Homes not Bombs "Dixie-Chicked" at Toronto Film Festival.

Festival Officials Order Removal of Peace Banner Welcoming Dixie Chicks

TORONTO, SEPTEMBER 13, 2006 -- Among the many terms that have entered the public lexicon under the Bush regime, from "extraordinary rendition" (getting kidnapped and deported to torture) to "shock and awe" (the devastating physical, emotional, and psychological impact from a U.S. military assault), one of the most unique is the term "getting Dixie-Chicked."

The term refers to the kind of backlash that swamped the world's most successful female music group when Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines told a London, England, audience ten days before the U.S. invaded Iraq, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas."

The Dixie Chicks -- Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison -- immediately became punching bags for Fox News commentators and the likes of those who burned Beatles albums when John Lennon's comments about Jesus sparked a mid-60s firestorm. One Louisiana community organized a massive Dixie Chick CD turn-in, after which a 33,000-pound tractor crushed the discs.

Songs from the group's #1 album "Home" were pulled from hundreds of radio station playlists. One of their houses was subject to vandalism. And all dealt with death threats, including one threat that named the time, place, and manner in which an assassination attempt would be carried out mid-concert. That threat told the Dixie Chicks to "shut up and sing."

Anyone who has since drawn heat for making comments that don't square with Bush regime ideology are seen as individuals who have been "Dixie-Chicked."

Difficult as such times were for the singing group, they have been able to weather the storm and come through with a successful new album (Taking the Long Way) which, no doubt to the dismay of their critics, debuted at #1 despite reduced airplay. A touchstone tune on the new album makes it clear that the Dixie Chicks are "not ready to make nice" and "not ready to back down": they're still "mad as hell" at what happened to them, and about the bloody war and occupation that continues to grind up so many lives.

For the past three years, numerous Dixie Chicks defenders have praised their courage in exercising what is supposed to be the time-honoured American tradition of free speech.

Freedom of speech is also supposed to be a Canadian tradition, but not so, ironically, at the September 12 world premiere of the new Barbara Kopple film "Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing," which documents the group's 2003 world tour and the fallout from their anti-war comments. It had a gala premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, where festival organizers attempted to "Dixie-Chick" some of the group's biggest fans.

In preparation for the premiere, Country Music Fans Against War, part of the Ontario Homes not Bombs network, made some placards welcoming the Dixie Chicks and headed down to Roy Thomson Hall with flyers explaining that, contrary to facile press reports, not all country fans are right-wing war fanatics. Group members point out that they are proud to listen to Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Iris Dement, Loretta Lynn, Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle, Kathy Mattea, Emmylou Harris, Stacey Earle, and countless other "country" artists whose songs often speak to a long tradition of social justice concerns, from conditions in the mines to native rights, pollution, and gender equality. The Dixie Chicks themselves have not shied away from difficult topics, whether in satirizing the bland corporate shlock often produced in Nashville (Long Time Gone) or in addressing themes of war and violence with tunes such as "Travellin' Soldier," "Goodbye Earl," and numerous similar songs on their new album.

But as the small Country Music Fans Against War group set up shop across the barricaded street from the red carpet entrance to Roy Thomson Hall, they immediately drew the ire of film festival organizers. A man who clearly wanted to look like Bruce Willis at his most fearsome, dressed in secret service black and sporting a wire attached to his ear, muttered into his mini-communications device that "this message is not compatible with the film festival...we don't want this message does not belong here...get it out of here."

The banner itself was held behind barricades on a public sidewalk, and within a few short minutes officers from Metro Toronto police came to the area to ask why we were there.

"To welcome the Dixie Chicks to Toronto, of course," we replied. What else could we say?

"Why?" the police inquired.

Why? Does everyone who carries a sign have to explain why they are carrying that sign in a democratic country? Well, not one to miss an educational opportunity, we explained the long tradition of songs that address the concerns of real people confronting real injustices in country music.

"Well, you're going to have to remove that banner," one of them ordered us.

"Why?" we asked.

Why? The police must have wondered why it was that people who carried signs always demanded to know why they had to follow arbitrary orders that shut down freedom of speech.

Clearly not in a mood for engaged dialogue, the police skipped the lecture about restrictions on Charter of Rights and Freedoms activity that are subject only to such reasonable limits as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

"Look," we explained, trying to defuse the situation. "There is no safety threat, we're not blocking anyone's view, and this is a public sidewalk. And the whole point of our being here is to celebrate people who have persevered after being mistreated because they exercised their freedom of speech. It would be really ironic if you shut us down at the premiere of a film celebrating the freedom to speak out."

Not ones to explore the finer art of irony, the police told us we were on festival property. When we said that we would step back a few feet if the crowd got thick, they informed us this would not be possible because then we would be on private property (there are no signs saying which part of the public sidewalk is private).

Of course, what was happening to us -- being the subject of a bit of heat for expressing a view that upset somebody -- is nothing new on the streets of Toronto, where if you want to mourn victims of the World Trade Centre tragedy, you can have hundreds of people gather in front of the U.S. consulate, but if 10 people want to mourn victims of U.S. wars, they are ordered across the street under pain of arrest.

