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Stars And Strife

THE DIXIE CHICKS ANSWER THEIR CRITICS: ''THIS IS OUR FIRST TIME TO TALK,'' SAYS NATALIE MAINES. ''MY HOPE IS THAT WHEN PEOPLE SEE US AGAIN, THEY'LL REMEMBER THAT WE'RE NOT THE MONSTERS WE'VE BEENMADE OUT TO BE.''

It's four weeks to the day since that March 10 concert in London where the Dixie Chicks famously messed with a fellow Texan. Their overseas tour finally concluded, the trio have realighted in Austin to face the music that's been blaring since singer Natalie Maines told her audience -- on the brink of wartime -- that ''we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.'' And now their manager is about to weigh in with a pretty bad joke.

''Let's make this story far more interesting than it really is,'' Simon Renshaw suggests. ''The whole thing is a papist conspiracy. This was all about us and Michael Moore figuring out a way to promote the Roman Catholic Church!''

''Oh, please,'' begs Chicks fiddler Martie Maguire, 33, sensing that even this obvious satire might end up being taken seriously. ''We don't need any more controversy.''

A pause. ''Well,'' Maines reminds everyone, ''we did just pose naked.''

Perhaps you've noticed. Earlier in the day, for this magazine's cover, the Chicks got themselves thoroughly plucked. It was their idea: Though Maguire admits that their publicist doubted the wisdom of being branded with epithets, ''we wanted to show the absurdity of the extreme names people have been calling us. How do you look at the three of us and think, Those are Saddam's Angels?'' Adds Maines, 28: ''We don't want people to think that we're trying to be provocative. It's not about the nakedness. It's that the clothes got in the way of the labels. We're not defined by who we are anymore. Other people are doing that for us.''

If it hadn't been for one London critic -- from the left-leaning newspaper The Guardian -- approvingly quoting Maines' remark, the group might still have the No. 1 country single (''Travelin' Soldier'') and a top 10 pop hit (''Landslide''), instead of being all but banished from the nation's airwaves. Within a couple of days of the review showing up on American country websites, radio stations throughout middle America were setting out trash cans to collect disgruntled fans' CDs and, in one Louisiana case, running over them with a tractor. For music fans whose memories run back four decades, it was strangely familiar. In 1966, the uproar resulted when John Lennon, a member of the world's biggest pop band, said that commercially speaking, the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. Now a member of the world's biggest country band had suggested that morally speaking, she was bigger than a President about to commit American troops to war.

A la Lennon, Maines did apologize, admitting on March 14 that ''whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect.'' The angry masses were not mollified. Message boards were flooded with cries of ''Natalie Fonda'' and far worse. Sales of their current album, Home, plummeted from 124,000 the week the story broke to 33,000 a week -- the result, Renshaw says, of the group's near-complete absence from radio. The ongoing campaign against the trio (which also includes Martie's sister, banjo player and new mom Emily Robison, 30) has many Americans vowing that the Chicks should do better than just take a hiatus: They should simply end their careers.

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