HITS Daily Double
“The Dixie Chicks became the epicenter of a cultural battle… We were living in, and maybe still are, a flag-waving, fear-mongering political environment.”


An exclusive HITS dialogue with Barbara Kopple, Co-Director of Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing
Two-time Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple broke into the business with her 1976 Oscar winner Harlan County U.S.A., about striking coal miners in Kentucky, and earned another statue for her 1991 film American Dreams, which dealt with labor strife at the Hormel Foods plant in Minnesota. After helming docs about Mike Tyson, Gregory Peck and Woody Allen, she turned her attention to the Dixie Chicks, and with her partner Cecilia Peck, captured the backlash to the country trio after lead singer Natalie Maines’ off-handed remark to a London audience in 2003 just after the U.S. invasion of Iraq of their shame that President Bush was from the gals’ home state of Texas. The result, Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing, is a powerful story of the fallout when music and politics collide, and the way the group harnessed that hurt and anger into an album, Taking the Long Way, that earned them five Grammy Awards, including Album, Song and Record of the Year, as well as a measure of vindication. In an exclusive interview, Kopple tells all to HITSRoy Trakin, before admitting she’s ashamed he’s from her home state of New York.

What attracted you to the Dixie Chicks as a subject?
[Co-director] Cecilia [Peck] and I had a mutual friend who knew them really well, and he was always telling us stories about them. Just before they started their 2003 “Top of the World” tour, we got in touch to say we were interested in making a documentary. But they had already hired a website crew to film them. A week later, at Shepherd’s Bush in London, Natalie made her comment, and at that point, we knew we really had to pursue them. After they agreed, we started filming them and never left their side.

Did the politics of the situation, the free speech issue, interest you?
That’s not why we wanted to film them at the beginning. We were interested in their music. Take “Goodbye Earl,” which was about domestic violence. Even though it tackled a hard, heavy subject, they brought a light-hearted feel to it. And we wondered, who are these women? After Natalie’s remarks, we were drawn even more to the story, but we had no idea that this firestorm would happen, either, that the Chicks’ experience would hold a mirror to the political climate in America over the past three, four years.

The story has now come full circle, with the Dixie Chicks’ memorable night at the Grammys giving it a fairy-tale ending.
It couldn’t have turned out any better. The Grammys will go on to a Collector’s Edition DVD, plus a treasure trove of other unbelievable footage we took.

How come you never show the band performing a song all the way through until the very end?
With documentaries, you never know exactly what the structure or shape will be until you get into the editing. What we really wanted to show the audience was the band writing their own album for the first time, coming from a place where they went deeply into their own souls. So everything that happened in 2003 shapes why they got together two years later to write this music…whether it’s about love, infertility or politics. These songs all came from their heart, from what they had gone through.

Were you surprised at the level of controversy Natalie’s statement engendered?
When they arrived in London, it was just a month before that one million people marched to protest against the war. Then, of course, there were those who supported President Bush. The Dixie Chicks became the epicenter of a cultural battle. Natalie had no idea that anybody would care what she said. We were living in, and maybe still are, a flag-waving, fear-mongering political environment. Martie [Maguire] said it took three all-American girls to put their heads on the chopping block. Radio stations boycotted their music, their CDs were crushed, they received death threats for speaking out and not backing down. There was also this group, the Free Republic, who went to town, organizing protestors in front of venues where they were playing. It was very nasty, but the Chicks held their ground and found comfort in each other and just got stronger and stronger in a situation that might have torn other bands apart, producing their most creative work. They’re all mothers, with seven children between them. They’re just phenomenal role models. For young people who want to speak their minds while others are trying to silence them, maybe they will follow the Dixie Chicks’ example. Even if it’s something that’s unpopular…if you feel it passionately enough.

We see Natalie Maines grow right before our eyes into a confident, charismatic performer who’s not afraid to stand up for what she believes in.
She refused to back down, even in Dallas, where they received death threats. This whole story is a very human one, about transformation, courage and what it means to be a patriot, or a hero, in this day and age. As country artists, the Dixie Chicks might have been expected to take a more conservative, pro-war stance, to fall in line with the Toby Keiths of the world.

When you compare the Dixie Chicks to the striking miners in Harlan County U.S.A., don’t they come off as a bit trivial?
Not at all. Look what they had to endure. They really became a symbol for free speech and First Amendment rights. It may have been said as something trivial, but how it exploded from there made it a very important issue.

The band’s manager Simon Renshaw also emerges as quite a character in his own right, as he tries to steer the girls through the backlash and keep their heads up.
Simon tried to strategize with and push them in the right direction for their music, their branding and their career. The Dixie Chicks are the ones who take control, though. They really have their fingers on the pulse of their career. They made the tough decisions and then Simon fell in line. They had very definite opinions on how they wanted to do things.

Did your view of the band change in the course of filming the movie?
The strongest thing for me was the essence of friendship, what it means to stick together in a world where so many people are stabbing each other in the back. Here are three women who had each other’s backs. It enlightened me and reinforced that bond of friendship… what it means.

Wasn’t it kind of opportunistic for the Dixie Chicks to take the controversy and try to turn it into artistic and commercial gain?
This could have really damaged their career. They went through a tremendous amount of pain. Their concert tickets didn’t sell out. They took a lot of risks—some bold leaps into new musical territory and sounds. And it all came from what happened to them…a new, personal and innovative Dixie Chicks album, which has been duly rewarded.

In regards to the dynamic between Natalie and the other two band members, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, did you ever feel the group would implode?
It never felt that way, but you never know how people will react. Emily and Martie preferred the lead singer be in the forefront. That’s important to them. They play fiddle and banjo and like being on the side. But when it comes to decision-making about their careers, all three are involved. They’re a troika. Natalie has often said, on her own, she’s very shy. I know that’s hard for you to believe, but she really feels, when she has Emily and Martie around her, more confident.

How did you feel seeing them do so well at the Grammys?
I was ecstatic. I have never been happier. I felt they got their just due for a wonderful, wonderful album and for all the reasons that people wanted to give them these awards. Their whole mood has changed. They never expected this to happen. They’re on top of the world. They have a whole new audience.

Were you disappointed not getting an Oscar nomination?
We were on the short list of 15 finalists. The last five were about global warming, two on Iraq and two on the religious right.

If you had thrown a little Holocaust into the movie, you might have had a shot.
Yeah, that’s true. Our film is very hopeful, with some entertaining qualities as well as politics.

Is there a connection between Harlan County U.S.A. and Shut Up and Sing?
I just love to tell stories about people, who they are and what they represent. If it’s a good subject, I’ll do it. Sometimes you want to fly a different way, but what’s really wonderful is when you can tell a story by watching how people change and mature over time, especially when they’re in a crisis situation.