An Oral History of the Chicks’ Seismic 2003 Controversy From the Industry Execs Who Lived It

An Oral History of the Chicks’ Seismic 2003 Controversy From the Industry Execs Who Lived It

On March 10, 2003, when Natalie Maines said she was ashamed to be from the same state as then-U.S. president George W. Bush from the stage in London just before the Iraq War, everything changed for the Chicks (then known as the Chicks). But the seismic ramifications of her words were felt not just by the country superstars, but country radio was never the same, and neither was the Chicks’ label, Columbia Records, the trio’s fellow songwriters or the music business in general.

Home was selling millions of albums, the songs were all over country and pop radio, [they had a] sold-out arena tour,” recalls Don Ienner, who ascended from Columbia Records’ chairman to president of  Sony Music U.S. in April 2003. “In one day, they’re off the air, and fans are burning their records.”

Their single, “Travelin’ Soldier,” had hit No. 1 on Billboard‘s Country Singles chart, but country stations throughout the U.S., responding to what they said were listener complaints, abruptly pulled the song, including top radio chain Cumulus, which issued a temporary ban on the group’s music banned the group entirely. A Kansas City station created a party called a “chicken toss,” in which fans trashed tapes, CDs and tickets. Two weeks after Maines insulted the president on foreign soil — a transgression many considered unforgivable — the Chicks were out of the top 40 of Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart.

Tonight, as the Chicks kick off their first tour since 2017 in St. Louis in support of their 2020 album Gaslighter, which debuted atop Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, Billboard presents an oral history of that country-music time bomb. Below, radio programmers, record execs and songwriters revisit what happened nearly 20 years ago, and wonder if Maines’ words would have elicited the same outsized response in today’s world of social media where scandals often disappear after one news cycle. (The Chicks’ publicist did not respond to a request for comment).

During the London promotional show, Maines said: “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

Ienner: It was literally overnight. I had never seen the venom or the hatred in the United States of America, where we’re supposed to have freedom of speech.

Marcus Hummon, co-writer of the Chicks’ “Ready to Run” and “Cowboy Take Me Away”: The head of my publishing company said, “Did you read about what happened? They’re done at country.” I just about laughed at the absurdity of it. You have to remember, the Chicks at the time were like Elvis.

RJ Curtis, former operations director/PD at then-country station KZLA, in Riverside, Calif., now executive director for Country Radio Broadcasters Inc.: My morning show was doing a remote [broadcast] somewhere and I got a call from a friend. I was completely unaware of it. I guess I took it a little too lightly. Today, that would’ve gone viral, and who knows how it might have lived in the short news cycle. Instead, it simmered and festered and grew.

Radney Foster, (writer of “Godspeed,” covered on Home): I thought, “Oh, there’ll be some blowback from that.” I did not expect it to be as visceral as it was. It shocked me.

Mike Kraski, then executive VP and general manager of Sony Nashville, now runs New Vision Artist Management: The velocity and sameness in response, by supposed country fans, on every station in the country, took everyone by surprise.

Some country-radio stations grappled with the disconnect between the Chicks’ recent mega-popularity and the sudden flood of listener comments — and a few programmers wondered if right-wing, pro-war operatives were behind the backlash. Other programmers quickly deleted their songs from playlists.

Dale Carter, program director and morning host, KFKF Kansas City: Kansas City is definitely the heart of the Midwest. KFKF is a very patriotic radio station, and the calls came in immediately: “Get that off the air.” At the time, there were nine titles of theirs that were testing for gold [in our rotation], so it took a large bite out of our library.

Mitch Mahan, then program director at WIRK in West Palm Beach, now with The Eagle in Jonesboro, Ark.: You’d get calls from very angry people every time you would play a Dixie Chicks song — reactionary, violent calls. Threatening to come down and beat you up. My night guy told me he had a couple of calls like that overnight, and they actually asked the security guard to escort him to his car that morning.

Kraski: Radio lives and dies by their audience staying on the dial. I don’t blame country radio, necessarily, for being afraid. All their individual jobs were at stake, and the profits of the major radio chains were threatened.

