Déjà Vu All Over Again
November 18, 2015
Talk about mixed emotions.
The Dixie Chicks this week announced a 40-city U.S. tour for 2016 that will mark their first dedicated North American dates in about 10 years. This news has triggered long dormant trepidation for me, and I’m sure, some Country radio programmers too.
Kind of like that feeling you get when you hear via third party that an ex is moving back to town. The kind of ex where the good times were really, really good – until they weren’t. Somewhere, somehow, suddenly, it all went horribly sideways. Things were said; Tempers flew. There was irrational behavior from both parties. A cooling off period ensued – say three years – followed by a cautiously optimistic reconciliation, but one fraught with distrust and suspicion; which ultimately imploded, resulting in bitter, complicated, and long-lasting emotions that exist to this day.
In other words: It’s complicated.
For those of you in Country radio in the 2003-2006 window, does that properly sum it up?
For the rest of you wondering just what the hell I’m talking about, indulge me while I provide some background.
Let me start by saying as a fan of Dixie Chicks music, I’m excited about seeing them live again. Their body of work beginning with the 1997 configuration has stood the test of time and always will. Four albums; all multi-platinum; each better than the one before; two double-digit platinum sellers. They are simply über talented.
As someone programming Country radio at the beginning of their rise and throughout their domination of this format – and all genres, for that matter – I remember how important the Chicks were for Country music and Country radio, attracting tons of new fans to both. They belonged to us, and we could build imaging and promotions around their music and their tour stops in our cities. Think Taylor Swift before she declared herself a Pop act. Think Luke Bryan. Think Aldean and Chesney and their stadium dates.
Then, in March of 2003, drama abruptly unfolded – and forgive me as I’m capsulizing it here. Commenting on escalating U.S. involvement in the Iraq War while on stage at a show in the U.K., Natalie Maines said she was ashamed that President Bush was from Texas. The story went viral – albeit tortoise-like in a pre-social media, slower news cycle era but viral, nonetheless. Country fans objected; the media fanned the flames of the story. Records were dropped, bulldozed, and even burned. Some Country stations kept playing the music anyway though, and withstood accusations of being left wing, Commie sympathizers. It was lose-lose for programmers, listeners, and the format.
Three years later, things had simmered down, although the Chicks’ presence on Country radio and their domination of it had been reduced to almost nothing. Even so, the Chicks introduced a new album (“Taking The Long Way”) to Country radio at the 2006 CRS – their first since “Home” in 2002. As usual, it was magnificent. That said, Country radio was understandably hesitant and uncomfortable with the lead single, “Not Ready To Make Nice,” the message of which was about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Airplay was lukewarm; comments from band members signaled a desire to distance the Chicks from the Country format. Martie Maguire was quoted as saying, “We don't feel a part of the Country scene any longer, it can't be our home anymore … So we now consider ourselves part of the big Rock 'n' Roll family."
An interesting point, because I have always contended that when the foundation of your instrumentation includes fiddle, banjo, dobro, and steel guitar, that screams Country music. But, I digress.
During their “Accidents & Accusations” tour in summer of 2006, the Chicks continued disassociating themselves this genre, refusing access and interviews with Country radio. Ultimately, while they never officially disbanded, the girls eventually went their separate ways, concentrating on families and finding different music projects.
And so, what now, in 2015 – almost 2016? Along with apprehension, a Chicks tour raises many questions for me.
Will Country radio try and be involved with these shows? Do current 18-34 listeners – which constitute a large percentage of Country radio’s audience – know, care, or even remember this band? Who do the Chicks belong to now? Who plays them in this format? For Country fans who do remember the dust-up – is it just so long ago that it doesn’t matter?
“The question is, will the Dixie Chicks allow Country radio to be involved?” asks Albright & O’Malley & Brenner partner Becky Brenner. While programming KMPS/Seattle, she never stopped playing their music. “We supported their return album and tour with giveaways, etc. And yet, when we requested a morning show interview and an on-site presence at the show, we were told that Country radio was not allowed to participate. It was a slap in the face.”
