Did I Really Get Dixie Chicks to Change Their Name?
The media suggest I played a role, but it might be too good to be true.
“Omigosh you singlehandedly got the Dixie Chicks to change their name.” — my friend Maureen on June 25, 2020
Last year I wrote what might turn out to be the biggest op-ed of my career. It was a June 17 guest column for Variety titled “After Lady Antebellum, Is It Time for the Dixie Chicks to Rethink Their Name?”
After Lady Antebellum, Is It Time for the Dixie Chicks to Rethink Their Name? (Guest Column)
The Dixie Chicks have a reputation for being one of the most progressive acts in country music. If "Goodbye Earl," the…
It was a piece that took a bit of convincing for me to do. When my editor first suggested an op-ed about the potentially racist implications of the name Dixie Chicks after another country trio, Lady Antebellum, became Lady A, I was lukewarm on the idea. George Floyd had been dead less than two weeks, and as a Black journalist, I had more pressing matters to think about and write about than the name of a trio that was well past their heyday.
Then the same editor invited me to collaborate on a Variety piece she was doing on how the music industry has been literally shortchanging Black artists for decades. After one particularly intense interview for the story with legendary Ashford and Simpson singer-songwriter Valerie Simpson, I had an a-ha moment. The story practically wrote itself afterwards.
By Variety standards, I suppose it did pretty well, but it wasn’t until eight days after it ran that my story really took off. Dixie Chicks actually did change their name — dropping “Dixie” and becoming, simply, The Chicks — and The New York Times ran a paragraph at the very end of their story covering it that would forever link me to Dixie Chicks/The Chicks, at least in the media. Ben Sisario wrote:
“In a recent opinion article in Variety, the entertainment trade publication, the journalist Jeremy Helligar said that the term Dixie “conjures a time and place of bondage.”
As kickers go, I can’t say I’ve ever read a more fulfilling one. I’d always dreamed of getting into the Times, and in a way, I finally did. Everyone started picking up the story, and over the next few days, my name and my words made it into several of my other dream publications, including Pitchfork, The Guardian, and The Atlantic. (Kudos to The Washington Times for publishing “Dixie Chicks warned in Variety op-ed: Band name sends ‘up-with-whiteness’ message” the day my column ran, well before it became part of breaking news.)
If there was any doubt in my mind that my story had hit its mark, they were quelled when my husband’s brother called from way down under to tell us he’d read on one of the Australian websites about how I had become country music’s number-one influencer. I was trending globally!
Months later, I’m still getting Google alerts for stories tying me to the name change, especially in the last week or so. On New Years Eve, NME, a UK music publication I’ve loved for years, ended their story “The Chicks say George Floyd’s murder inspired them to change their name” the way the New York times had closed theirs six months earlier. I guess I’m trending again, thanks, in part, to all the year-end wrap ups.
But I’ve had my doubts all along about whether I’m worthy of being tied so directly to Dixie Chicks’s name change. The band has never actually said I had anything to do with it. As far as I know, none of them has even mentioned my name publicly or privately.
Martie Maguire recently told The Independent that she and her bandmates had been toying with the idea of dropping “Dixie” even before the death of George Floyd. His brutal passing just fired them up to do it sooner rather than later. My Variety story had perfect timing.
Although it has been referenced pretty much everywhere at this point, I’m not even convinced they’ve read my Variety op-ed or even know I’m alive. If they, unlike me, don’t pay attention to their own press, they might have no idea that a “top journalist,” as several of the stories referred to me, even made the suggestion in the first place.
Today, I’m not even sure if many of the writers for the publications that mentioned me after The New York Times did even read my original story. So many of them quoted the same bit that The New York Times quoted, as if that’s all there was to it.
As a journalist myself, I understand that writers are often too busy to do their own research and some are perfectly fine letting a publication as reputable as The New York Times do it for them. Although I’m not complaining about the continued traction for a story that took me less than an hour to write, it does seem rather odd to me that my op-ed is the one that’s getting it when I wasn’t the first writer to point out that Dixie Chicks was a problematic name. My Variety editor, a white Jewish woman, even beat me to it!
I was, however, the writer the Times chose to single out and credit, and because of the media’s follow-the-leader tendencies, here we are. Not one of the publications that cited my story called me for a comment, but again, as a journalist myself, I know how tempting and time-saving it is to get an “expert” opinion that’s already out there, even if it’s one that comes from a secondhand source.
I’ll never know for sure if I had anything to do with “the band formerly known as Dixie Chicks” and deserve to be forever linked to them. But whether or not the ladies of The Chicks know my name, this much I know is true: After a lifetime of wishing, hoping, and trying, I finally did make it into The New York Times — even if it was only in the kicker of someone else’s story.