Toronto International Film Festival 2006

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Can We Talk?

The Dixie Chicks spread the word at TIFF

The Dixie Chicks (from left, Martie Maguire, Natalie Maines and Emily Robison) at the press conference for the documentary Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing. (Evan Agostini/Getty Images) The Dixie Chicks (from left, Martie Maguire, Natalie Maines and Emily Robison) at the press conference for the documentary Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing. (Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

In a world where new verbs are coined every day (to google, to action, to impact), here’s one for ya: to dixie-chick. As an attendee at the press conference promoting the new doc, Dixie Chicks: Shut Up And Sing, points out, to be dixie-chicked is “not as exciting as it sounds.” In fact, it’s downright unpleasant.

In 2003, Natalie Maines, the blond Texan lead singer of top-selling country artists the Dixie Chicks, made the following statement at a concert in England: “We’re ashamed that George Bush is from Texas.” Um, whoops! This was when support for the war in Iraq was at an all-time high, and the martial mood in America didn’t brook leftist statements from spoiled, gazillion-selling country-and-western chanteuses. To borrow the vitriolic imperative that gives the film its name — “shut up and sing.” Subsequently, the Chicks were dixie-chicked, which is to say boycotted by country radio, silenced by the right-wing media and castigated by once-loyal fans.

Present at the TIFF press conference are band members Martie Maguire, Emily Robison (they’re sisters), sparkplug Natalie Maines and the film’s co-directors — Cecilia Peck and two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple. A gushing moderator reminds us of how many records the band has sold, how he rushed out and purchased all their albums after seeing the doc and how the film is “about a great principle: freedom of speech.”

The Chicks, especially Maines, are as fiery as you’d expect them to be. You don’t sell 20 million-plus records if you’re a wallflower, and Maines is, by her own admission, “mouthy.” Yet they must have been surprised at how an off-the-cuff comment at a concert in London could cause such a fracas. “When I saw the film,” says Maines, “I couldn’t believe what you hear. Even I forgot the little bit [preceding the Bush comment] about not wanting violence and war. Not adding that made it easy for them to say that I didn’t support the troops and America.”

The ensuing firestorm, which included a number one single tumbling from the charts, a decline in album sales, a concerted radio boycott and perhaps more importantly, death threats, makes for rich dramatic fodder.

Says Kopple: “After the comment, both Cecilia and I were thoroughly excited and wanted to do something with [them]. They’re these amazing women who want to do something and say something. Their manager set up a meeting, they felt good about us and trusted us.”

“There were a lot of offers coming from all sides,” says Maguire, “and we were being used and abused by both sides — by the right and the left. We wanted to tell the story truthfully.”

If this was simply a promotional tool, Maines points out, “we would have worn makeup.”

Did her fellow group members ever ask her to apologize, asks the moderator. “Never,” says Maines.

Dixie Chick singer Natalie Maines making a point during the Shut Up and Sing press conference. (Evan Agostini/Getty Images)
Dixie Chick singer Natalie Maines making a point during the Shut Up and Sing press conference. (Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

Would this even have happened if they were a male group? “We do argue about that. [I think] we would have been the Merle Haggard of our time. People don’t like mouthy women,” says Robison.

Maines isn’t so sure. “It’s because we were a country group, not just women,” she insists. After all, “Jennifer Aniston said that [Bush] is a f--king idiot [and there was no fallout]. Y’all didn’t think she was that smart, did ya? She’s very smart.” The crowd laughs.

Once the floor is opened, the Chicks field some groaners. What are their feelings about Bush now? “Ain’t that obvious in the movie?” asks Natalie. It is — she makes some none-too-subtly disparaging remarks about the U.S. commander-in-chief. “He’s just a major disappointment — everything that’s happened since [the comment] is more of a disgrace. You look at Katrina, the Spike Lee film When The Levees Broke — he has been a disaster. That’s Bush, not Spike Lee.”

Things have changed for the Dixie Chicks. “We’re playing to be about half the audience of the last tour. But it feels like they’re here for a purpose — supporting free speech and supporting us. It’s a new audience, and it’s exciting. It’s really neat as an artist,” says Robison.

“I was lucky enough to go [to one of their shows in New York’s] Madison Square Gardens — it was electric,” says Kopple. “Mothers and daughters were singing together — people were holding signs that said ‘Thank you.’”

“To say what you feel goes against the corporate powers-that-be,” adds Peck. “What emerged beyond that was an incredible bond of friendship between the three, and they transformed the experience into making that incredible record [Taking The Long Way].”

“We all say we would never change a thing,” says Maguire. “When you’re coasting along and your career’s going great, you don’t have the ability to soul-search, and it gave us that ability. We do feel that it did happen for a reason.”

“It turned us into women,” says Maines. “When I watched the film, I saw my own maturing in front of my eyes.”

“I think we have each other, and nothing said or done to us can penetrate that,” says Maguire. Indeed, the film portrays their powerful bond and their unwillingness (verging on inability) to back down. These young ladies are about to win a lot of new fans.

The press conference winds down with some chilling comments, spurred on by an astute journo who points out the corollary between Shut Up And Sing and another doc playing at the festival: The U.S. vs. John Lennon. “We saw it the night before ours,” says Maguire. “It was eerie how many things matched up. But it saddened me so much, because as far as our government is concerned, I really felt like we felt more censored than people in the ’60s and ’70s — and that’s scary.”

“Lennon gave us a message,” says Robison, “but we haven’t digested the message. I don’t know what it takes to change that.”

“In the ’60s,” says Kopple, “there was a cultural movement that happened — you really felt a sense of ritual, and I think when Natalie made her comment, there was no community. They were out there on their own — and our hope is that no longer will the Chicks stand alone.”

Richard Poplak is a writer based in Toronto.

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