Carter: We did an auditorium music test right after this happened. We had just started using technology where you’ve got a room of 100 people, and they’ve got this dial that goes zero to 100. You could see a song go by, and it’d be about 60 to 65, 70 to 80. And a Dixie Chicks hook played and it would literally go to zero. I’ve never seen anything like that.

Bruce Logan, then programmer for WSSL and WESC in Greensville, S.C., now operations manager and brand content director of two stations in West Palm Beach: You had conservative talk-radio stations chasing an opportunity to take a shot at the No. 1 station in the market. We were well above them in the ratings, and it was their drum to beat, and they would do this for weeks.

Kraski: I will go to my grave believing that was not an honest organic reaction from country-music fans. That was a well-executed, coordinated effort on the part of the political right.

Curtis: There were interns, like 22-year-olds, answering phones, and getting the shit beat out of them [on the calls]. But we had a script, and there were answers.

Ed Wenck, formerly morning host at WLHK outside Indianapolis, now content director with Cedia trade association: Was it fair? No, of course, it wasn’t fair. The punishment did not fit the crime. She misspoke. It was a fleeting error in judgment.

Mahan: We tested their music every year after that, and it still came back highly negative. You had songs that were testing 90% positive suddenly testing 30% positive — that’s a huge swing, and it just continued.

Radio stations killed off the Chicks’ career at country radio, although their subsequent 2006 album Taking the Long Way would sell 526,000 copies in its first week and hit No. 1 on the on the Billboard 20 ,and Top Country Albums charts. Plus, concert ticket sales remained robust.

Carter: In radio, we’re running convenience stores. We’re stocking our shelves with what listeners want to hear. It became clear — to this day — that the Dixie Chicks are toxic for my radio station. Absolute no-brainer. If they not only don’t want it, but will tune to another radio station if they hear it, why would we play that?

Mahan: I can’t think of any radio stations that have been successful that don’t listen to what their listeners want. And they were telling us they don’t want the Dixie Chicks. Any business where you’ve got a product that’s extremely popular, and then one day it’s making everybody ill, well, you pull that product from your shelves.

Logan: We had lots of meetings internally with the air staff about how to handle it and what to talk about. We had no idea if the audience was going to change their minds. I had no idea why we would want to light the careers of arguably the biggest stars we had on the radio station on fire. We wanted to preserve them, because we were hoping to play the next album and the next album.

Kraski: Of course, we were frustrated. We were the part of Sony that built Dixie Chicks, and to have it taken away was, at the very least, a slight.

Curtis: One week they’re a core artist and they’re on a billboard, and the next week we’re not playing them. That seemed hypocritical to me. It felt wrong to stop playing their music. It felt like censorship, and we didn’t like that. It was painful. We just put our head down and plowed forward, like, “This too shall pass.”

Logan: We backed off on WESC. To be completely honest, I don’t remember if we dropped everything or not. I do believe we lowered the profile. WSSL [“Whistle”] was more the female country station; Whistle played more contemporary songs and its gold didn’t go back quite as far. On WSSL, we did not take a record like “Wide Open Spaces” from power to secondary. We left it right where it was — but where it was the lower end of the testing, we did remove those songs.

Hummon: I was twice-blessed, because I had the first two singles. You had that royalty stream. They’re still selling 75,000 units a week, 45 weeks in — that was their resting place after seven singles. And that ended. From a business standpoint, as it turns out, it was kind of disastrous.

Mahan: They were core artists. We were playing a lot of songs by the Dixie Chicks. Pulling them off the air was a hard thing to do. It still makes me sad — [until Gaslighter], they’re not on country radio, or even classic-country radio.

Protesters destroyed Dixie Chicks CDs around the country, including one 33,000-pound tractor. Some stations defiantly continued playing the group’s music, but others, particularly in the Cumulus chain, were especially active, sponsoring anti-Chicks rallies in Toledo, Ohio, and Shreveport, La.

Logan: [Listeners] attached the radio station to the Dixie Chicks — if we were going to support them, they were going to punish us as well. There were protesters at the show, lots of them.

Curtis: In that war, country radio and support for the troops are a very close alignment, and it made sense, from a marketing standpoint, for radio to do that. Stations saw that as a way to get on the local TV news, and that’s when you saw these rallies.

