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 / Updated  / Source: msnbc.com contributor
By Eric Olsen

Country music singers have always been a real close family, But lately some of my kin folk have disowned a few others and me. — “Family Tradition” by Hank Williams, Jr.

The Country Music Association’s 37th annual awards show, “country music’s biggest night,” what was originally “down home” rural music, is now mostly created in an urban setting by crack professionals for a primarily suburban audience. The awards show celebrating it is a hay wagon hauled by a limousine carrying aw-shucks millionaires in tuxedos and evening gowns, accessorized with cowboy hats and boots. And this year’s show ostentatiously excludes the industry’s biggest stars.

Not that there wasn’t plenty of star power on hand at the Grand Ole Opry House this year. As usual, it was an entertainment extravaganza, boasting performances by host Vince Gill, Dolly Parton and Norah Jones, and last year’s five-award winner and Entertainer of the Year Alan Jackson joined by Jimmy Buffett. The emotional centerpiece of the evening was a musical tribute to the legendary Man In Black, Johnny Cash, who died in September at 71, just months after his wife June Carter Cash.

Cash was saluted by Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Travis Tritt and Hank Williams, Jr., drawing together the disparate elements of rock, pop, folk, Americana, bluegrass, Western, Outlaw and traditional country under the enormously inclusive umbrella of American music that was his.

But the eclectic Cash’s departure starkly underlines a rather uncomfortable fact: the Big Tent of country music, at least as sanctioned by the industry establishment, is shrinking. Of the remaining live performers on the show — Gary Allan, Brooks & Dunn, Kenny Chesney, Terri Clark, Buddy Jewel, Toby Keith, Allison Krauss, Patty Loveless, Martina McBride, Tim McGraw, Joe Nichols, Rascal Flatts, Blake Shelton, George Strait, Shania Twain, Darryl Worley — one name is glaring by its omission, the Dixie Chicks.

The Chicks, multiple Grammy and past CMA winners including 2000’s Entertainers of the Year and last year’s Vocal Group Award, are neither presenters nor performers in this year’s awards show even though they are nominated for Vocal Group of the Year and Album of the Year for “Home.” Apparently, the biggest-selling stars in all of country music — with three multi-platinum albums, the record-shattering “Top of the World” tour just behind them, and two CD and DVD recordings of the tour — no longer fit in the tent, which now seems to require a political loyalty oath for inclusion.

While country music has always swung in wide arcs between emphasis on “authentic” sounds and perspectives, and more “accessible” pop and crossover stylings, the differential has rarely been as starkly political as it is now as a result of the firestorm set off by the Dixie Chicks’ anti-Bush and anti-war statements in the midst of a nation- and industry-wide surge in patriotism inspired by the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Chick power
Grounded in the rich artistic soil of Texas, the Dixie Chicks — bantam Natalie Maines on lead vocals and guitar, statuesque sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire on fiddle, banjo, dobro and harmony vocals — shot to prominence in 1998 with the release of their “Wide Open Spaces” album, which went on to sell 11 million copies on the strength of bluegrass chops, pop melodies, rock rhythms and a brash “girl power” attitude. Their monosyllabic follow-ups “Fly” and “Home” both debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart and solidified the Chicks’ position as commercial and critical superstars.

But then beginning Monday, March 10 of this year, the Chicks ruffled a few million feathers. In London to accept an award just as tension was peaking before the launch of American-led military action in Iraq, Maines announced from the stage, “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” Pressed later for an explanation, she said “There is nothing more frightening than the notion of going to war with Iraq.”

As the reports crossed the Atlantic, there was an explosion of protest against Maines’ statements on talk and country radio, viewed by many nervous Americans as blatantly unpatriotic, not to mention as ill-timed grandstanding for the benefit of a generally anti-war English audience.

Pressure mounted daily and Maines offered a semi-apology that Friday: “I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful… 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 am a proud American.”

That same night, March 14, Toby Keith — who was nominated for seven CMA awards, performed live at the show, and who has a new album, “Shock N’ Y’all,” out this week — began his assault on Maines, telling a room full of reporters before his Oklahoma City concert that she has “got a big mouth.” But the antagonism between blustery ex-truck driver Keith and Maines goes back further still, and represents the two ends of the country political spectrum rather well.

“Don’t get me started,” Maines told the Los Angeles Daily News in August 2002 about Keith’s retribution and testosterone-laden song “Courtesy Of the Red, White & Blue.” “I hate it. It’s ignorant and it makes country music sound ignorant. It targets an entire culture … and not just the bad people who did bad things. You’ve got to have some tact.”

Keith quickly began working his feelings about Maines into his act, addressing an Alabama crowd in late-March: “Are there any angry Americans in Alabama tonight? Thank you for your patriotism and support of my song. I’m angry about a lot of things … about a singer in a band called the Dixie Chicks … She was also recently on a European tour where there was an antiwar flavor and said some things about President Bush and the war. So, what do I think about her?” Keith asked. A photo of Maines and Saddam Hussein together appeared above the stage to screams from the audience. Toby Keith performed before President Bush and military personnel at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., on March 26. The Dixie Chicks did not.

Jingoistic aggression vs. internationalist tact: which side do you think the country music industry and country radio took? Who performed at the awards show?

The Chicks have been vilified, burned in effigy, boycotted, denigrated, and debated ad nauseum because one member made a rather mild anti-Bush statement from a stage in London. Why? The country establishment sees itself as about patriotism and the core American values of loyalty and respect for tradition (in addition to drinking, fighting and cheating, but that’s another story), all of which were perceived as being violated by Natalie Maines’ comments: “You have turned on us and our values.”

But in a country built on the notion of free speech, isn’t there room for a woman to express her political opinion without being cast from the shrinking Big Tent? Isn’t it supposed to be about the music anyway?

Eric Olsen is the editor of Blogcritics.org and a frequent contributor to MSNBC.com.