Country musicians aren't born dull, but they're quick studies. It is a generally held country principle that rough edges translate into lower sales, so record labels often send their most promising acts to media-training schools for a good dulling down. The stars of the future are then taught how to smile with lots of teeth, tilt their hats at the proper roguish--but not too roguish--angle and repeat variations on the "I'm just so glad to be making the music I love" palaver that plays between videos on Country Music Television. On her first day at media school, the Dixie Chicks' lead singer Natalie Maines told her instructor an oral-sex joke. The Dixie Chicks flunked media school.
The Chicks--Maines, 27, and a pair of sisters, Emily Robison, 30, and Martie Maguire, 32 --are the most personable (and ribald) act in country music. As achievements go, this is like being the funniest guy in Belgium. Until recently, their breaches of country etiquette had the harmless air of cheerleaders caught smoking under the bleachers; they were rascals, but lovable rascals. After all, they moved tons of records, and their music was built around traditional country instruments (dobro, fiddle, mandolin) that they played themselves. But then the Chicks went from rascals to rebels: they sued their record company in the ugliest financial squabble in recent country history. "Now," says Maines, "I realize that until this whole thing with Sony, we were complete wusses."
The war with Sony started in 2001, after the group's first two albums, Wide Open Spaces and Fly, sold more than 10 million copies apiece. In an interview with Dan Rather that aired on CBS, the Chicks announced that by their math, Sony had made $200 million off them but that individually they had yet to gross seven figures. Then, in a move that sent shock waves through Nashville (admittedly it's a town that's easily shocked), the Chicks served Sony with papers claiming that because of the company's alleged accounting misdeeds, they were declaring themselves free agents. "We all know there are some major problems in the music industry," says Maguire. "Every new act signs a bad deal. But we never dreamed that the s_____ deal we signed wouldn't even be honored."
Sony sued the group for breach of contract; the Chicks countersued, alleging "systematic thievery." As the charges escalated, the Chicks found themselves Nashville pariahs. For country acts, the relationship between label and band has historically been in loco parentis; bands presumed the label always knew best. "Everyone in the country industry kept telling us, 'Keep your mouths shut. Why don't you appreciate what you have?'" says Maguire.