It's a rainy Saturday night in Greensboro. The Dixie Chicks are rockin' the house, and there are no politics here. Or are there?
Nearly 25,000 people have paid many bucks and traveled many miles to hear the Texas trio belt 'em out in the Triad. By the sound of the hooting, they aren't disappointed. The largest road show in America, the Top of the World Tour delivers an amazing production: a center stage for the Chicks to strut their stuff across 360 degrees; a band pit that rises, falls, and rotates; even a nearly life-size windmill to lend farmland imagery to their 1998 mega-hit "Wide Open Spaces."
In the audience, there are gaggles of teen-aged girls in cow-patterned Stetsons and tiny halter-tops made, seemingly, out of actual bandanas. There are couples, gay and straight, some toting toddlers, others chucking back beers. Everyone is singing, yelling, begging for more. Next to me, my 11-year-old stepson Aaron joyfully drinks in all the ruckus, joins in the lyrics with his perfect pitch.
It's a coliseum full of party. It's a celebration of the sometimes rowdy and sometimes tear-jerking music offered up by the Chicks, who have dominated both country music and CD sales charts for five years.
It's not, however, a revolution. Despite the guy down front in the "Not Ashamed of Natalie" T-shirt, this concert isn't focused on the flap that began in London on March 10, when lead singer Natalie Maines decried Dubya's war in Iraq by saying she was ashamed he came from the same state she does.
The fallout from that one sentence had some naysayers predicting the demise of the band a couple of months ago. Country radio stations pandering to their conservative listeners and corporate owners banned Chicks songs and held CD-destruction parties.
In the face of all the Bible Belt blustering, Maines apologized a few days later. But as they revved up for their sold-out American tour that began May 1, record sales rebounded from their brief dip and the Chicks stood firm in their right to freedom of expression, saying in a prime-time interview they supported the troops but still questioned the war. On May 2, the trio thumbed their, er, noses, at critics from the cover of Entertainment Weekly magazine, where they appeared clad only in strategically placed labels like "Patriots," "Traitors," "Proud Americans" and "Saddam's Angels."
In Greensboro on May 17, after two months of death-threat letters, fiddler Martie Maguire made the evening's only direct reference to the controversy.
"We have an all-new appreciation for our fans, and for how intelligent, reasonable and real you all are," Maguire said at the end of "Traveling Soldier," the love story of a young woman and her boyfriend killed in Vietnam, which, ironically, sat atop country radio charts the week Maines criticized Bush. "You're the voice of reason when there are a lot of kooks out there who are just plain mean."
It was utterly possible to bask in two hours of powerhouse music without subtleties. But beneath the surface, the politics lurked like the bass beat of a far-off stereo.
The pre-concert music, hand-chosen by the Chicks, included several politically oriented songs and videos by various artists, including Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," a Vietnam anthem that's simultaneously patriotic and anti-war. The Boss backed the Chicks during the March madness, calling their radio banishment "un-American."
Maines' delivered one telling lyric, "You don't like the sound of the truth coming from my mouth" with a lot of punch, while video images of Martin Luther King Jr. speeches, book-burnings and peace marches flashed overhead and the crowd roared.
The Chicks' costumes also seemed to poke a little fun at militarism. Maguire sported skin-tight fatigues decorated with war medals and service chevrons, complete with patent-leather Army boots, and Maines donned olive-green cargo pants with several chains slung across her shoulder, guerilla-style.
If anyone in the sold-out crowd objected to the Chicks' unspoken beliefs, they were quiet about it, while like-minded fans said the Bush hoopla was a just a sideshow.
Partners Kevin and Pierce Wright and their friend Bonnie Credle, like the Chicks themselves, buck the conservative stereotypes of country music. The 20-something trio says the Chicks are the only band in the genre they listen to, and describe their own politics as progressive and anti-war. Asked what brought them all the way from Asheville to see the band, Credle says: "They're cute, they're girls, they kick ass."