Dixie Chicks – “Travelin’ Soldier”

Released: 1.07.03

Peak: #25

They were supposed to be uniters, not dividers. Given the success of the O Brother soundtrack and mainstream country’s post-9/11 turn toward a rootsier shade of gloss, the pop bluegrass of Home seemed custom-designed to bridge Nashville and NPR. That the Dixie Chicks genuinely succeeded in holding this composite audience together for a time only made the 2003 jingoist snit against Natalie Maines that much more discouraging.

Like too much neo-bluegrass, Home erred on the arid side. But unlike most musicians pining for a simpler time, the Chicks put their money where their knees jerked. (Anyone know the last uptempo song without drums to make country radio before “Long Time Gone”?) And Maines sang “Landslide” as though not currently experiencing its emotions, but rather recalling a time the song had her emotionally in the past, an exercise in meta-nostalgia that snugly fit the Home concept.

And the Chicks’ harmonies add a chilly edge to the folk-like melody of Bruce Robison’s “Travelin’ Soldier.” Amidst pro-war hysteria and last-ditch anti-war desperation, the number one country song at the start of 2003 was a thoughtful murmur of non-partisan realism more effective than a dozen protest numbers. The song’s climax, which contrasts an official public memorial for fallen troops with a woman’s actual bereavement for a single man spells out simple moral: To be memorialized as a soldier is not the same as being remembered as a human being.

Then came Maines’ nation-imperiling wisecrack about our embarrassing president and “Travelin’ Soldier” evaporated from country radio. And the Chicks’ commercial tailspin wasn’t just their loss. Its wise title track aside, the tepid Taking the Long Way offered proof that blue states do not have better taste than reds, and when it debuted at number one, liberal blogs “supporting” the album proved themselves as dim as their right-wing counterparts. All art may be political, but that hardly means all art is or should be electoral. The inability to make this distinction is yet another casualty of the Bush era.

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