Revisiting the Chicks’ 2003 George Bush Controversy That Changed Country Music History

Revisiting the Chicks 2003 George Bush Controversy That Changed Country Music History

The Dixie Chicks Ron Wolfson/Getty Images

The Chicks sent shockwaves through the entertainment industry when they publicly took a stand against George Bush — and changed the course of country music forever.

Formerly The Dixie Chicks, Natalie MainesMartie Maguire and Emily Robinson were at the top of their game in the early 2000s, having sold more than 25 million records since their debut album, Wide Open Spaces, hit shelves in 1998. By 2003, their sixth LP, Home, had broken the one million mark, and their single, “Travelin’ Soldier,” skyrocketed to No. 1 on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart.

Things quickly changed for the Texas trio, however, when they flew overseas to London for a promotional concert just one week before President Bush confirmed the United States had entered the Iraq War. While on stage during the March 12, 2003, performance, Maines openly revealed that the band disagreed with Bush’s decisions.

“Just so you know,” she said between songs, “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

Two years after the attack on the World Trade Center, the country music scene was embracing patriotism more than ever — and the Chicks’ remarks were perceived as radical in comparison. The blowback was immediate, and Maines quickly released a statement in hopes of explaining herself.

“We’ve been overseas for several weeks and have been reading and following the news accounts of our governments’ position,” she wrote via the bands’ website, per The Guardian. “The anti-American sentiment that has unfolded here is astounding. While we support our troops, there is nothing more frightening than the notion of going to war with Iraq and the prospect of all the innocent lives that will be lost.”

She continued, “I feel the President is ignoring the opinions of many in the US and alienating the rest of the world. My comments were made in frustration and one of the privileges of being an American is you are free to voice your own point of view.”

The explanation did little in the moment, and country music stations throughout the United States began pulling The Chicks’ music amid listener complaints and allegations of “Anti-American” rhetoric.  In Kansas City, a party called the “Chicken Toss” was allegedly by a radio station, where fans would trash the band’s tapes, CDs and concert tickets.

“Kansas City is definitely the heart of the Midwest,” Dale Carter, program director and morning host, KFKF Kansas City, told Billboard in June 2022 while reflecting back on the moment. “KFKF is a very patriotic radio station, and the calls came in immediately: ‘Get that off the air.’ At the time, there were nine titles of theirs that were testing for gold [in our rotation], so it took a large bite out of our library.”

Mitch Mahan, who was program director at WIRK in West Palm Beach at the time, told the outlet that their station was simply listening to “what listeners [wanted]” when they decided to pull The Chicks from the airwaves. “And they were telling us they don’t want the Dixie Chicks,” he claimed. “Any business where you’ve got a product that’s extremely popular, and then one day it’s making everybody ill, well, you pull that product from your shelves.”

“I’ve heard the conspiracy theories that we banned the Dixie Chicks,” he continued. “No, we didn’t. The audience just didn’t want to hear them anymore.”

Two days after Maines’ remarks made headlines, she publicly apologized to the president. “As a concerned American citizen, I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful,” she said in a statement shared via The Chicks’ website. “I feel that whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect. We are currently in Europe and witnessing a huge anti-American sentiment as a result of the perceived rush to 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.”

Despite the apology, the Chicks continued to receive backlash from the country music scene. Toby Keith, who released “Courtesy of Red, White and Blue (the Angry American)” inspired by the victims of 9/11, displayed Maines’ photo next to an image of Saddam Hussein at his concerts. The Chicks, for their part, responded by posing nude on the cover of Entertainment Weekly while covered in graffiti phrases that included “big mouth” and “traitors.” Maines later sported a T-shirt with the letters “FUTK” on stage at the 2003 ACM Awards, with many believing the “TK” stood for Keith’s initials.

The 41st Annual GRAMMY Awards, The Chicks
Although country music pushed back against The Chicks, they sold almost 900,000 tickets in the first weekend of their 2003 tour. Months later, they were declared Billboard’s top-selling country artist. Their seventh album, Taking The Long Way, was released in 2006 and sold 526,000 copies in its first full week, earning them five Grammys.

Since that fateful 2003 day, The Chicks have continued to be vocal about their political views. In 2020, the trio sang the National Anthem during the 2020 Democratic National Convention.

“I think we were one of the first people to feel that ‘cancel culture’ and I think, you know, what we said — or, what I said — back then would not even be a thing today because it was really mild compared to what people say today,” Maines said during a 2020 episode of Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen. “On one hand, everyone has this forum where they can say whatever they want to say, but on the other hand this platform can move really quickly and ruin people’s lives.”

While speaking with Allure later that year, Maines recalled how shocked she and her bandmates were that fellow country musicians were so quick to ostracize her and her bandmates at the time.

“When we started doing this music, I liked the people in our industry. We always waved that country flag when people would say it wasn’t cool. And then to see how quickly the entire industry turned on us,” she said. “I wanted the audience to know who we were and what we were about. I do not like when artists get on their soapbox — it’s not what people are there for; they’re there to listen to your music — [but] the politics of this band is inseparable from the music.”

While the moment remains infamous in country music lore – Taylor Swift told The Guardian in 2019 that the “No. 1 thing they drill into you as a country artist is…‘Don’t be like the Dixie Chicks!’” — the trio paved the way for more progressive artists to speak their truth. In recent years, Kacey MusgravesKelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris are just a few musicians to push for more diversity in the genre.

“I don’t care if it’s awkward [with them] sitting down the row from you at the next awards show. Call them out!” Morris said in February 2021 interview of country artists’ responsibility to have tough conversations with their peers. “If this is a family and you love it, call it out when it’s bad so you can rid the diseased part [and] we can move forward. All of us — people of color, LGBTQ+ and all — feel like we are a part of this family. This whole ‘We’re a family, we’re protecting our own’ [idea] is protecting white people. It’s not protecting Black people, and that’s the long and the short of it.”