“You’re going all the way to Ireland to see the Dixie Chicks?”
It’s impossible to count how many times I fielded that question this year when I told people about my May travel plans.
In my mind, it didn’t seem strange to build a vacation around a concert — especially one featuring a band that, for me, had taken on almost mythical status, because I assumed I would never see them in concert. In a cruel twist, I started appreciating the brilliance of the Texas trio only about 10 years ago, when I realized how deeply songs like the self-assured “The Long Way Around” and mournful “Cold Day in July” hit home. Of course, just as they went on a decade-long hiatus after the fallout of lead singer Natalie Maines criticizing President George W. Bush.
The band members went their separate ways, and I figured I missed my chance to see them live — and assumed it was karmic justice for making fun of my best friend in middle school for liking their twangy 1998 hit “Wide Open Spaces.”
So when they announced last year that they were reuniting and going on tour in Europe in spring 2016, my friends and I immediately bought tickets. Little did we know, a few months later, that the group would announce, in a surprising move, they were also headlining a tour in the United States for the first time in a decade.
No matter — I was actually intrigued to see the Dixie Chicks, one of the top-selling female groups in history, in both Europe and America. After all, there’s still no love lost between the trio and the relatively conservative U.S. country music industry, which all but blacklisted them after Maines told a London crowd in 2003, right before the Iraq War, that she was ashamed that the president was from their home state of Texas. Although the trio is still polarizing stateside, would it be any different abroad?
Most striking, I found, were the similar crowd reactions on each continent for the DCX MMXVI tour. Even after their controversy, the Dixie Chicks still don’t hold back. Exhibit A: the background video for their performance of “Goodbye Earl,” their smash in which a woman poisons her abusive husband. During the song, the screen showed photos of abusive men through history: O.J. Simpson, Chris Brown, Robert Durst . . . and a picture of Donald Trump with devil horns drawn on.
At the sold-out Dublin concert at 3Arena (capacity: 9,500), the image drew some of the loudest cheers of the night. In Virginia at Jiffy Lube Live, with an audience more than double the size? The cheers also exploded, if you needed proof that anti-Trump sentiment runs deep.
At the Virginia concert, Maines engaged the crowd even further when she called out various posters that fans were holding in the air: More than one sign read “F.U.D.T.,” a Trump call-out and reference to Maines’s famous “F.U.T.K.” T-shirt, a not-so-subtle message to country star Toby Keith, who publicly feuded with Maines in 2003.
“F.U.D.T. — I like it,” Maines said approvingly.
Talking to concertgoers at each show, it turns out that regardless of location, nothing the Dixie Chicks said could change how fans feel about them. In Virginia, a couple of people (who declined to be quoted by name) said they wished that the group would just leave politics out of music. But a more frequent response was that it actually made some like them more.
“I became a fan because they were bold,” said Diane Whaley, a resident of Charlottesville who planned to buy a T-shirt with the phrase “Not Ready to Make Nice,” the fiery 2006 song on the Dixie Chicks’ last album — which won album of the year at the Grammys — that addressed the aftermath of the controversy. “What they [said] then is nothing compared to what politics is now.”
“They were, like, three to five years early on being a little too radical,” agreed Lisa Icenroad of Washington, adding that if Maines’s statement had come a few years later, when people were more critical of the war, it likely would have been a blip on the radar.
In Ireland, I asked various fans how the controversy registered in the U.K., and many shared the same thoughts: It definitely wasn’t a big deal. Among the responses: “No one really cared,” “I don’t really remember it,” “I thought they were right, anyway,” “This side of the pond agreed with them,” “They said what they felt — that’s what we liked.”
Another poignant similarity was at the end of both concerts, as the Dixie Chicks (Maines along with sisters Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire) close out each show with a cover of Ben Harper’s “Better Way.” In Dublin, Maines explained that they wanted to end on a song about “finding a better way in this world of hatred that we’re sometimes living in.” She urged the Irish crowd to “put the good vibes out there in the universe to all the nutjobs out there trying to ruin our good times.”
Sadly, the idea was more relevant just two months later.
“There’s a lot of hatred in this world right now,” Maines said again, specifically calling out the “horrible” mass shooting in Orlando. “We can’t just live like that.”
Really, the differences were quite small: At 3Arena, security wouldn’t allow people in the seated areas to stand up and dance (it’s venue policy), so the attendees got out their energy by stomping their feet on the floor. Predictably, the crowd went especially crazy with the “drink with the Irish . . . ” line during “The Long Way Around.”
At Jiffy Lube Live, there was plenty of dancing. And at one point, Maines brought out a cutout of “Flat Ronnie,” Howard Stern’s limo driver who has become a cult favorite figure — an inside joke that would not have translated in Europe. The group tweaked the set list as well, adding “Some Days You Gotta Dance” and “Everybody Knows,” which were singles in the United States.
But overall, the shows were remarkably similar, between the energy in the crowd (I got chills both times hearing the first notes of the “The Long Way Around,” their opening song) and the trio’s own chemistry on stage. Highlights included the wistfulness still evident during their famed cover of “Landslide” as well as the delight they took in covering Beyoncé’s “Daddy Lessons,” the country-inspired song on her new album “Lemonade.”
“Any of you have Beyoncé’s new album? It’s a masterpiece,” Maines said in Dublin. “And if Jay Z did cheat on her, then it’s awesome that she wrote an entire album about it. Sounds like something I would do.” The crowd in Europe loved it just as much as the American one.
Seeing the concerts two months apart was a valuable lesson that seems so obvious but is easy to forget: No matter where you live or what you believe in, at their core, people are always more alike than you expect. And, frankly, I appreciated the group’s message with “Better Way”: Considering all the insanity happening in the world, it was unexpectedly uplifting for the common thread to be something as pure as music.