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Oh Say, Can You See

(Song: "The Star-Spangled Banner")

When the Dixie Chicks sang the National Anthem at the 2003 Super Bowl, they were country music's sweethearts. Natalie, at the center with her pearl stud earrings and thick black eyeliner. Martie and Emilythe twin backup duoflanking her in their symmetrical, fresh-pressed blazers. All with blushed cheeks and pin-straight hair that could be featured in a "homemakers" section of Garden & Gun magazine, their glossy lips harmonized, soft Texas twangs clearly audible in their notes. The audience rose, eyes closed and hands pressed against hearts. Fireworks erupted at the edge of the stadium. The camera focused on an elderly veteran in a Corps of Cadets cap as their words reverberated across the stands:

For the land of the free, and the home of the brave!

Who would have guessed that just months later, these words and others would appear stenciled in black across their glossy naked bodies on the cover of Entertainment Weekly:

Brave, Traitors, Big Mouth, Free, Dixie Slut, Patriot

And this same audience would pause at grocery store check-out lines and glare.

A House That Might Have Been a Home

(Song: "A Home")

I was nine years old the first time I saw them on TV, in a recording of a stop on their 2003 "Top of the World Tour." I remember watching fixated from the itchy yellow couch in my father's little house in central North Carolina; the couch that became the dining room table when we didn't have one, the house where mold crept out of tiles in the bathroom floor, tangerines rotted in the fridge, and artistic renditions of the crucifixion clung to the walls.

Photos by the author.

I remember my father rising each time the faces on the screen dissolved into static to adjust the bunny ears on the old thrift store TV. It was almost as if the TV itself was struggling to keep up with the frenetic pace of Martie's fiddle, the rises and falls of Natalie's raspy yet pristine voice, the clicking heels of cowgirl boots in the stands.

They sang about vacant fields and too-small houses and sinning housewives, backroads and bruises and broken homes.

Until that night, I had only heard them on the radio, only seen them airbrushed across magazine covers. But, here in my living room, they were spunky and vivid and brutally raw. In my nine-year old world, where I was constantly contrasting myself to the girls on my soccer team, with their freshly bleached jerseys and parents who ate at fancy restaurants, these songs created a space where, for a few moments, I was okay with the mold between the tiles on my father's bathroom floor. I was one of many girls with hand-me-down clothes and skinned knees, a stepdad who slammed doors too hard, and a yearning for wide open spaces.

It's okay to come from a place with visible flaws, they told me as the screen blinked from clear to fuzz, It's okay not to be picture perfect.

Mirror in the Sky

(Song: "Landslide")

In September 2001, less than 18 months before the "Top of the World Tour" kicked off, the world fell into disarray. In central North Carolina, we were too far away from the crash to feel the immediate shock, but our parents still showed up at school unexpectedly early, with hazy eyes and quivering hands. They tried to shield us, but the destruction was everywhere. We saw it on the front pages of newspapers, on the blinking screens of every TV: the clouds of smoke, the pinprick bodies frozen mid-air, the stacks of windows like tiny mirrors, reflecting the city back to itself before shattering to the ground. For years afterwards, we would see these buildings crash again and again in our collective memory, and be confronted by our own fragility.

*

Near the end of the "Top of the World Tour" recording, the band numbed the room with their famous cover of the old Stevie Nicks song Landslide:

Mirror in the sky, what is love?

Can the child within my heart

Rise above?—

*

What happened to the Dixie Chicks? The radio DJs would ask, just a few months later.

*

As the fiddle softened its final notes, everything was holding its breath; suspended in a moment somewhere between crash and landing, a fragility still too tender to define or resolve—

And I saw my reflection in a snow covered hill

But a landslide brought me down…

*

What's up with those crazy Dixie Sluts? The bros would soon sneer from their trucks when a local station dared play one of their songs.

*

Maybe this was the problem all along: It's easy to love something in its perfect, self-contained form. Natalie, Martie, and Emily were never supposed to speak beyond their songs. They were never supposed to represent anything other than an ideal, a perfect narrative carefully constructed to reach a certain audience. The White. The Rural. The Proud. The Tongue-in-Cheek. The Fiercely Loyal. The Self-Identified Free and Brave. The Spunky, but Never Blatantly Deviant.

