‘Shut Up and Sing’: free speech in America

Stewart Oksenhorn
Emily Robison, Natalie Maines and Martie Maguire (aka The Dixie Chicks) are the subjects of Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck's documentary SHUT UP and SING.

On March 10, 2003, Natalie Maines of the Texas country group the Dixie Chicks, let slip something that was on her mind. Maines’ thinking was certainly influenced by her surroundings: America was 10 days from beginning its invasion of Iraq. Maines and her bandmates, sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, were performing in London, where antiwar demonstrations were prominent on the streets.In between songs, Maines spoke one sentence: “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas,” Maines told the audience at a concert, fittingly enough, at a theater named Shepherd’s Bush Empire. And with those 15 words, everything changed for the Dixie Chicks, from their presence on radio to the makeup of their fan base to the music itself.One of the things demonstrated in “Shut Up and Sing,” a documentary about the Dixie Chicks in the time since Maines’ utterance, is how drastically one off-the-cuff remark can alter a group’s course in this media-saturated age. Maines, and far less her fellow Dixie Chicks, sought to place themselves in the political spotlight. For nearly a decade, through shifting membership, the band had been trying to find widespread notoriety in the country music world. They finally found it with the 1999 album “Wide Open Spaces,” which became one of the best-selling albums ever, and the 2000 follow-up “Fly,” which nearly matched the popularity of the previous CD.The band appeared on the “America: A Tribute to Heroes” telethon after 9/11, but their activism seemed to be limited to the music realm. The 2002 album “Home,” recorded independently, was done in a country roots style, a break from their own style and from the sound that dominated modern country radio. Among the songs was “Long Time Gone,” a lament for the earthier style of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.

“It’s not as though they were on the front lines of the antiwar protest,” said Cecilia Peck, who, with two-time Academy Award-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple, directed “Shut Up and Sing,” which has its U.S. premiere tomorrow at Aspen Filmfest. Maines “blurts it out and laughs; it was said to entertain the audience. She says a lot more controversial things in the film.”Despite Maines’ lighthearted intentions, her words were taken most seriously. There was a backlash from country radio, with some stations refusing to play Dixie Chicks songs or even accept advertising for their concerts. The U.S. Senate held hearings on radio’s reaction; Sen. John McCain excoriated radio for banning the Dixie Chicks from the air. President Bush addressed the issue in a televised interview with Tom Brokaw. The trio appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly – without clothes, but decorated with such charged phrases as “Saddam’s Angels,” “Brave” and “Dixie Sluts.” Maines’ public comments afterward wavered between apologetic and defiant. Some fans cheered the band’s stance; others joined in a mass bulldozing of discarded Dixie Chicks CDs.To Peck and Kopple, it was a perfect cauldron in which to examine the American ideal of freedom of speech.

“The reaction was so extreme and so rapid, names being called and radio stations refusing to play their music,” said Peck, the daughter of actor Gregory Peck, who makes her directing debut with “Shut Up and Sing.” “It did have a lot of significance for the state of free speech in our country.””Shut Up and Sing” offers various sides of the argument. The film includes the views of country radio DJs who pulled the Dixie Chicks from their playlists, as well as the voices of fans on both sides of the issue. The film also makes available, for the first time, footage of the actual statement that sparked this cultural skirmish.Apart from its strictly political content, the film is a profile of the band in the wake of the turmoil. “Shut Up and Sing” follows the Dixie Chicks into the studio as they record “Taking the Long Way,” their first studio album since the dust-up with the president. The album, released in May, reflects another bold change in direction. Produced by Rick Rubin, who has worked with Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond, “Taking the Long Way” delivered the band from the right-leaning country realm to the more liberal rock arena. The album addresses the controversy, in “Not Ready to Make Nice,” but also has equally personal songs about motherhood and infertility, not the sort of material aimed for play on country radio.”In a way, it really liberated them to make the kind of music they wanted to write,” said Peck, who will be present for a Q&A session following the screening. “They really did reach inside. I think it’s by far their strongest album to date.”

“Shut Up and Sing” tracks that progress, from the Dixie Chicks’ status as attractive, pop-country stars to musicians almost forced to become more serious-minded.”It’s as though you watch them grow up,” said Peck. “You see their bewilderment, their confusion, anger and then their resolve. They see how important it is to stand up for what you mean.””Shut Up and Sing” will show Saturday, Sept. 30, at 10:30 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House. For a full Aspen Filmfest 2006 schedule, go to Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is