KTTS/Springfield, MO PD Mark Grantin agrees with Brenner: “I truly feel the ball is in the Dixie Chicks’ court. If they take the high road in all publicity and try to reconnect with the Country audience, I think they will do really well with concert ticket sales. If they revert to the aftermath with the same ‘screw you’ mentality, the tour could fail or at the very least, be underwhelming.”
One programmer requesting anonymity said his station wants no part. Back when the Chicks’ 2006 tour was revving up, his previous market was one of the first stops. He too, had never dropped their music. “Backstage I expected a thank you for standing by them. I was attacked and bitched at ‘for banning them,’ which of course I didn’t.” Additionally, he shared with me, “I was chased by a FOX-TV crew through the parking garage asking why I supported traitors; my longtime morning man who had done nothing but serve the community had to endure weeks of verbal assault from the News Talk morning guy for ‘being un-American’ because the station still played the Chicks’ music.”
“We're all in; We’re going to support the show,” says KUPL/Portland APD/afternoon host B-Dub. “Our job is to let our fans know when these shows come to town, not to get involved in political arguments. Also, Portland is a more liberal Country market than others.”
But so much time has passed – a decade – and the format, while still solid among 25-54 year-olds has a strong 18-34 base, too. Does any of the past baggage even matter to them? “I do think 18-34's are aware of them and loved them back then,” believes Grantin. “My eyes opened when I had Maddie & Tae in for a show last spring and they did a Dixie Chicks cover. That went over huge with the younger audience.” Brenner says at least the 25-34 cell was still hearing Chicks music in the early 2000s. “Plus, the amount of publicity surrounding the band could create a ‘need-to-see’ mentality for the people who were not familiar with their music in the past.”
A check on Mediabase showed very little, if any Chicks music played on Country radio. But to be fair, that’s more a function of the format’s current emphasis on 2013-2015 current/recurrent music. Very few Country stations play any discernable amount of music from 2000-2003. Taking a look at a random sample of approximately 15 reporting stations, the average total percentage of music from 2000-2003 was less than five percent.
As it relates to Dixie Chicks songs on Country radio, the most played title for the past week was “Wide open Spaces,” which had spun a total of 42 times across 22 stations. Next was “Landslide,” with 40 spins from a combined 13 stations, followed by “Cowboy Take Me Away,” showing 32 plays from a total of 17 stations. As for any negative reaction to Chicks music, Brenner, whose company works with numerous Country stations told me, “The negative calls are few and the positive calls far outweigh those few.”
So, without significant airplay and new music (that we are aware of) to complement their 2016 tour, who do the Chicks belong to as a format? According to my first anonymous programmer, “They belong to themselves, which works out great, because they did this to themselves.” Brenner says the Chicks are without a format right now. “Whether they evolve into one format or another will depend on the type of music they choose to make moving forward.” Another PD who asked not to be identified believes, “It’s an era gone by unless they bring out new stuff we can analyze.”
Asked if anybody remembers the 2003-2006 drama, KUPL’s B-Dub says people should forgive, never forget, and move on. “This was 12 years ago. People wouldn’t have remembered this a couple weeks later if social media existed back then. Ariana Grande said she hated America on camera and people still go to her shows. Jason Aldean publicly cheated on his wife – people got over it.” Adds Grantin, “Maybe time has healed a lot of wounds. But I do think there is a decent size percentage of our audience that will not let go and forgive.”
And this from KYRS/Corpus Christi, TX PD Frank Edwards: “I liked the Dixie Chicks, and I'm a narrow-minded 8th generation Texan. The sad part of this whole deal is it became a left/right political thing. It seems the perception was, if you played their music you're a commie, and if you didn't you're a right-wing nut. I don't know how this will all work out, but I don't foresee a lot of group contesting being focused on a grand prize trip to stand on stage at a Dixie Chicks show.”
Reflecting back on the chain of events that all lead to what can only be described as a complete shit-show – and that’s MY description of this – Brenner calls the entire ordeal, “Very sad all around. I still contend that it was never really a huge deal for the real Country fans. I think conservative talk fans, and the media, stirred the pot and forced the issue to escalate far higher than was necessary.”