Dixie Chicks do it their way

“I don’t regret anything,” Natalie Maines said Monday to a national TV audience. “I’m so glad it happened because it reminded me as to who I am. I guess I’m defiant, but defiant in a good way.”

“It,” as the defiant lead singer of the Dixie Chicks put it, is the country group’s high-profile crash-and-burn after criticizing President Bush on the eve of war and refusing, in their fans’ eyes, to appear sympathetic to their core values.

Now, three years later, the Chicks are baffling music industry analysts again with the release of a new CD that seems to abandon their musical roots and fan base. Released Tuesday, “Taking the Long Way” includes only a few of the elements that made the Dixie Chicks one of the top-selling female groups in popular music history, but it rekindles the acrimony with rock ‘n’ roll songs detailing the failed love affair between the group and its country fans.

Locally and nationally, country radio is mostly rejecting the CD, and other radio formats have yet to experiment with it. Three months before the start of a major U.S. tour, Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire have launched a preemptive attack against potential foes who haven’t even heard the CD yet.

“Country” is a big word when used in conjunction with the Dixie Chicks. It’s a style of American music that the group has elevated to new levels of artistry and commerce, with sales of more than 30 million CDs and $100 million in concert tickets.

“Country” is also a mainstream radio format that embraced and banked upon the Chicks until March 2003, when on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Maines told a London concert crowd, “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” Prompted by an unusually vehement mass rejection of the group by country music listeners, the major radio syndicates and hundreds of independent stations abruptly stopped spinning their biggest act.

Maines’ steadfast refusal to offer a clear apology was taken as further evidence that she wasn’t really “country.”

Yet what the group calls the “incident” may have attracted a new group of supporters, who respond to public dissent as one of the freedoms protected by this “country.”

Never afraid of taking the long way, the Chicks new album is their first studio effort since becoming a cause celebre. Instead of repeating the acoustical artistry of 2002’s “Home,” they conspired with producer Rick Rubin to make an album that all but abandons the Hot Country radio format that made them stars.

Before the “incident,” the Chicks had no history of political or social involvement. The new CD, essentially a country-tinged power-pop album, marks a radical change. It isn’t what country radio programmers had expected.

The radio industry got its first peek at parts of the CD during February’s Country Radio Seminar in Nashville. Among the executives in the room was Frank Bell, VP of programming at independent Froggy radio.

“It was one of the most _ how do I say this tactfully? _ interesting meetings I’ve ever attended,” said Bell. “There were about 20 radio executives from across the country in the Sony hospitality suite, and Sony people were giving impassioned pleas as to why the Dixie Chicks are important to the format. Then they played four rock ‘n’ roll songs, some that seemed to go out of their way to remind people of the reason that nobody’s playing them in the first place. I was thinking, I don’t know anybody who’s gonna play this.”

Curiously, the first single released to country radio is an angry rock song, defiantly titled “Not Ready to Make Nice.”

“Forgive sounds good,” sings Maines. “Forget, I’m not sure I could / They say time heals everything, I’m still waiting.”

“It’s not a particularly good country song,” says Bell. “It’s certainly unrepentant, and I don’t think (country listeners) want to be reminded of the problem. This song just pours salt on the wound.”

Infinity Broadcasting was one of the syndicates that canned the Chicks in 2003. Keith Clark, VP of programming for Pittsburgh’s WDSY, said through a written statement that “Taking the Long Way” does nothing to change the band’s standing.

“What has happened with the Dixie Chicks is an absolute shame,” he wrote. “Through poor choices in timing and attitudes (they) have caused so much bad will with the country audience. We all support their right to feel how they wish politically. . . . The big issue seems to be the way they want to run from their musical roots and actually look down their nose at country.”

“Not Ready” peaked at No. 36 and quickly dropped to No. 50 in the trade journal Billboard Radio Monitor, which charts radio spins. That’s indicative of many stations spinning the single once or twice but not adding it to playlists.

A second single, a progressive country tune about celebrity culture called “Everybody Knows,” was released to radio days ago and is getting minimal airplay nationally.

“I think when you look at what country music and country music listeners are all about, it’s family, fun, faith and flag,” says Bell. “I haven’t heard the whole CD, but the singles have none of that. I don’t know where (the Chicks) can go _ maybe Adult Contemporary radio is the natural avenue for exposure right now. But frankly, some of their songs are probably too hard even for AC.”

The Chicks’ are currently behind a massive media push that includes the cover of Time, a slot on “60 Minutes,” and interviews on “Good Morning America.”

But if the intent is to put the “incident” behind them, they’re, well, taking the long way.

“I don’t care if they play us, I don’t care if they don’t,” Maines told USA Today. “I don’t listen to country (radio). But then, I don’t listen to any music.”

Nevertheless, with virtually no radio support, the Dixie Chicks’ controversial new CD currently tops the pre-sale request list at Amazon.com, perhaps reflecting the emergence of a whole new audience for one of the biggest female groups in the history of popular music.