It’s a First Amendment matter, really, when you get right down to it. But it’s also a sign of something that is sorely lacking in our society: The ability to call a spade a spade. I think Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. said it first, when he wrote that “courage is only courage when fear is present.” Speaking about the Dixie Chicks in his May 29th column, Pitts concluded by saying “there’s already too much of that (keeping silent) going around.”
I caught wind of the Dixie Chicks’ newest album, “Taking the Long Way” by way of reading the cover article in Time magazine, written by Josh Tyrangiel, and also published on May 29th. Courtney, my 23 year old, passed it along to me at a family gathering recently – making me promise to return it when I finished reading it. She and her sister, Cassandra, are 20-somethings, young, independent and strong-willed women who are tried and true country fans – but they still listen to The Chicks.
Courtney was just 15 or 16 when she first heard the music of the Dixie Chicks. Songs such as “You Were Mine” and “Cowboy Take Me Away,” were her favorites, but the song that connected us as mother and daughter was “Goodbye Earl,” a rare comedic piece about domestic violence and a woman named Wanda who got even with her abusive spouse.
That was in 1999, just after I returned to West Virginia from California. While Courtney and her track star girlfriends sang the song just before each shuttle relay they ran, as their own personal anthem, (“It was catchy,” she explains.) I recall being fresh out of Divorce Number Two, and replacing the name “Earl,” with that of another man.
Then, in May 2003, with the Iraq War looming on the horizon, they did what some people consider the unforgivable: They publicly stated they were “ashamed” President Bush was from Texas. That resulted in mass uproar from their fans, boycotts from country radio stations, as well as death threats and CD-burning parties of their music. They apologized – and since have retracted that apology.
I am only too familiar with speaking my mind – something that has gotten me into hot water many times. I recall being in a similar situation as a teenager, while writing for the school newspaper. The entire staff was made to march into the lunchroom to face a group of very angry school cooks, who were upset that we dared publish an editorial proclaiming their food as less than delicious. I don’t recall the exact details, but I still recall my belief that it was wrong to make us apologize, when all we had done was speak the truth. Besides, if the opinion page isn’t for opinions, then what good is it?
The Chicks didn’t slander. They didn’t libel. They didn’t blasphemy. They simply stated their opinion, plain and simple, while on stage at one of their own concerts. So what if so many country music fans didn’t agree with it? After three years, I’d say it’s time to get over it.
On their newest CD, they have spoken out, loud and clear, and I think they deserve a standing ovation for speaking their mind. For stating what they believe. In a day and age when almost everyone is afraid to call a sin a sin, and when the whole lot of us have decided that our own personal rights take precedence – even at the peril of the life, health and welfare of others – I think it’s good to have strong women like the Dixie Chicks to remind us that speaking your mind is not only a good thing, it’s down right necessary.
After all, wasn’t the South in favor of breaking free of traditions steeped in what was amoral and inhumane? I thought freedom was a good thing. Or is it only that freedom is good, when it goes along with what the majority wants?
Well, what about when freedom comes face to face with just the opposite – when it flies in the face of “making nice” and smiling pretty, swallowing your values and beliefs along the way? What if no one had spoken out about the Holocaust in Nazi Germany? Or the mass genocide in the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina? Or any number of other atrocities that have been visited upon the human family?
I’m grateful to these three women – Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Robinson – for their courage and tenacity, for failing to give in to the status quo, to do what’s expected of them, just to pacify America’s country music fans. I’d rather have women with a backbone, any day, leading the way for women like my daughters.
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And if that wasn’t enough, their new album is awesome! Filled with songs that might or might not be considered country, which they helped write themselves, the music qualifies as a mix of folk, soft rock, and even R&B. (I know this, because I checked with a brother, who said so!) The songs on “Taking the Long Way” not only keep you awake at night, as refrains of their lilting melodies and provocative vocals play over and over in the mind of any insomniac, but they really make you think.
For instance, the song “Lullaby” speaks of a parent’s love for her child, and how “life began when I saw your face.” And the ballad, “Silent House,” just pulls you in with its vivid imagery, as the singer tells a story of an empty house, through memories that have sustained her.
In “Easy Silence,” the Chicks touch the heart’s tendrils, when they sing of “the peaceful quiet you create for me/And the way you keep the world at bay for me,” clearly my favorite line. I have awakened many times at night, with this very song playing in my head. As an added bonus, this song contains great fiddle work. Perhaps its greatest contribution to serious thinking, though, comes from these lines: “Children lose their youth too soon/Watching war made us immune.”
Another ballad, “Favorite Year,” which sounds to me like a song about an old love, it asks the age-old question that anyone who has had a failed romance must ask: “Would you know me now?” and haunts you with the statement that “love just doesn’t seem to conquer all.”
It’s hard for me to pin down my favorite song on this CD, but “I Hope” clearly ranks near the top. It’s a bluesy song that speaks of hypocrisy and leaving legacies for our children. Lyrics include these lines: “I don’t wanna hear nothing else/About killin’ and that it’s God’s will/’Cause our children are watching us/They put their trust in us/They’re going to be like us/So let’s learn from our history/And do it differently.”
Whether you ascribe to it as a political stance (I don’t.) or a desire for something better in life, which is what the refrain requests: “I hope/For more love, more joy and laughter/I hope/We’ll have more than we ever need/I hope/We’ll have more happy ever afters/I hope/We can all live more fearlessly/And we can lose all the pain and misery,” you come away thinking deeply about what the song is trying to say.
I think it’s trying to tell us something else, as it does in the verse that speaks of a woman named Rosie, who takes abuse from her husband because “he’s a good man … he was just brought up that way.”
It’s a far cry – albeit a much more serious one – than Wanda and the issues of domestic violence in “Goodbye Earl,” but it does what it intends: It causes us to examine the status quo, and walk away trying to figure out how to change it.
And that is worthy of thinking about.
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My next book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, comes out November 17. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.
You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella Books, Nellie Bly Books, Amazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.
For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.
Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!
Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”