Look at any of the myriad online message boards where music fans debate the merit of the Dixie Chicks, and, whatever your political inclination, you may not come away feeling great about America, as the language on both sides gets ugly. With all that negativity swirling around, is there an upside to any of this?
Yes, says at least one country star. ''There's no bad scenario about the whole thing,'' insists Ronnie Dunn, half of the duo Brooks & Dunn, calling in just before giving a concert for American servicemen in the Midwest. ''One of the better things that comes out of conflicts like this is that, if anything, it shines a light on what the American process of freedom of speech is about. Everyone's free to have an opinion, and if you can voice that as a public figure, then you should be prepared to back it up, and don't run from it and what you believe. This is what these guys and gals are out there dying for right now.''
Terri Clark, who recently had a huge country hit with ''I Just Wanna Be Mad,'' isn't angry with anyone. ''I think it's cool for somebody like Toby Keith to express his view, but the same rules should apply to Natalie, whether you agree or not,'' she says. ''And when you look at how country fans feel about certain things, they're exercising their First Amendment rights to boo if they want to boo. Part of what I love about country fans is their passion. They're deep-rooted in what they believe in. And in this case, that seems to be swirling around Natalie in a negative way.''
Clark has heard the booing firsthand. She was a presenter at the CMT Flameworthy Awards, where a Nashville arena full of country music fans loudly expressed disapproval at every mention of the Chicks' name. ''They edited out most of the booing on television; they hit an applause button. Because the award that I went up there to announce, the booing was just unbelievable when they came up on the list of nominees. It leaves me speechless. I was just going, Holy cow!''
A Los Angeles-based publicist who was at the Flameworthy Awards representing another artist puts it in even stronger terms. ''I hated being there,'' says the PR rep. ''It was disgusting. There were 18,000 people there and 18,000 people booing. Then you've got these retarded people getting up there to sing these jingoistic anthems, and everybody goes nuts.''
Small wonder that, at the Flameworthys, even with the Chicks still in Europe, everyone seemed to be walking on eggshells. ''She has a right to her opinion'' is about the strongest statement of support any country star has made -- and even that gets folks in trouble with some of their more conservative fans. Peacemaker Vince Gill told a reporter at the Flameworthys that the Chicks had been ''bashed enough''; he got so much flak afterward that he quickly did follow-up interviews affirming his support for the President and the war effort.
''Artists are reluctant to weigh in with an opinion, which is something we haven't seen before,'' says CMT general manager Brian Phillips. ''Everybody is being really guarded, and nobody makes a statement without having to issue a press release the next day that further explains their point of view. I think within the artistic community, there are a lot of people who want to reach out and do what they can to help, who as human beings want this to stop and want to help another artist. But there's a lot of trepidation about that. It's a very strange time, and maybe that's the nature of wartime.''
It's not just those who might want to weigh in with support for the Chicks who are being nervous Nellies. Most of the publicists EW called for comment never returned calls, and even Toby Keith and Darryl Worley -- the two most vocal pro-war country stars -- were both said to be ''on vacation.''
You might not know it from the coverage, but Phillips maintains that country musicians and audiences alike are a politically and ideologically diverse lot. ''The CMT.com message boards are as jammed with opinions on this as they were two days after it broke. We hear from viewers who don't want to see Chicks videos at all anymore. Then there are people who disagree with the statement but are more in love with the idea of free speech and want to keep seeing the videos. And then we get a large number who agree with the statement and want to see the videos.''
CMT is still cautiously airing ''Travelin' Soldier.'' Says Phillips, ''Over time we'll make the decision as our audience dictates. Right now, it's a day-to-day decision.'' But most country radio programmers have already nixed the Chicks. How complete IS the apparent de facto broadcast ban? Reports of boycotts by big networks have been exaggerated, though smaller chains like Cumulus have enforced company-wide dictates to ditch the Chicks, and larger corporations give very little airplay, ban or no.
Alan Sledge of Clear Channel Radio would like to make it clear that there's no ban at his company, as has been rumored. ''It was very important to let our radio stations know that we as a company did not want to be in a position of censoring,'' he says. ''Therefore we encouraged our stations to continue playing the Dixie Chicks at the time the story broke. We did not want to react emotionally. We wanted to be patriotic but not political. Three or four days after it broke, we felt it was appropriate to allow stations to make their own local decisions.'' At that time, he says, most Clear Channel stations did opt to take the group off the air, though some are still playing the song even now -- and not necessarily just those in liberal states.
A rep for the Cox network denies there's a chain-wide ban in effect, though he, like other local programmers, is declining to play the group. ''We did some callout research and the vast majority said we don't want it on the radio station,'' says Chuck Browning, general manager for the Cox station in Tulsa, Okla. ''So we just kind of took it off the air quietly and didn't say anything. As long as the people who listen to this radio station say they don't want it, they won't get it.''
Simon Renshaw, the Chicks' manager, thinks that a small percentage of naysayers is dictating what the silent majority will hear. ''We called the arena where they'll be playing here in Austin and asked what's going on. He said, 'Phone calls? I'll say we've been having some phone calls! We had four people call up wanting refunds on tickets. Then we had 400 people call looking to see if anybody had refunded tickets so they could buy them.' There's so much of that going on.'' Renshaw says he had someone send him the footage of a Louisiana radio-sponsored event where tractors ran over ex-fans' CDs. ''It's embarrassing. The best you can do is less than a hundred people? You can get 400 people to turn out for a car dealership promotion for a country station! It's not exactly Kristallnacht, you know what I mean?''
So will the Chicks win back the country majority? ''They've got to be very careful,'' says Phillips. Then he pauses, catching the incongruity of that thought. ''Which, of course, is not in their nature. Which is what makes them great.''