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Dixie Chicks' victory shows country's anti-war turn

Within the bicoastal entertainment industry, supporters of the Iraq war were always hard to come by. In Nashville, the prevailing attitude was quite different. Toby Keith's post-Sept. 11 fight song "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" soared to the top of the country charts -- and musicians critical of the war met with an icy reception.

In 2003, Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines told fans in London that she and her bandmates were ashamed that president Bush was from their home state. In response, Clear Channel Communications struck the group from playlists at its country radio stations.

The music-business insiders who gave the Dixie Chicks five Grammy awards Sunday night -- including three for their song "Not Ready to Make Nice" -- aren't the same people who shunned the Texas trio four years back. But the Chicks' resurgence, coupled with other rumblings of discontent within the world of country music, shows how much the nation's mood has shifted since March 2003.

It's telling when country luminary Merle Haggard has an entry on Rolling Stone magazine's list of top protest songs. Country musicians and their fans tend to hail from conservative states with high enlistment rates.

Then again, the toll of the war on the sons and daughters of these states has been acute.

It is easy to overstate the extent of the revolt; Darryl Worley's pro-soldier "I Just Came Back from a War" is still at No. 18 on this week's country chart. Even so, the jingoistic swagger of Toby Keith's song has given way to more somber songs seeking proper respect for returning service members. Trace Adkins's "Arlington" describes a soldier who is buried in the famous national cemetery. Even Worley shows a flash of disillusionment: "If I'm not exactly the same good old boy that you ran around with before," he sings, "I just came back from a war."

There are other signs of disagreement between Nashville and movement conservatives. Superstar Tim McGraw has grown increasingly vocal about his Democratic politics. Meanwhile, Adkins, who describes himself as a conservative, recently told the San Bernadino Sun that Republicans deserved to lose last fall's midterm elections. And Keith told Newsday that he does not support the Iraq war. "Never did," he said. So maybe it's not surprising to hear Haggard singing, "Let's get out of Iraq and get back on the track, and let's rebuild America first."

The populist strain underlying such lyrics may seem foreign to the rest of music establishment. But as a political development, the rumblings of discontent in the world of country music are far more significant than the de rigueur denunciations within the pop and rock world. They offer yet another sign that the war is going badly, and that anxieties about Iraq have spread well beyond the people who opposed the war from the start.