*

Inevitably, the debris finished falling, the dust settled, the schools reopened. And folks, still fragile, were left to fill the gaps in the sky, searching for someone to blame—

Yes, I saw my reflection in a snow-covered hill

But a landslide brought me down

Sometimes, after our mirrors crumble, it becomes easier to hide our flaws than to examine our own architecture. It becomes easier to shun our outliers than to find new ways to see ourselves.

Me, I've been a Long Time Gone

(Song: "Long Time Gone")

I left home after high school and resolved not to look back.

I was tired of wearing clothes scavenged from the lost and found, of cockroaches crawling from the kitchen sink, of my stepdad's constant joblessness and my mother's mental unravelings—all of these things that refused to change, no matter how much I willed change onto them. I was tired of being the "angry feminist bitch" in school, of constantly feeling at odds with my surroundings. I yearned for a place that I could fold into easily, a big city to mold my perceived dysfunctions into eccentricities.

I would listen to the 2003 hit "Long Time Gone" on repeat throughout my teenage years, driving too-fast down country roads near my mother's house, the windows of my battered Oldsmobile gaping:

I caught wind and hit the road running

And lord, I've been a long time gone—

I wanted the classic American escape story: to travel the world, to learn to navigate the New York City subway system, to befriend beautiful strangers, and to watch home shrink in the rearview mirror as I revved the engine, veered onto unfamiliar highways. To grow out of my roots.

Photos by the author.

So I left. I went to college up north, I marched in protests, I traveled and dropped my accent and I poured myself into men who refused to look me in the eye. I tried my hardest not to dwell. But the further I went, the more the ache in my gut swelled. It took me a long time to identify this feeling as homesickness. It was a contradiction to be homesick for a place that I never thought would miss me. It was also a privilege to have mobility; to feel the gravitational pull of a particular place, to have somewhere to safely return.

Maybe the band faced a similar dilemma in the wake of what happened next: How do you hold onto your roots, while moving forward?

I'll Fly Away on a Sin Wagon

(Song: "Sin Wagon")

It was a slip of the tongue really. An off-the-cuff remark meant as stage banter. Probably it would have been completely innocuous if it had come from the mouth of a man. But maybe the context gave it extra weight. Nine days before Bush started dropping bombs on Iraq, less than two years after the towers fell. Everything still fragile, uncertain. And the fact that Natalie said it on foreign soil didn't help.

Opening night. London. March, 2003:

"We don't want this war. This violence. And we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas."

The audience burst in cheers. The audience, in London at least, was on their side.

But then a Texas radio station picked up the comment. Then a newspaper. Then another radio station. Then the fans. The main fans. The White. The Rural. The Tongue-in-Cheek. The Self-Identified Free and Brave. The Fiercely Loyal. The Ones Who Wore Their Hometown Pride on their Shirtsleeves.

Words started spewing:

Dixie Cunt. Big mouth.

My aunt told me recently that, after she heard about Natalie's remarks, she took the "Home" album and smashed it over her knee. She wasn't the only one. Conservative media across the country called for burnings of their CDs. A group of right-wing protesters in Texas encouraged fans to bring old Dixie Chicks albums to a protest, where they would be crushed by a bulldozer—

Burn the Bitch. Shut up.

Then the death threats started coming.

Saddam's Angels. Die. Shut up and Sing, Or Else.  

EARL HAD TO DIE

(Song: "Goodbye Earl")

"Goodbye Earl" was the first Dixie Chicks song to break the top 20s list. By now it has over 13 million YouTube views. In the late '90s, the darkly humorous ballad about killing an abusive husband had hundreds of rhinestone clad housewives jumping up and down in the front rows at concerts, screaming and punching their fists into invisible beer-bellies.

I played "Goodbye Earl" for my college roommate the second week of freshman year, after we were both dumped by boys who only wanted us for our bodies.

I recited "Goodbye Earl" in my head at a comedy club in New York City, cringing through ultra-misogynistic sets directed at me and my female friends, before summoning the courage to get on stage and fire back with seven minutes of castration jokes.

