Will country forgive or forget Dixie Chicks?

The trio's tour starting Thursday will test the maxim that there's no such thing as bad publicity.

Amid smashed CDs, ripped-up concert tickets, and radio boycotts, the Dixie Chicks launch a much-anticipated tour tonight that will test a question as old as the Beatles: Does political controversy help or hinder celebrity careers?

When the Chicks open their US tour in Greenville, S.C., there won't be any shortage of Stetsons in the audience, or for that matter, empty seats - despite the Bush-bashing melodrama the group has been embroiled in for weeks.

The band's 51-city tour has been largely sold out for months. Yet some would-be concertgoers have been attracted to the Chicks because of their opposition to war and scorn for fellow Texan George W. Bush.

"Until tonight I was not much interested in any country-western group," wrote one to a Dallas online chat. "But right after [the trio's interview], I went to Amazon and bought their CD and checked out Ticketmaster for tickets to their July concert. None available. So to the people who purchased tickets and ... plan not to attend - I'm a buyer!!!"

Such comments could indicate that a new fan base is emerging for the group that's already one of the most successful country bands ever.

Yet the Chicks may not want to count their next million yet. The controversy that's swirled since March 10, when lead singer Natalie Maines told an audience she was "ashamed" that President Bush was from her home state, has alienated many of the snakeskin-boot crowd that's long been their main fanbase.

Their CD sales have already been as changeable as a slide guitar: Weekly sales of their latest album, "Home," fell from a post-Grammy high of 202,000 to a low of 33,000 in early April - some of which may have been the normal decline of a CD nine months old.

Still, a month after Ms. Maines's tart comments - for which she later apologized - "Home" vaulted back to No. 1 on the country charts. It's currently No. 3.

The Chicks may be proof of an old industry postulate - that America's social bark is worse than its financial bite. Even with the sprouting of anticelebrity websites, caustic comments by radio talk-show hosts, and well-publicized boycotts, efforts to pinch antiwar celebrities in the pocketbook have often fallen short.

After shouting "Shame on you, Mr. Bush" at the Academy Awards, "Bowling for Columbine" director Michael Moore reported that more Amazon.com customers pre-ordered copies of his documentary than of the Best Picture winner, "Chicago." Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon - Hollywood's most strident antiwar couple - work steadily. Mr. Robbins will receive the "Alumnus of the Year" award at the University of California at Los Angeles on May 17.

"Controversy can be good for a career," says David Browne, a music critic for Entertainment Weekly. "Many entertainers have survived worse scandals. The public does tend to forgive and forget."

Take the Beatles. Nine months before the release of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in 1967, John Lennon declared: "We're more popular than Jesus Christ." The statement spurred some Americans to smash Beatles albums and pull the group's music off the airwaves. True, fundamentalist Christians were never the center of the Beatles' fan base. But while some may still begrudge the Beatles' irreverence, no one doubts their musical legacy.

Jane Fonda, too, did a stint in the public doghouse. She was by far the most outspoken celebrity opponent of the Vietnam War, and some considered her a traitor for her visit to North Vietnam in 1972. But she continued to work successfully in Hollywood - even winning an Oscar for her movie, "Coming Home."

Still, many entertainers known for liberalism have kept silent on the war, buttressing Mr. Robbins's notion that "a chill wind is blowing." In a speech at the National Press Club, he contended: "A message is being sent through the White House and its allies in talk radio and Clear Channel and Cooperstown: 'If you oppose this administration, there ... will be ramifications.'"

In a recent speech, National Public Radio anchor Bob Edwards drew a distinction between individuals exercising their right to boycott a performer and a conglomerate pressuring its affiliates to do so. He spoke of the Red scares of the 1940s and '50s, when careers were ruined in the heat of political accusations. "Should [a radio conglomerate] have the right to ban the Chicks from [hundreds of] stations? I think what individuals do is fine - burn the CDs if you want. What industry does is another matter," he said.

But not everyone is convinced of a return to McCarthyism. "I can't imagine that any producer or studio executive ... is going to say, 'No, let's not hire Tim or Susan because of their political views,' " says Howard Suber, chair of UCLA's film and television producers program.

But Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, sees it differently. While it isn't necessarily bad for a musician or actor to come under fire, he says, it certainly isn't good. "I think there's been a lot of walking on eggshells after what happened to the Dixie Chicks."

Whatever the case, the Texas trio has spent the week before their US tour opener trying to explain themselves. Last week, they appeared on ABC's "Primetime Thursday" and this week grace the cover of "Entertainment Weekly" - wearing nothing but epithets.

While they may have lost support from their traditional fan base, industry insiders say the Dixie Chicks will continue to remain a force in country music. And if they do rebound, they may find a place alongside other, more liberal country artists - such as Steve Earle, Willie Nelson, and Lyle Lovett, who've often gotten frosty welcomes in Nashville. This US tour may be the Dixie Chicks' test.

"Lyle Lovett deserves to be played on the radio," Maines told Entertainment Weekly. "But his personality and politics ... might not fit in. That could be where we wind up. And I'm OK with that."

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