Washington (CNN)On the final night of the Democratic National Convention, the country band formerly known as the Dixie Chicks (Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire, and Emily Strayer) sang a moving a cappella version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
At first glance, the performance registered as a redemption arc: Once political pariahs, The Chicks have become political icons. That narrative, however, feels too pat, and it suggests that The Chicks had been trying to atone for something in the first place.No, save for a revised named, The Chicks haven’t changed. But their audience has.In 2003, during a concert in London, Maines, The Chicks’ lead singer, dissed then-President George W. Bush over the impending invasion of Iraq.”Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all,” she told the crowd. “We do not want this war, this violence. And we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas,” which is also Maines’ home state.Read MoreCountry radio retaliated with a boycott. Protesters demolished The Chicks’ CDs. On the Billboard Hot 100, the trio’s cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” slid from 10 to 43 and then off the chart — in just a couple weeks.But in the years since that fateful concert, The Chicks have stood by their political convictions.”It’s too late to make it right / I probably wouldn’t if I could / ‘Cause I’m mad as hell, can’t bring myself / To do what it is you think I should,” The Chicks sing on their 2006 hit “Not Ready to Make Nice.”The Chicks’ progressive bona fides extend beyond their criticism of the Iraq war and include their support for causes such as LGBTQ rights and gun control.Perhaps the group’s most explicit political statements since that 2003 dustup came earlier this summer.In June, The Chicks released the music video for “March March,” a song on the critically acclaimed “Gaslighter,” their first album since 2006’s “Taking the Long Way.” The clip points to a variety of social justice movements, past and present: women’s suffrage, environmental protection, Black Lives Matter.That same month, The Chicks dropped “Dixie” from their name because of the term’s racist baggage.”We felt like ‘Dixie’ is a word that does hold a lot of negative connotations and harkens back to a time in our country that brought pain to so many people,” Maines told Billboard magazine. “We are relieved to have a new name and shed the ‘Dixie’ once and for all.”For the most part, these statements went over without a hitch.Maybe that reception was because the broad-minded views that devastated the group’s career 17 years ago no longer seem so extreme. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center Survey, almost half of Americans think that the decision to use military force in Iraq was wrong; in 2003, that number was just 22%.But maybe it was because, like Taylor Swift, The Chicks have located and nourished a friendlier audience in the world of pop and Democratic politics.In its own way, the convention on Thursday reflected this shift. Surely, it was no coincidence that The Chicks performed for Democrats, when country artists tend to use their talents to celebrate the other major party.For instance, during the 2016 Republican National Convention, Chris Janson turned Tim McGraw’s 2012 song “Truck Yeah” into “Trump Yeah.”This isn’t to beat up on country music. In recent years, the famously stubborn and conflict-averse genre has signaled that change is afoot.”Country music artists are not endorsing (President Donald Trump) like they’ve done with previous presidents,” Stephanie Vander Wel — an associate professor of music at the University at Buffalo and the author of “Hillbilly Maidens, Okies, and Cowgirls: Women’s Country Music, 1930-1960” — said earlier this month. “This is due, at least in part, to the President’s racist rhetoric and policies. It has created room which is allowing some country artists to speak against police brutality, racism, and other polarizing issues.”Think of Dolly Parton, who usually keeps her political opinions close to the vest. In an interview with Billboard published last week, she made her views on the ongoing protests against police violence abundantly clear.”I understand people having to make themselves known and felt and seen,” she said. “And of course Black lives matter. Do we think our little White asses are the only ones that matter? No!”Country radio has yet to fully re-embrace The Chicks, though, as became apparent when their 2019 collaboration with Swift rekindled a bit of controversy.But who cares? Not The Chicks.Thursday night’s performance was less a redemption than a baptism. The Chicks still aren’t ready to make nice. But the thing is, they don’t have to be — not in the greener pastures, in the wide open spaces, they’ve found.