Dixie Chicks open their tour in the hostile South. Despite threats of protests, walk-outs, no-shows, and worse, the free speech trio triumph in their South Carolina debut

By Chris Willman
Updated May 02, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
Dixie Chicks
Credit: The Dixie Chicks: Rick Diamond/WireImage.com

If the fans in Greenville, S.C., were wondering how the Dixie Chicks were feeling about the heat they?ve been taking for an infamous anti-Bush remark, they didn?t even have to wait for the group to take the stage for their U.S. tour opener Thursday night at the Bi-Lo Arena. There was a considerable amount of cheekiness just in the selection of songs the group chose to have played over the arena P.A. prior to the curtain dropping.

A noticeable pattern began with ?(What?s So Funny ?Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding? by Elvis Costello, who dedicated that very song to the Chicks at a concert in L.A. last month. Next up was ?Born in the U.S.A? by Bruce Springsteen, who recently issued a statement in defense of the beleaguered Chicks. Then came such pointed choices as Tears for Fears? ?Everybody Wants to Rule the World,? Paul McCartney?s ?Band on the Run,? the Go-Gos? ?Our Lips are Sealed,? Tammy Wynette?s ?Your Good Girl?s Gonna Go Bad,? and, finally, R.E.M.?s ?It?s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).?

Is this controversy really the end of the Chicks? career as we know it? And should they feel — as Diane Sawyer suggested — ?awful,? instead of fine? Many of their detractors were looking forward to the Greenville show as a potential signpost of a well-deserved chastening for the Chicks. As Charles Crowe, a protester outside the venue, noted, ?This is Republican territory. You couldn?t get elected on a Democratic ticket around here if you were paying $1,000 a vote. In this area, I doubt if you?ll ever hear one of their songs on the radio anymore, because people would stop buying from their advertisers.?

The South Carolina legislature had passed a motion expressing its collective dismay with the band, and an alternative concert was organized in neighboring Spartanburg to celebrate veterans and woo away disgruntled Chicks fans. Prior to the show, the trio might well have been second-guessing the choice to open the tour in such an avidly conservative community and thinking of the words sung by another feisty crooner: ?If I can make it there, I?ll make it anywhere.?

Given all that pre-show drama, the event couldn?t have been considered anything but a triumph for the Chicks and a disappointment for those who hoped to see them embarrassed. Protesters against the group numbered fewer than 50, although their colorful signs — with slogans like ?Ashamed the Ditsy Chicks are from U.S.A.,? ?Nothing Dixie about these Chicks,? and ?Natalie Maines has wide open spaces between her ears!? — attracted plenty of attention from the dozens of TV crews and print reporters on hand. These demonstrators were about evenly matched by pro-Chicks picketers with signs like ?Support our Chicks!? And although there?d been threats that former fans might use their tickets to attend the show and boo or stand and turn their backs on the group, there were as few signs of dissent inside the hall as there were empty seats, which is to say, none.

?They said you might not come, but we knew you?d come, ?cause we have the greatest fans in the whole world!? Maines shouted after the third number, ?There?s Your Trouble,? as if to say: Where?s our trouble? ?Wait, I hear some booing,? she added, though none was evident over the deafening roar of approval. ?We have a plan for that. If you have to boo, we welcome that, because we welcome freedom of speech.? Maines announced that, on the count of three, anyone who wanted to express dissent would have 15 seconds to get it out of their system; naturally, none was evident amid the roar of approval.

After that, it was mostly the business as usual you?d expect at the opening night for a superstar act. The only other allusion to the controversy came during a video montage accompanying ?Truth No. 2,? which mostly sported vintage footage of civil rights marches before climaxing with clips of angry Americans burning or smashing recordings by the Beatles, Sinead O?Connor, and, yes, the Dixie Chicks. Maines did make a sly reference to the group?s Entertainment Weekly cover at one point, after an acoustic segment where all three Chicks sat down near the edge of the stage. ?I contemplated not wearing a skirt, because I knew I?d have to sit down,? she told the sold-out crowd of 15,000. ?Then I thought, ?Hell, these people have seen me naked!??

Bi-Lo Center building manager Dan Rubenstein said the arena had experienced an unprecedented amount of security: Bomb-sniffing dogs came through on Monday, and the hall was ?locked down? for the three days following that, with everyone entering the premises being ?wanded? with metal detectors — even, at one point, Maines herself. (No offense taken, apparently: ?That just made them feel better,? he laughed.) Incident-wise, ?it was a non-event,? he said, adding that the nearby alternative concert organized by conservative talk-show host Mike Gallagher and featuring the Marshall Tucker Band, probably siphoned off a good deal of those most likely to protest.

After the show, crowds milled around the myriad TV reporters doing live feeds for their respective stations. Among the onlookers was Bob Myers, who?d driven down two hours from North Carolina with his 9-year-old daughter, Lisa. ?My friends at work called me a communist! They said ?How could you go see the Dixie Chicks???

”Daddy, what’s a communist?” asked his daughter. ”It’s kind of a long story,” Myers told her.