The Dixie Chicks rose from outcasts to icons Sunday after winning five awards at the 49th annual Grammy Awards.
Since 2003, the country singing group has been shunned by Nashville and vilified by the political right for a stinging remark made about President Bush: "We're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas."
The band's wry single "Not Ready to Make Nice" won the award for best song. It seems that the cloud of political reproach that has hovered over the Texan-born trio has lifted.
Four years ago the girls were the darlings of country music, even crossing over to get mainstream radio play. But when lead singer Natalie Maines spoke out at a London concert, some American radio stations stopped playing their songs, and album and tickets sales suffered.
Their validation comes at a time of increasing anger about the war in Iraq and follows some of the lowest approval ratings of any president ever. The unpopularity of President Bush rivals that of Jimmy Carter in the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis and Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal (Carter, incidentally, won a Grammy Sunday night for best spoken word recording).
Sunday's Grammy Awards were set against the backdrop of the early campaign trail with Hillary Clinton fighting off criticism in New Hampshire that she voted for the war. Suddenly -- in a new political climate -- the reputation of the self-described "loudmouth" Dixie Chicks is improving.
"They deserve a lot of credit," said Nathan Brackett, senior editor for Rolling Stone magazine. "There have been a lot of songs coming from indie rockers about the war in Iraq, but the Dixie Chicks made a stand in a hostile environment among country stars that value loyalty and patriotism.
"It's a lot different to be a country artist and make a political stand than if you are a Steven Tyler or a Don Henley," he said.
The Dixie Chicks also won record of the year, song of the year and album of the year, in addition to best country album and country performance by a duo or group with vocal. The last time an act swept the album, record and song categories was in 1993 when Eric Clapton led the field.
"I think people are using their freedom of speech tonight with all of these awards,'' Maines told Reuters.
Their career now boasts 13 Grammy awards. "Taking the Long Way'' was the ninth-biggest album in the United States last year, according to tracking firm Nielsen SoundScan, but sales of 1.9 million copies to date were relatively disappointing compared with previous releases. The award-winning album was shut out of the Country Music Awards last November.
Bracket says the musical rebirth of the Dixie Chicks was only possible because the Grammy organization is far more liberal than the Country Music Association that has ostracized the Dixie Chicks following their political commentary.
"I think the Grammy voters thought it would be an especially nice story to see them winning this time," he said. "It gives the whole ordeal a happy ending."
"Of course, I haven't checked out the right-wing commentators. The Grammy voters are more left of center and are rewarding them for their political stand," he said. "No doubt 2007 is a different year from 2003, although there is probably no shortage of people who don't support Natalie Maines for that."
The cultural controversy has no doubt underscored the red-state, blue-state divide that arose from the contentious 2000 presidential election when a Supreme Court ruling sent Bush to the White House.
When Maines' remark was first made in 2003, thousands of country fans wrestled with issues of patriotism and free speech. Some critics -- even in Nashville -- thought the industry had overreacted.
The daily newspaper The Tennessean said the reaction had "gone beyond its traditional support of America and the armed forces and begun to cultivate an atmosphere that's intolerant of dissent from the Bush administration's strategies in the war on terror."
Rabble-rousing songs by country singers Toby Keith and Darryl Worley became smash hits after Sept. 11, and the country radio-station boycotts led some to believe country music was "drawing ideological lines."
"If you were just casually listening to country radio in the last year, you would think it was the music of Republicans," Beverly Keel, country music journalist and Middle Tennessee State University associate professor told The Tennessean. "That's (been) reinforced with the way the Dixie Chicks have been treated."
The Grammys have also secured the Dixies Chicks' place as female musicians -- another reflection of America's readiness to embrace a softer tone.
"It's not just the political situation," said Steven A. Miller, professor of broadcast journalism at Rutgers University. "It's an award for doing a fantastic job on a great album. These three women are extremely talented and have broken barriers in other ways."
"In an era where the general assumption still is that men are the primary musicians on albums even with women in the lead, these three women play all of the instruments on this album even when they aren't the one behind the keyboard," he said.
Miller said he believes Maines' diatribe against Bush was "much ado about nothing," played out mostly in the country music world. But, he said, the controversy fueled a more ominous fear of dissent in America.
"It was part of the overall reaction to any protest against the war," said Miller, "and it reflected the chasm that existed and still exists within the political opinions in the United States. Toby Keith took it upon himself to be the personal spokesperson for the pro-war country music faction."
"Much of the controversy can be seen in the nominated documentary 'Shut Up and Sing,'" added Miller. "Whether right or wrong or left or right or whatever side you believe in, the hallmark of this country is the freedom of speech and the First Amendment. The Dixie Chicks were just exercising their constitutional right to speak out."
Only time will tell if this war of words is over and whether Nashville can celebrate the Grammy attention given to the Dixie Chicks. Despite past bad blood, even country music enthusiasts may be coming around.
Tammy Genovese, CEO of the Country Music Awards, congratulated the Dixie Chicks in a collective announcement about all the winners. But one official who did not want to be named was more emphatic in his praise of the former pariahs.
"The Dixie Chicks have won so many awards, including Entertainer of the Year," he said. "We are happy to have them even though they have been polarizing in the country music community. As far as we're concerned, we are really proud of them."
Jelena Skopelja contributed to this story.