by LZ Granderson
(CNN) — Two days past 18
He was waiting for the bus in his Army green …
Those are the first two lines from one of the most powerful songs I have ever heard, “Traveling Soldier.” If you don’t know it, I encourage you to look it up — unless you’re one of those folks who still hates the group that made the song popular, in which case, its beauty might be lost on you.
It was 10 years ago this week — as the country was barreling toward war with Iraq — that Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, stood in front of a packed house in London and said:
“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.”
It didn’t matter that the evidence to invade Iraq was questionable or that Maines later apologized. The damage was done, and one of the most popular acts in the country became its most hated. Its music was banned from radio, CDs were trashed by bulldozers, and one band member’s home was vandalized. Maines introduced “Soldier” with a call for peace, but she would soon find that the group needed metal detectors installed at entrances to shows on its stateside tour because of death threats.
It was a classic case of freedom of speech meeting the irrational repercussions of that speech. “Soldier” is not only their last No. 1, it’s still their last single to chart in the top 30. Officially, they’ve been on hiatus since 2006, but Maines, who is planning on releasing a solo CD in May, recently said, “I just don’t feel like it’s the Dixie Chicks’ time.”
For anyone who appreciates great music, this admission should be vexing. Prior to Maines’ 2003 comments, the group’s previous two CDs had sold at least 10 million copies each, and they were singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl. In two years, they had won eight Academy of Country Music Awards, including the male-dominated Entertainer of the Year category in 2000. But they didn’t reach that level of popularity because of sexy outfits and Auto-Tuned vocals. They are immensely talented.
If anything, Maines and company should be viewed as prophets, not pariahs, considering that the weapons of mass destruction the Bush administration led the country to believe Saddam Hussein was housing were never found. Or that since 2006, the majority of Americans have felt the invasion was a mistake to begin with.
And yet, despite all that we now know, the Chicks remain ostracized in the world they came from, as if they were the ones who presented false information to the United Nations Security Council; as if they waged a war Tony Blair’s right-hand man now says “cannot be justified”; as if the misguided attack were their fault.
Before the group was set to do an interview with Diane Sawyer in late April 2003 — with hopes of stopping the public relations bleeding — they questioned why they needed to grovel and beg for Bush’s forgiveness. In a scene from the 2006 documentary “Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing,” their own PR rep explains, “he’s got sky-high approval. The war couldn’t be going better. By the time this interview airs … the looting will be done; the rebuilding of Iraq will be started. … Two weeks from now, it’s going to be even a more positive situation.”
Soon after, Bush delivered a victory speech on the deck of an aircraft carrier, underneath a banner that read “Mission Accomplished.” The war wasn’t declared over until eight years later.
And somehow, folks remain mad at the Chicks.
Last week, in marking the 10-year anniversary of Maines’ comments, Country Music Television asked fans whether the Chicks should be forgiven, and more than a third of responders said “no.”
Which probably explains why their next performances are in Canada.
Editor’s note: LZ Granderson, who writes a weekly column for CNN.com, was named journalist of the year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and is a 2011 Online Journalism Award finalist for commentary. He is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter: @locs_n_laughs.