The all-female country band, which survived an instance of proto-cancel culture for its politics in the past, again wants to meet the current moment.
In late June, the Dixie Chicks dropped the word “Dixie” from its name. The band’s statement was brief and elegant: “We want to meet this moment.” The Dixie Chicks were founded in Texas, in 1989. Back then, the band was a four-piece. (The sisters Martie and Emily Erwin, now Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer, are the remaining original members; since 1995, the band has been fronted by the singer and guitarist Natalie Maines.) They wore prairie skirts and fringed blouses, and played a mixture of bluegrass and traditional country—cowgirls with chops. The band’s name was a riff on “Dixie Chicken,” a 1973 album by the chooglin’ rock band Little Feat. Sifting through early press coverage of the group, I couldn’t find a single critic who thought the name was repugnant.
Yet, among historians, there is little ambiguity about what the word “Dixie” communicates. Its use as a doting nickname for the Confederacy was popularized by “I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land,” a minstrel song published in 1860 and usually performed in blackface. The song is credited to Daniel Decatur Emmett, a white man from Knox County, Ohio, though the scholars Howard and Judith Sacks have suggested that Emmett stole the tune from the Snowdens, a family of freed slaves who performed and farmed around Emmett’s home town.
“Dixie songs”—which typically expressed nostalgia for the antebellum South—continued to appear throughout the first decades of the twentieth century. “They were quite popular. Irving Berlin even wrote one,” Karen L. Cox, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the author of “Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture,” told me recently. She does not find the word to be merely descriptive: “As a scholar of the South, I regard ‘Dixie’ as a term that not only refers to the states of the former Confederacy but is synonymous with segregation.” Cox cited the Dixiecrats, the group formed in 1948, by Strom Thurmond and other Southern Democrats who seceded from the Democratic Party because they disagreed with its support of civil rights. “These resonances are part of what the Dixie Chicks selected when they selected the name, whether they intended to or not,” Gregory Downs, a professor of history at the University of California at Davis, said. “It’s important that they—and everyone who received that message of white Southern pride—think about what they took on.”
Within modern country music, tropes that address a kind of vigilante Southern swagger—an insistence on both the rebelliousness and the deep moral purity of the Southern states—remain wildly popular, even rooted as they are in racial violence. Yet country music itself owes an incalculable debt to the Black string bands and players—the Mississippi Sheiks, Gus Cannon, Frank Patterson, and Nathan Frazier, among others—who predated the proliferation of the phonograph. (There are several compilations of the few Black string bands that did record; two exceptional ones are “Altamont: Black Stringband Music from the Library of Congress” and “Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia.”) Early labels deliberately sold country and hillbilly 78s to white customers, and blues and jazz 78s (or “race records”) to Black customers, thereby enforcing a racial fissure along genre lines.
For the descendants of people subjugated under slavery, neither intention nor ignorance now feels like a reasonable defense of these tropes. Yet white history is frequently marked by a kind of inherited blindness. In “Southern Accents,” published last year, Michael Washburn dissects how, in 1985, Tom Petty—a Floridian—used Confederate iconography to promote a concept album about the South. Washburn suggests that ideas of Southern heritage are frequently and purposefully divorced from the historical record. “We inherit, restate, sometimes re-inscribe these notions, and then represent these ideas to the world,” Washburn writes. “If we push hard enough on just about any part of our life, we plunge through the surface into a history that’s unknown to us even as it structures much of how we live.”
Is it possible to love a place and to also disclaim its history? Does the place begin to disappear when its foundational myths are challenged? Washburn jokingly describes Faulkner’s oft-quoted line about the nature of time—“The past is never dead, it’s not even past”—as “the first Southern-history meme.”
The Chicks have been at the center of controversy before. In 2003, nine days before the American invasion of Iraq, the band performed in London. As Maines introduced the single “Travelin’ Soldier,” she told the crowd that she was ashamed that the President of the United States was from Texas. When the backlash came, it was precipitate, catastrophic, and unrelenting. The Chicks had recently become the only female band in any genre to have released two consecutive diamond-certified albums, signifying sales of ten million copies or more. In our era of anemic chart numbers and fragmented attention, it’s difficult to reckon with sales of that magnitude. There was a lot to lose.