I screamed "Goodbye Earl" around a campfire with middle school girls in West Virginia 'til our voices were hoarse. I knew from how they sang it that it meant something to them.

I blared "Goodbye Earl" in my car for two weeks after I was sexually assaulted by a coworker at my summer waitressing job, the bruise on my upper thigh still fading.

In many respects, "Goodbye Earl" was a feminist hit long before the Dixie Chicks openly embraced feminism. Through its dark humor, the song was able to give many of the women I can best relate to—White cisgendered women from the South—a way to speak about the bruises they'd so often been encouraged to hide.

The humor of "Goodbye Earl" says I have nothing left to lose. By deploying such humor, we can create alternative realities, inside of which we can look our perpetrators square in the eye and say, "Come at me. I dare you." We can break the arms off of men who grab our asses in bars. We can punch leering eyes black and blue. We can, for a brief moment, reclaim power that was lost in moments of violation.

Most survivors I know have had fantasies of hurting their abusers—call me a crazy misandrist. I dare you. Of course we wouldn't act on these fantasies, in most cases. But there is something empowering in choosing to laugh in the face of dangers, even those capable of killing us.

Recently, at a reunion concert in Cincinnati, the band performed "Goodbye Earl" in front of a picture of Donald Trump made to look like Satan. The message was clear: As long as the Patriarchy lives—as long as women have to fear that a casual date will result in an egregious violation, as long as men who brag about sexual assault can be elected president—Earl will always have to die.

Not Ready to Back Down

(Song: "Not Ready to Make Nice")

After Natalie's comments in London, country radio stations gave the band a choice: publically apologize, or be dropped from the air. Natalie issued a statement asserting her patriotism but denouncing the war: "While war may remain a viable option, as a mother, I just want to see every possible alternative exhausted before children and American soldiers' lives are lost. I love my country. I am a proud American." But this wasn't enough.

Treason. Boycott. Shut up and Sing.

Their 2006 album, "Taking the Long Way Around," was a direct response to the vitriol spewed against them. It was the first album they wrote entirely by themselves, a bold statement of their desire to maintain creative and ideological integrity, despite public scrutiny. As Bush's popularity dropped, the song "Not Ready to Make Nice" surged up the charts:

I'm not ready to make nice

I'm not ready to back down

I'm still mad as hell

and I don't have time to go round and round and round

The song won three Grammys. It would eventually become their most popular hit of all time. However, in the meantime, the band temporarily vanished from the American spotlight.

Tough Girl Is What I Had to Be

(Song: "Daddy Lessons")

Renowned Southern Appalachian author Thomas Wolfe titled his last novel You Can't Go Home Again. Country singer Miranda Lambert revisited Wolfe's words in the opening lyrics of her tear-jerking 2009 ballad, "The House That Built Me:" I know they say you can't go home again/ but I just had to come back one last time. These words tap into a sentiment that lies at the heart of country music: a deep sense of attachment to places of origin, and the constant aching to keep returning. Perhaps it is fitting that the first Dixie Chicks album I owned was entitled "Home."

*

In November 2016, Beyoncé asked the Dixie Chicks to join her at the Country Music Association Awards (CMAs) in a joint rendition of her recent country hit, "Daddy Lessons." The band hadn't performed at the awards since the early 2000s.

Photos by the author.

In Beyoncé's mainly R&B autobiographical album "Lemonade," "Daddy Lessons" stands out as a surprising, important homage to what, in other songs, she refers to as her creolized "country" roots. In the context of her other work, it sheds light on the intersection of her Southern history and her Black identity. The song unequivocally fits within the country genre, yet it was shunned by the Country Committee of the 2016 Grammys. It was also slammed by Nashville fans and critics, many of whom hailed from the same circles that ostracized the Dixie Chicks after Natalie's anti-war statements. After the joint CMAs performance, racist and sexist comments started pouring onto the CMAs Facebook page:

"Cop hating black panther loving b****"

"Dixie bitches"

"[crossing] the lines of the values we take pride in"

