On March 10, 2003, during the run-up to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq|invasion of Iraq (which would take place on March 20), lead singer, Natalie Maines (a native of Lubbock, Texas), said between songs during a concert at the Shepherd's Bush Empire theatre in London:
"Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas."
Once ''The Guardian'''s review of this concert was picked up by U.S. media, controversy erupted. The remark sparked intense criticism from many Americans, on three grounds: that Maines shouldn't be criticizing the nation's head of state while on foreign soil; that Maines shouldn't be criticizing the military's commander-in-chief while the country was on the verge of war; and (from a business standpoint) that Maines shouldn't be making political statements that would offend the Dixie Chicks' culturally conservative audience base. Maines said "I said it there 'cause that's where I was."
Following the uproar and the start of a boycott of their music, the singer attempted to clarify matters on March 12 with, "I feel the President is ignoring the opinions of many in the U.S. and alienating the rest of the world."
This statement failed to quiet her critics, and on March 14 she issued an apology: "As a concerned American citizen, I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful. I feel that whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect. We are currently in Europe and witnessing a huge anti-American sentiment as a result of the perceived rush to war. While war may remain a viable option, as a mother, I just want to see every possible alternative exhausted before children and American soldiers' lives are lost. I love my country. I am a proud American."
Some fans remained angry and encouraged a boycott of Dixie Chicks products and their sponsor Lipton. Other fans were disappointed she apologized to the President. In one famous display of anti-Dixie-Chick feeling, former fans were encouraged to bring their CDs so they could be crushed by a bulldozer. The degree of hatred directed toward the Chicks provoked concern among the band about their safety and that of their families. Bruce Springsteen and Madonna even felt compelled to come out in support of the right of the band to express their opinions freely. Though Madonna herself was pressured to postpone and then alter the April 1 release of her "American Life" video, in which she threw a Bush look-alike a hand grenade, after witnessing the backlash on the Chicks.
On April 24, the Dixie Chicks launched a publicity campaign to explain their position. During a prime-time interview with TV personality Diane Sawyer, Maines said she remained proud of her original statement. The band also appeared naked (with private parts strategically covered) on the May 2 cover of ''Entertainment Weekly'' magazine with slogans such as "Traitors," "Saddam's Angels," "Dixie Sluts", "Proud Americans," "Hero," "Free Speech", and "Brave" printed on their bodies.
President Bush responded to the controversy surrounding the Dixie Chicks in an interview with Tom Brokaw on April 24:
"[T]he Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. They can say what they want to say . . They shouldn't have their feelings hurt just because some people don't want to buy their records when they speak out . . Freedom is a two-way street . . I . . don't really care what the Dixie Chicks said. I want to do what I think is right for the American people, and if some singers or Hollywood stars feel like speaking out, that's fine. That's the great thing about America. It stands in stark contrast to Iraq ..."
At the first concert of their nationwide Top of the World Tour the Dixie Chicks received a positive reception. The concert was held in Greenville, South Carolina on May 1, and was attended by a sell-out crowd of 15,000. The women arrived prepared to face opposition—and Maines invited those who had come to boo to do so—but the crowd erupted in cheers. (Tickets for their concert tour had gone on sale well before the controversy erupted, meaning a cross-section of their fans was at the concert.)
Nevertheless, the band remained controversial. On May 6 a Colorado radio station suspended two of its disc jockeys for playing music by the Dixie Chicks in violation of a ban on their music. On May 22, at the Academy of Country Music (ACM) awards ceremony in Las Vegas, Nevada, there were boos when the group's nomination for entertainer of the year awards was announced. However, the broadcast's host, Vince Gill, reminded the audience that everyone is entitled to freedom of speech. The Academy made the award to Toby Keith, an outspoken critic of the group. By the time of their August 3 Atlanta show, Natalie remarked they had not heard any boos for a couple of shows but heard some that night, but that it was OK, as the Dixie Chicks were all about freedom of speech.
In the fall of 2003, the Dixie Chicks starred in a broadcast TV commercial for Lipton Original Iced Tea, which made a tongue-in-cheek reference to the corporate blacklisting and the grassroots backlash: in the tea spot, the Chicks are about to give a stadium concert when the electricity suddenly goes out - but they manage to electrify the stadium all by themselves, belting out a rousing ''a capella'' version of "Cowboy Take Me Away" to the raving cheers of the fans.
In a September 2003 interview, Maguire told ''Der Spiegel'' magazine: "We don't feel a part of the country scene any longer; it can't be our home anymore." She noted a lack of support from country stars, and being shunned at the 2003 ACM awards. "Instead, we won three Grammys against much stronger competition. So we now consider ourselves part of the big rock 'n' roll family." However, in an open letter to fans on the Chicks' Web site, Maines said Maguire had been misquoted.
Also in 2003, the American Red Cross refused a 1 million dollar donation from the Dixie Chicks. The organization did not publicize the refusal, though; it was revealed by the Chicks themselves in a May 2006 interview on the Howard Stern Show on SIRIUS Satellite Radio. A Red Cross spokesperson later said the decision was made because "the controversy made it impossible to associate with the Dixie Chicks."
In October 2004, the Dixie Chicks joined the Vote for Change tour, playing a series of concerts in American swing states. These concerts were organized by MoveOn.org with the general goal of mobilizing people to vote for John Kerry and against Bush in that year's Presidential campaign. The Dixie Chicks' appearances were joint performances with James Taylor. This effort was unsuccessful in getting Kerry elected, and while the artistic collaboration with Taylor went very well (sharing the stage on many numbers), during the concerts, Maines' stage remarks revealed a certain amount of nervousness over what the Dixie Chicks' future career path would be.
In May of 2006, Natalie Maines said, in an interview with Time magazine, "I don't feel [Bush] is owed any respect whatsoever," effectively taking back her apology to Bush.
In June 2006, Emily Robison commented to the Telegraph in the UK on the exploitation of the war in Iraq found in many country music videos, "A lot of pandering started going on, and you'd see soldiers and the American flag in every video," Robison said. "It became a sickening display of ultra-patriotism."