, shut up, look pretty and don’t draw too much attention. Getting on the wrong side of the broadcasting corporation spelled the end. Starting in 2001, Clear Channel was even more restrictive over what was and wasn’t acceptable to be heard by the general public in a post 9/11 world. Shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center, a list containing more than 150 popular music songs which were now deemed unfit for airplay was sent to Clear Channel owned radio stations. Sure, there were concerns over the grieving public, but more importantly, they were concerned with programming which might paint the President or U.S. foreign policy in a bad light.

Through their inherited power, Cumulus and Cox companies banned Dixie Chicks music from being played on radio stations.

tractor destroying dixie chicks stuff
KRMD 101.1 FM’s rally to destory Dixie Chicks memorabilia. Photo credit: Christopher Mark

Ironically, one person who came out in support of the Dixie Chicks during this time was Senator John McCain (an ally of Bush) who cited the ban as an example of how deregulation could lead to “an erosion of the First Amendment.” He further said “Would you do that to me? Then why do it a group of entertainers?”

The effects of the Dixie Chicks ban are effects we’re still seeing in country music today. As Bob Walker, program director at WCTK in Providence, Rhode Island, told Billboard in 2015, “We are not in the music business. We are in the business of connecting our audience with our clients.”

What that means is ever since the incident more than a decade ago, most songs now were expected to fit neatly into a prescribed format, with one song’s features similar to the next one in line.

If it isn’t clear by now, the Dixie Chicks ban runs deeper than just what Maines said. There was legitimate anger as said before (and as evidenced by that picture above), but their virtual erasing from the establishment is one that reflected something more than words.

By the time the group released their comeback album, Taking the Long Way, in 2006, the Dixie Chicks had been shunned by the establishment. They took home five Grammy Awards for the album and lead single, “Not Ready to Make Nice”, in 2007, but the group had still received no love from country despite the song reaching No. 4 on the pop charts (it went to No. 36 at country). Sales for their 2006 Accidents and Accusations tour were low in previously well-selling markets.

Since that time, the group has remained together, with every member exploring their own side projects at one point or another. On November 2, 2016, the band performed “Daddy Lessons” alongside Beyoncé at the 50th anniversary of the Country Music Association Awards. A studio version of the performance was released to digital outlets the following day and reached No. 41 on the pop charts.

Whether you agree, disagree, love or hate the Dixie Chicks, it’s clear to see their removal from the country music industry was based more around a sign of the times rather than the actual words said. Perhaps most unfortunately though, the event typecast a country music fan as close-minded and backward, a legacy that still haunts country music today.

This piece was written thanks to the following sources:

6 thoughts on “Why Were The Dixie Chicks Banned From Country Radio?

  1. It is interesting to ponder where they’d be now if this controversy had not happened. Would they have “aged out” of radio play by now, regardless ? Natalie’s father Lloyd Maines is playing an outdoor show tonight in my town, but I doubt I’ll get free to go. I did get to see him last year, and talked to him briefly – seemed like a nice fellow, and he shows up in the liner notes of thousands of albums. A few months ago, I visited the Texas state history museum in Austin, and there’s a Lloyd Maines display case, which includes a homemade steel guitar statue that the Dixie Chicks gave him. Here’s a link that includes a photo:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I believe so. I have to believe their removal as well as Taylor Swift’s departure from country certainly contributed to the female problem we have today in the mainstream.

      It’s for me to say exactly, but I think they would have likely been “kicked out” around 2010-11 as country “expanded” into the new decade.

      Lloyd Maines is definitely underrated as a player and producer. If I could find enough information I’d definitely write a post on him.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Great piece, Zack. I remember the Dixie Chicks incident happening as a kid, but I was too young to fully understand what was going on. All I remember was them being absolutely everywhere only to seemingly disappear overnight. One can’t help but wonder what kind of career the Dixie Chicks would have had or how mainstream country music would have developed had the incident not occurred. A terrific piece with lots of cool background info I did not know.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Andy! I slightly remember it too, although when I was a kid it was just “They did something wrong.” I didn’t really know what that was until much later. Like I told Robert, I think the format was on its way to shifting anyway. I mean they were kicked out in 2003, and the genre started turning for the worse nearly a decade later. I think they would have been out by say … 2011 maybe? Just my hunch though.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My guess at a timeline is similar. For whatever reasons, it seemed like there was some sort of shift around the start of the decade. Another bit I’ll throw in is the varied discography of Dan Wilson, who helped write the Dixie Chicks’ song “Not Ready to Make Nice,” and several other songs on that album: . Wilson included his own version of “Not Ready to Make Nice” on his 2017 album “Re-Covered.”

        Liked by 1 person

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