12 Years Ago: Grammy Awards Voters Endorse the Dixie Chicks’ Freedom of Speech
Fair or not, the Dixie Chicks’ career remains synonymous to some with Natalie Maines’ 2003 statements against President George W. Bush and the subsequent country radio backlash that curbed a Music City success story. Some former fans still cop a “shut up and sing” attitude; others, regardless of their own political beliefs, respect the First Amendment rights of Maines and her bandmates.
At the 49th annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 11, 2007, the Recording Academy made its stance on the polarizing trio clear. The Dixie Chicks' 2006 album, Taking the Long Way, and its debut single, “Not Ready to Make Nice,” combined to win five trophies, including three cross-genre prizes.
The Dixie Chicks took home Album of the Year and Country Album of the Year for a long-player that, despite controversy, went double platinum in its first year. To that point, Glen Campbell’s By the Time I Get to Phoenix (1969) and the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack (2002) were the only remotely country-sounding releases to win Album of the Year. Taking the Long Way was the fourth-straight Dixie Chicks album to claim Country Album of the Year, though.
A defiant anthem, “Not Ready to Make Nice” won Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Country Performance By a Duo or Group With Vocal. It became the first country Song of the Year since Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind,” from back in 1983. More impressively, it was the first-ever Record of the Year win by a country act.
Although the Dixie Chicks were no strangers to the Grammy Awards after racking up eight awards in the eight prior years, this five-trophy haul seemed like a bold statement by the Academy. Months after the Country Music Association (CMA) denied the Dixie Chicks a single award, backing up notions of a Music City blackballing, the group enjoyed a historic night not witnessed by country fans since the pop-accessible heydays of Roger Miller and Campbell.
“I think it [said] that, by and large, the creative community sees what has happened to the Dixie Chicks as unfair and unjust,” Mike Dungan -- then head of the CMA's board and president and CEO of Capitol Nashville, now chairman and CEO of UMG Nashville -- told the New York Times at the time.
In the grand scheme of things, CMA-snubbed artists, albums and songs winning Grammy Awards isn’t that much of a shock. One show celebrates country music’s moneymakers and contemporary image; the other heaps regular praise on Alison Krauss, Asleep at the Wheel and other critically lauded influencers on the edges of the mainstream. Despite their immense commercial success as a recording and touring act, the Chicks are a trio born in bluegrass and responsible for introducing Texas-born folk and country sounds to the masses. They make more sense, in retrospect, as a Grammys favorite than as a CMA Awards fixture.
"[The Dixie Chicks] made a great album this year," said Recording Academy president Neil Portnow at the time, "and their music and their commentary resonated with our membership, as it did with the entire nation."
Even if they fit some sort of Grammy Awards winner mold, the Dixie Chicks' big night felt radical after three years of controversy and defiance. Grammys voters picked a great song and a stellar album, but it’s hard not to think that their votes doubled as statements against retaliatory radio programmers and others who tried to permanently censor Maines and her bandmates.
"[The Recording Academy represents] the artist community, which was very angry at what radio did, because it was not very American," music executive and Academy member Jeff Ayeroff told the Times in 2007. To that point, Ayeroff admitted to voting for the Dixie Chicks in at least one category.
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