Willie Nelson chose not to record his new peace anthem. (courtesy photo)

Why did Willie's war protest stir less anger than the Dixie Chicks'?

In his new anti-war anthem, "What Ever Happened to Peace On Earth," Willie Nelson sings: "You probably won't hear this on your radio/Probably not on your local TV."

Less than three weeks after writing the song in a fit of Christmas pique with the Bush administration, Nelson has proven to be a prophet. The song was muzzled, however, neither by radio nor television, but by Nelson himself, who changed plans to quickly record the song in Nashville. Talking last week to Kevin Connor of Austin radio station KGSR, Nelson said, "I would imagine it's almost not worth the hassle," in reference to the expected country music backlash that would greet the song's release.

On the surface, it looked like an uncharacteristic retreat for Nelson, the archetypal country outlaw who once smoked pot on the roof of the White House, and ascended to legend status by thumbing his nose at the Nashville music establishment. But Nelson's decision made sense in the context of his career. While always independent and idiosyncratic, Nelson has never really been uncompromising.

For one thing, you don't maintain a successful career in the music business for nearly a half-century without a finely tuned, crowd-pleaser's sense of what the public will accept. Kris Kristofferson once talked about touring with Nelson, and affectionately recalled how Willie advised him that he needed to play his hits, because audiences like to hear them.

Nelson premiered "What Ever Happened to Peace On Earth" at a January 3 fundraiser in Austin for Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich. It's likely that after the performance garnered media attention, Nelson's instincts told him that the song's point had been made, and releasing it would have been anticlimactic.

Probably the most interesting aspect to the story was how little outrage the song generated. Less than a year ago, when the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines fired an irreverent, off-the-cuff barb at George W. Bush, the group became the target of such widespread, frothed-mouth hostility that their career seemed in doubt. Even after the hysteria died down and the Chicks completed a well-received tour, they felt sufficiently alienated from the country music community to announce that they would henceforth market themselves as pop artists (not exactly a big stretch, considering the all-embracing pop sheen of most of the Chicks' material).

When you weigh Maines' flippant line - about being embarrassed to hail from the same state as Bush - against Nelson's new song, it's obvious that Nelson made the harsher statement. Rather than painting the president as a buffoonish naif, he suggests that Bush is closer to a scheming liar. Nelson sings "Hell, they won't lie to me/not on my own damn TV," ultimately asking "How much oil is one human life worth?" Considering the import of those lines, you would half-expect Willie to be hanging in effigy on Music Row by now.

Part of the reaction gap can be explained by pure misogyny. Regardless of how much society has evolved over the last 30 years, there lingers an intolerance of high-profile women who make political statements. Surely, some of it can be attributed to these artists' differing levels of popularity. The Dixie Chicks have been the most popular country-pop group of the last five years, while Nelson has settled into the role of respected elder statesman.

Another, more crucial factor, however, probably rests with Nelson's peculiar ability to bond with people who would otherwise have nothing in common. Remember, his most profound cultural contribution was uniting hippies and rednecks under one banner in the early '70s. At the inaugural Farm Aid concert in 1985, Nelson backed up Motley Crüe's Vince Neil, and didn't look a bit out of place. The next day, he probably went to play golf with Darrell Royal.

With anyone other than Willie, it would be hard to fathom how the same person could be a Kucinich-backing, anti-war crusader, and also a friend and duet partner of Toby Keith - country music's most strident pro-war bully (and a persistent critic of Maines). On some level, it's understood that Nelson - like Johnny Cash - listens to his gut, follows his own populist agenda, and doesn't let The Man tell him what to think. To him, sticking it to the administration over Iraq is akin to sticking it the federal government over its farm policies.

It's all part of speaking for the common man, and it's something that Nelson does by nature, rather than by design. Country listeners might not agree with Willie, but when they look at him, beyond the gray ponytail and the sweaty headband, they still see themselves. •


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