Kraski: Radio’s response, in large part was, “It’s out of my hands.” A lot of that was done at the corporate level for the radio chains, which made it easy for program directors to wash their hands and not harm their relationships with the label at the same time.

Hummon: You have to accept there’s a certain amount of misogyny involved. I just can’t help but think that played a big part in folks’ outrage at the time.

Fellow country star Toby Keith attacked the group publicly, displaying Maines’ photo next to an image of Saddam Hussein at his concerts. The Chicks responded with defiance, appearing nude on the cover of Entertainment Weekly covered in ironic graffiti like “big mouth” and “traitors.” They sold 867,000 tickets in the first weekend of their 2003 tour and wound up as Billboard’s top-selling country tour that year. Maines later wore a homemade T-shirt reading “FUTK” on stage at the 2003 ACM Awards; the Chicks coyly gave a different explanation, but most believed the last two letters stood for Toby Keith.

Foster: It was like, “Oh, their stadiums are going to be empty.” Well, they sure weren’t.

Logan: [Their concert] was packed to the rafters. I’d never seen security like that. I was on a front row. I kept thinking, “If anybody takes a shot at them, I hope they don’t hit me.”

Carter: If they’d come out and apologized and said, “Whoops!” — country audiences are very forgiving. The fact that [Maines] doubled down on it just cemented where it went.

Wenck: That magazine cover with all the words written on them: I thought, “Wow, way to own this!”

Foster: I get the message that they’re going to put out “Godspeed” as the next single, because what is unpatriotic about loving your kids? They were going to debut the song in the spring. They’re live in an enormo-dome somewhere, and Natalie is wearing the now-infamous “FUTK” [t-shirt]. There’s this bad off-and-on [with] Toby Keith. That kind of put the lid on that idea.

Logan: As a gay country program director, I was kind of an odd duck. I was an outsider. So I appreciated the strength of what they were doing. But I was just taken aback — at every opportunity they had to make it better, they chose the other way. It would die down, and all of a sudden my email or phone would explode again, and I’d say, “Well, what the hell did she say now?”

Curtis: In 2006, they released [Taking the Long Way], which was brilliant, and they played it for country radio, and country radio was like, “This is awesome.” The Dixie Chicks never made a bad album. We said, “Do us a favor — don’t bring out ‘Not Ready to Make Nice.’” Of course, that was the wrong thing to ask. That’s exactly what they did.

Mahan: They had the opportunity to make amends with the country audience, and it just never happened.

The repercussions persist: Taylor Swift told The Guardian newspaper in 2019, “I come from country music… The No. 1 thing they absolutely drill into you as a country artist, and you can ask any other country artist this, is ‘Don’t be like the Dixie Chicks!’”

Kraski: The shame of it is what it did to country music. There has been no one, ever, to replace the Chicks and their sound and contribution to the format. They had three [multi-million-selling] records in a row, and then the bottom fell out.

Foster: People would talk about it openly. Other artists would be like, “You don’t want to get Dixie-Chicked.” It was used as a verb. There were 10 years where nobody would go near anything political at all in mainstream country music. At all.

Ienner: We never, ever, ever asked Miranda [Lambert] or any of the other artists to not say whatever they wanted to say, and if they wanted to support the Dixie Chicks, we were OK with it.

Curtis: Artists are cautious. They do have political beliefs, but they realize we live in a time of great division. If I start railing about Donald Trump, and you’re a Donald Trump fan, that may end our relationship. It’s not because of the Dixie Chicks — I don’t think they get all the credit for that.

Mahan: I’ve heard the conspiracy theories that we banned the Dixie Chicks. No, we didn’t. The audience just didn’t want to hear them anymore.

Ienner: What they did to these ladies was just devastating. They weren’t part of a mass shooting! They said 15 f–king words — and they were right.

An Oral History of the Chicks’ Seismic 2003 Controversy From the Industry Execs Who Lived It On March 10, 2003, when Natalie Maines said she was ashamed to be from the same state as then-U.S. president George W. Bush from the stage in London just before the Iraq War, everything changed for the Chicks (then known…