*

Country music, at least in the eyes of its most diehard fans, isn't supposed to be cosmopolitan. Rather than taking us to places we've never been, the genre is internally focused, allowing us to find sanctuary in what is most familiar, the houses that built us, as Lambert puts it. But contrary to its own celebrated origin stories, country music isn't the exclusive heritage of Whites alone. According to ethnomusicologist Dahleen Glanton, it emerged through the hybridization of "ballads and folksongs brought to the South by immigrants from the British Isles in the 18th and 19th centuries and the rhythmic influences of African [slaves]." However, Nashville and country music canons have long failed to acknowledge Black-American contributions to the genre. Thus, Black country musicians have been rendered invisible to country's predominantly White audience. "Daddy Lessons" resists this erasure, and the culture of White supremacy within the genre. This may be why many in the country music community found the song, and especially the collaborative performance, so threatening.

The social structure in the South has long been defined by rigid divisions, separating Black and White, rich and poor, old and new. In Country Music and the Construction of the Southern White Working Class, Sadie Rehm writes, "The association of working class whiteness with country music relies on countless historical discourses that claim that racial identities in the American South were clearly established, stable, and homogenous at the time of its commercialization." In joining together at the CMAs, Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks were destabilizing the region's fixed ideas of identity, reframing country music as an intersectional and complex cultural repository. Given how the genre has continuously wed itself to a scripted set of values and rigid identity oppositions, this was a radical, subversive statement.

The backlash from the country fan base, however, was by now all too familiar:

"A stain on country music"

"Un-American"

"They don't belong here." (1)

Meanwhile, and potentially as a response of the comments, the CMAs allegedly removed mention of the performance from their website. (2)

Boycott. Treason. Sluts. Big mouth. Traitor. Burn the Bitch.

*

While so much of country music is anchored in White desires to preserve history, memory, and local identity, the backlash on the CMAs' Facebook page highlights the dark side of this drive towards preservation. In particular, it illustrates the chronic attempts of White southerners to erase all that they don't consider to be at home in their midst. The comment that seems to appear most often on the thread speaks volumes:

They don't belong here.

*

Maybe this backlash represents the danger of White Southerners romanticizing the houses that built us. Maybe, when we speak of the house that built us, we are speaking a myth. Maybe the house didn't build us, we built it– deliberately, continuously, and through the exploited labor of others. We built it by locking certain doors, exiling some folks to the perimeters, closing the curtains to block out everything less-than-idyllic. And we continue to build the house every time we reinforce the façade without examining the flaws in the foundation, every time we look out the window and tighten the deadbolts, muttering they don't belong here. We continue to feed our myths whenever, in our attempts to cling to places we love, we don't allow these places to progress, expand, or exist in our minds as anything more than ideals. But still we keep trying to go home again.

Taking the Long Way Around

(Song: "The Long Way Around")

Earlier this year, I splurged on ground-level tickets to the Dixie Chicks' "MMXVI Reunion Tour." I drove four hours from my home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama to New Orleans for the event, blaring "Long Time Gone" for old-times' sake while vacant fields and ranch-style houses blurred past. The venue was packed; an eclectic mix of boys in camo, pristinely dressed sorority girls, and queer women waving "Earl Had to Die" signs.

As red, white, and blue confetti spiraled around us, I found myself immersed in conversation with the teenager sitting next to me, a thin wiry boy with a big smile and a high-pitched drawl. We gushed about how we couldn't contain our excitement. He told me that he had been "obsessed" with the band since elementary school, that their music gave him the courage to survive as a gay teenager growing up in rural Mississippi.

The Dixie Chicks perform in Northern Louisiana. Photos by the author.

The lights dimmed. The crowd squealed. Natalie tightened the strings of her guitar, and from the crowd, song broke out across the arena:

My friends from high school 
Married their high school boyfriends 
Moved into houses in the same ZIP codes 
Where their parents live

But I, I could never follow 

This, I thought, is the future of country music. This is the home I want to claim.

(1) Direct quotes from the CMAs' Facebook page.

(2) The CMAs have since denied these allegations.

Sarah Cheshire

Sarah Cheshire is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Alabama. She is the author of the award-winning chapbook "Unravelings" (Etchings Press); her writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction's 2014 anthology and was recently shortlisted for the American Shorter Fiction prize.