Memphis, TN 2003

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Here Come the Chicks

19,000 enjoy their freedom of expression

By Bill Ellis

Memphis Herald

Just like the Beatles in their day, controversy hasn't diminished the popularity of the Dixie Chicks.

Case in point was Saturday's sold-out concert at The Pyramid. Some 19,000 people and nary a protester came to see the million-selling country trio, who have the year's third-highest grossing American tour, according to concert source Pollstar.

And that despite the tremendous backlash - replete with radio playlist bannings and CDs being destroyed - which followed an Iraqi conflict-related comment by member Natalie Maines, who voiced shame that President Bush was from the band's state of Texas.

Fans don't all support said opinion; they, nonetheless, have exerted their own right to hear the Chicks in concert.

Like most, Onna Newell, 43, of Memphis - who was colorfully dressed down in honor of the group's tune White Trash Wedding - said she didn't necessarily appreciate what Maines had to say, but "they have great music, and that should be all we're concerned about tonight."

Cindy VanMeter, 21, of Leitchfield, Ky., didn't agree with what Maines said as well, but felt everybody has a right to free speech. Even though VanMeter and her cousin, Christina Decker, 22, bought tickets before Maines made her comment, they never considered getting rid of them.

"I said I'm not giving them up - I'm going," said Decker.

Rod Good, 44, of West Alexandria, Ohio, also bought tickets pre-comment for his family but had a different take: "Natalie made that statement later on, or I wouldn't be here, trust me."

Taking a silent stand were Connie Vaughan of Atoka, Tenn., and her husband Steve, both 52, who wore matching American flag shirts.

"I want her (Maines) to know we support the troops," she said, noting that she and her husband still planned on enjoying the show.

And enjoy the largely young and female crowd did.

Playing on an in-the-round stage that took up most of the arena floor but gave everyone a good view, the Chicks - fiddler Martie Maguire, banjoist Emily Robison and lead singer/guitarist Maines - embraced their commercially button-pushing image from the get-go: the opening song was good-time spouse-murdering hit Goodbye Earl, as endearing a number about doing in an abusive husband as ever penned.

And there was no misinterpreting the tune Truth No. 2, which was accompanied by a video montage of images from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X to clips of civil rights and gay and lesbian marches to book burnings to slogans such as Tolerance. A roar of applause followed.

But that's the charm of the Chicks. The band is able to make country music a relevant platform for ideas larger than conservative Nashville might like to address, and they do it in such a sweet, easeful way - with exquisite high lonesome harmonies and mighty instrumental chops - that you can't resist.

Not to mention that their instinctual way with a song hook, as on Long Time Gone and Sin Wagon (co-written by Memphian Stephony Smith), allows them to cross over to pop by expanding on their bluegrass foundation.

As for the trio's backup, the Chicks are no strangers to Bluff City musicians, having recorded with drummer Greg Morrow in the past. On this tour, they employ steel guitar/dobro great Robby Turner, who lent his gorgeous cascades of note-spinning to such tunes as Travelin' Soldier and Cowboy Take Me Away.

Teen star Michelle Branch opened the concert. With a pleasant cache of acoustic-strummed pop-rock riffs and ebullient melodies, the popular newcomer - who played such catchy hits as Everywhere and current chart climber Are You Happy Now? - showed why she is a Grammy winner at such a young age.

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