NYT: Grammy Sweep By Dixie Chicks Seen As Vindication
February 13, 2007
Grammy Sweep by Dixie Chicks Is Seen as a Vindication
By JEFF LEEDS
LOS ANGELES, Feb. 12 — The Dixie Chicks’ big win at the Grammy Awards on Sunday exposed ideological tensions between the music industry’s Nashville establishment and the broader, more diverse membership of the Recording Academy, which chooses the Grammy winners, according to voters and music executives interviewed afterward.
To some, the voting served not only as a referendum on President Bush’s handling of the Iraq war, but also on what was perceived as country music’s rejection — and radio’s censorship — of the trio.
Jeff Ayeroff, a longtime music executive and an academy member, said the resounding endorsement of the group reflected the fact that the academy represents “the artist community, which was very angry at what radio did, because it was not very American.” Mr. Ayeroff said he voted for the Dixie Chicks in at least one category.
At the awards on Sunday, the band — Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison — swept all five of the Grammy categories in which it was nominated, including the top three — album, record and song of the year — the first time all three have been swept in 14 years.
The awards amounted to vindication for the Dixie Chicks, who found their career sidetracked in 2003 after the singer Ms. Maines told a London concert audience shortly before the invasion of Iraq that the band was “ashamed” that the president hailed from their home state, Texas. In the furor that followed, country radio programmers pulled the multiplatinum-selling trio’s music from the airwaves and rallied listeners to destroy their CDs.
The storm flared anew last year when the Dixie Chicks released the album “Taking the Long Way,” which included the single “Not Ready to Make Nice,” a defiant and bitter response to the group’s treatment. And things got worse when band members said in interviews that they were not interested in being part of the commercial country music business; Ms. Maguire, who plays the fiddle, said the group would rather have fans “who get it” instead of “people that have us in their five-disc changer with Reba McEntire and Toby Keith.” Country stations once again all but ignored the Dixie Chicks’ music.
The sweep reflected something of a retort to the Country Music Association’s annual awards, held in November, when the Dixie Chicks were shut out. The vote by the Recording Academy, which is composed of performers, producers, engineers, executives and others across the country, evidently took a different view.
“I think it says that, by and large, the creative community sees what has happened to the Dixie Chicks as unfair and unjust,” said Mike Dungan, a longtime music executive who heads the C.M.A.’s board and is also the president and chief executive of the Capitol Nashville label. (Mr. Dungan said he was not speaking on behalf of the C.M.A.)
But even without support from country music’s traditional institutions, the album became something of a hit. “Taking the Long Way,” bolstered by brisk sales at Starbucks, Amazon and other less traditional outlets, has sold almost 1.9 million copies, and ranked as one of the year’s 10 best sellers. But it fell short compared with albums that did have support from country radio, including those by Carrie Underwood and Rascal Flatts. The trio’s concert tour also appeared weakened by the controversy.
As far as Grammy voters were concerned, the Dixie Chicks “made a great album this year, and their music and their commentary resonated with our membership, as it did with the entire nation,” said Neil Portnow, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the Recording Academy’s formal title.
But it is not clear that the support was uniform. Mr. Ayeroff, who founded the voter-registration group Rock the Vote, said a man sitting behind him in the Grammy audience snickered each time the Dixie Chicks received another trophy. “Finally,” Mr. Ayeroff said, “I got so disgusted, I turned around and said: ‘Dude, you’re in California now. Even our Republicans are Democrats.’ ”
It has been clear for years that the preferences of the Recording Academy’s voters differ from those of the traditional Nashville powers that be, particularly country’s major radio programmers. Sunday’s results marked the fourth year in a row that the Grammy winner in the best country album category — “Taking the Long Way” this time — was one that received scant interest from country radio. Last year the winner was Alison Krauss and Union Station for “Lonely Runs Both Ways.” (The last Grammy winner for best country album with significant country radio support was “Home,” the Dixie Chicks’ previous album, which won in 2003.)
Even the Dixie Chicks seemed unsurprised by the disparity. “When you go the C.M.A.’s, Alison Krauss doesn’t win female vocalist of the year or record of the year, but she wins it at the Grammys,” Ms. Maines said backstage. Ms. Maines contrasted the academy’s voters, who are spread among 12 chapters around the nation, with the traditional country music business. “As far as radio and the industry, they’re all right there on four blocks in Nashville.”
Veteran music executives say the membership of the C.M.A. tends to include more radio industry personnel than the Recording Academy. The C.M.A. has about 5,000 members, based primarily in or around Nashville; the academy has more than 11,000 voting members across the country, working in all genres.
The Grammy voting process switches into gear after Sept. 30, the end of the academy’s annual eligibility period for recordings. As a result, many academy members may have been considering their choices at a time when much of the nation’s attention was devoted to the midterm elections, when dissatisfaction with the Iraq war and other factors resulted in the Republicans’ loss of Congress. At the same time, “Shut Up & Sing,” a documentary about the Dixie Chicks’ experience, hit movie theaters.
Grammy nominations were announced in early December, with final ballots sent to voters about a week later.
But analysts said it would be a mistake to read the Dixie Chicks’ wins as simply a reflection of left-leaning ideology rather than the desire of many voters to strike a blow for freedom of expression. Consider “American Idiot,” the 2004 album by the punk-rock band Green Day. It was rife with political imagery, including lines like “Sieg Heil to the president gasman” and won the Grammy for best rock album. But though it also received nominations for album and record of the year, it won neither.