The Dixie Chicks, Muhammad Ali and Donald Trump

I’m happy to be in L.A. today, but I’d love to be in Nashville tonight when the Dixie Chicks return to the sold-out Bridgestone Arena 13 years after they were unceremoniously–or maybe in fact with great ceremony–blacklisted by country radio following Natalie Maines’ impromptu and instantly infamous comment of March 10,2002.

On that day–as recounted in today’s Tennessean–the DixChix, then one of the biggest acts in the country, period, watched news coverage of the buildup to war with Iraq while preparing to perform a concert in London. Their then current hit “Travelin’ Soldier,” about a young Vietnam soldier who didn’t make it back, was the top entry on the country radio airplay charts, and they didn’t want to have to play with a war on the horizon that they didn’t support.

Maines acknowledged this in introducing the song: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all,” she told the London crowd. “We do not want this war, this violence,” she said, then sealed the group’s fate: “And we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.”

In short order “Travelin’ Soldier” was pulled from radio and disappeared from the charts. Stations quit playing the Chicks entirely, some inciting ex-fan gatherings where their records were destroyed. They never had another country radio hit.

“The real tragedy is all the great music we will never hear because their momentum was stopped,” Beverly Keel, chair of the recording industry department at Middle Tennessee State University, said in The Tennesean . “It was the perfect storm of the time and the place and what she said.”

Indeed, the only thing I can liken it to was Muhammad Ali’s historic refusal to be inducted into the Army in 1967, costing him the best three and a-half years of his life as an athlete, not to mention all the money he would have made during them–not to mention cementing his status then in much of the country as a hated, ungrateful traitor. The difference, of course, is that Ali knew going in what it would likely cost him, whereas Maines spoke spontaneously and probably didn’t know what hit her–though it didn’t affect her, either. She and bandmates Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire never once attempted to “walk back” her comments, to use the now popular way of denoting a politician’s softening of a comment that proves intolerably damaging.

Even now during their sold-out 55-city tour they’ve been performing before a large picture of Donald Trump as Satan.

“I get banned for not liking Bush and now Trump can practically put a hit out on Hillary and he’s still all over country radio!” Maines tweeted last week. “Hypocrites!”

Within days of the Chicks’ banishment I was approached by a radio station to discuss the situation, clearly with the understanding that I would follow what we now call “the narrative,” that being that the Chicks were finished. The war had begun, and in the early goings, seemed to be going great from the Texas president’s perspective.

But I refused to go with the script.

I had two points: One, that it was way too early to predict the Chicks’ future based on a war that only started. “Who knows what it will be like in a month or two?” I said, maybe not in those exact words, but that was the gist.

Two, I noted that whether or not they ever again received any country radio support, the Dixie Chicks had already amassed an immense fan base, who likely would not turn en masse against them, and could conceivably continue to buy their records–depending, of course, on quality. Sure enough, their last studio album, Taking the Long Way (2006), sold well over double-platinum and won Grammy Awards including Album of the Year, and for its unapologetic single “Not Ready to Make Nice,” Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

“Nashville loved these women, Nashville signed these women, and Nashville made these women stars,” author and country music historian Robert K. Oermann told The Tennessean. “It was a shameful chapter that we allowed to happen, and you couldn’t blame the Chicks if they did feel betrayed.”

But you can sure stand up and cheer them tonight at the Bridgestone for returning to Nashville in triumph, outspoken political stances intact.

Concert Highlights–Robert Earl Keen at City Winery, 6/10/14

Ran into Tom Silverman, one of the most brilliant people I know in the record business, outside Joe’s Pub as I was leaving Tammy Faye Starlite’s Marianne Faithful/Broken English show and rushing to Colin Blunstone’s at City Winery. Quickly thanked him for inviting me and a few hundred of his other closest friends to his birthday party the next night, to start at 10 or 11 or so, but said I had to bow out.

“It’s too late for you,” Tom said, kindly sparing me the embarrassment of having to say so myself.

So Tuesday afternoon (June 10) I showed up again at City Winery, this time for Robert Earl Keen’s sound check. I realize that yes, I’m too old for an 8 p.m. show, so from now on I’m going to review the soundchecks. REK loved the idea, and said the soundchecks are better than the shows anyway.

I got there and steel player Marty Muse was tuning up. Marty had helped me a week ago on an appreciation piece for my favorite steel player Weldon Myrick, whom Marty had interviewed for his steel player documentary project.

Marty said he had started incorporating his favorite Weldon lick into the show, and went into—of course—the steel intro to Gary Stewart’s “Shes Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles).”

“That’s what he was good at,” Marty said, referring to those great, late Myrick licks. He explained how Weldon played the opening lick of “She’s Actin’ Single,” then modulated it, “then they kind of crossed over each other.”

I kind of thought I knew what he was talking about, that is, if that’s what he said. I’m not sure because, if I may digress, after the sound check, I went out in back to catch a few minutes of Commander Cody’s free “Hudson Square” show in the lot behind the club—and fatefully ran into “Concert Joe.” Two hash oil hits later, I not only walked out of the #1 Uptown train twice before my 42nd Street stop (really, I was pulled out by the invisible energy vortex when the train doors opened), but I somehow managed to lose my notebook (my third lost notebook in 10 days), even as I had scribbled down notes on the train!

So I’m not sure if Marty actually said, “then they kind of crossed over each other,” and if he did, what he meant. I do know I’m sorry I missed him incorporating the lick into whateve REK song he played it in that night.

But the REK band, sans Robert Earl, groove from tuning directly into Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me,” bassist Bill Whitbeck doing vocal honors–and very well. In fact, I’ve always hated the song, even Rick Nelson’s hit cover. I mean, it’s boring melodically, and lyrics like “She’s a hypnotist collector/You are a walking antique”? What the fuck shit is this?

But Robert Earl’s band’s sound check version was exquisite, with Marty Muse starting out on dobro, then switching to pedal steel and then to organ, and Rich Brotherton shifting from mandolin to guitar. Then REK strolled out like he’d just rolled out of bed, even if he was wearing a spiffy seersucker jacket and white hat. But he sounded great on two great songs, during which I killed a beer and forgot to take down the titles. Then I asked him what they were—twice—then lost the notebook.

But I do remember that he’s finishing up an album of bluegrass covers with guests including Lyle Lovett and Natalie Maines. And that Marty Muse has a steel guitar that once was custom-made for Weldon Myrick.