As our attempts at dialogue went on -- and as a film crew from Starbucks followed around a young woman offering free samples of some unpronounceable addictive caffeine substance (a corporate intrusion we weren't happy with but did not ask police to remove) -- a small group of Dixie Chicks fans gathered and the police, thinking this could get a bit difficult, backed away for a while. But they managed to keep one officer behind to keep an eye on us in conjunction with festival security members.

Also now working in our favour was a large media presence across the street that, bored waiting for the celebrities to arrive, were actually interested in our message, taking photos and conducting interviews.

As the drizzle got thicker and our banners and placards got soaked, we maintained our position, receiving numerous compliments from fans who were happy to see us. Shortly before the film began, the Dixie Chicks themselves arrived, and conducted red carpet interviews. We held out our welcoming signs for them to see and were pleased to see them return the peace signs we sent their way -- they seemed genuinely happy to see Country Music Fans Against War welcoming them to Toronto.

As the Dixie Chicks went into Roy Thomson Hall for the gala premiere -- one which most of us in the group could not afford, but we're happy to wait for the regular release later this fall -- we walked away drenched but happy to be part of such an event where people with courage were being celebrated.

Reflecting on the difficulties they faced starting in 2003, Maines told Time magazine earlier this year, "I think I'd gotten too comfortable living my life. I didn't know people thought about us a certain way -- that we were Republican and pro-war....Everything was so nice and fine and happy for us for the longest time. [After the 2003 backlash] it was awesome to feel those feelings again that I felt in high school: to be angry, to be sure that you're right and that the things you do matter. You don't realize that you're not feeling those feelings until you do. And then you realize how much more interesting life is."

And interesting it certainly has been, with effects that no one could have predicted. Billboard reported in July 2003, "The Dixie Chicks are one of the hottest acts going, but one of their lasting contributions to the music industry may well be contained in a record of a different sort: the Congressional Record. At Senate hearings July 8, Cumulus Media -- which owns some 270 radio stations--was the latest to be caught up in the backlash over the power that large radio conglomerates hold to curb free speech and to punish those with whom it disagrees politically. In a riveting exchange, Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., compelled Cumulus chairman/chief executive Lewis W. Dickey to acknowledge that the chain by corporate fiat had ordered the Dixie Chicks off the air at all 50 of its country stations. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said the decision by Cumulus and Cox Radio to ban the Dixie Chicks was similar to the blacklisting of Hollywood artists during the McCarthy era in the 1950s and the burning of books in 1930s-era Germany. By her outspokenness, Maines focused public scrutiny on a dirty little business. For that she should be commended."

Rolling Stone chimed in, "The blackballing of the Dixie Chicks was a prime motivation in the founding of the left-leaning political action committee [Music Row Democrats], says co-founder Bob Titley, a prominent talent manager (Brooks and Dunn, Kathy Mattea) and a confirmed Democrat. 'There was a failure in our community to step up to their defense,' he says. The Music Row Democrats now claim more than 1,300 members, including key Nashville executives, songwriters and artists such as Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. 'The organization grew spectacularly fast,' says country music historian Robert K. Oermann, a founding member. 'People were hiding in corners, afraid to come out. Now the community is more mobilized.'"

In 2004, the Dixie Chicks funded a website through Rock the Vote called "Chicks Rock, Chicks Vote" with the goal of registering 100,000 voters -- within a month of its existence, the number of people registered was around 150,000. They also toured with the "Vote for Change Tour" along with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, James Taylor, and REM.

Even for those whose musical tastes don't run towards twang and twin fiddles, the Dixie Chicks' musical output remains hugely popular, with over 30 million CDs sold and a growing fan base that has found the group in part because of their courage in speaking out.

Not content to sit on their laurels, group members continue speaking their minds. Recently Natalie Maines, interviewed on NBC's Today Show, declared: "I think people were misled and I think people are fighting a war that they didn't know they were going to be fighting. And I think they were misled by people who should have been asking questions and weren't."

Martie Maguire told Der Spiegel: "How can they accuse someone with being unpatriotic who doesn't want to send their soldiers into the bloodbath of a war? I love Texas, I love the USA. But the best that one can do for their country is to not blindly follow the ones who are in power."

And their lyrics are a compelling reminder that country music ain't only home to songs about trucks, rain, crops, momma, more rain, drinkin', and cheatin', as these words from their latest album's closing tune, "I Hope," can attest:

"Sunday morning I heard the preacher say

Thou shall not kill

I don't wanna hear nothin' else

About killin' and that it's God's will

'Cause our children are watching us

They put their trust in us

They're gonna be like us

So let's learn from our history

And do it differently."

The Dixie Chicks will be in Toronto October 28 and 29, 2006. Country Music Fans Against War will be there to let Dixie Chicks fans know about upcoming anti-war and related social justice actions. If you'd like to strap on your Stetson and join us, contact us at

(Article by Matthew Behrens of Country Music Fans Against War, an Ontario-based group of folks who think hurtin' songs can certainly get to the root causes of hurtin')