The shortness was the thing.
Natalie Maines' shortness, to be specific. As a short, blond teenager who was annoyed with everyone, I was intrigued by the short, blond woman who looked annoyed with everyone.
She was the lead singer of a new country band called the Dixie Chicks. On the album cover, she walked with her tall, lithe bandmates, wearing all black, a devilish smirk on her face.
There was the video (remember those?) for There's Your Trouble, with a kaleidoscope lens, peacock feathers, paper lanterns, crunchy hair spray, heavy makeup and sweet three part harmony.
I was a casual consumer of country music at best, but I fell deeply in love with the Dixie Chicks. They had a freshened-up Dolly Parton aesthetic, and their songwriting and instrumentation was expert. They fantasized about murdering abusive husbands, winked at debauchery, sang rawly about crumbling relationships and struggles of faith. They covered artists like Patty Griffin and Fleetwood Mac.
And then there was that Maines voice. It sat in a perfectly singable pocket, an uncompromising chest wail that went to the rafters. It wasn't exactly pretty. It was strong, and it was angry, and it was interesting.
I had their poster in my bedroom when Maines made her infamous remarks about the president. See pop music/culture critic Jay Cridlin's story for an examination of their career, notoriety, fallout and influence since.
In the Washington Post in 2003, Anne Hull wrote: "To be a Dixie Chicks fan now requires more than mere affection. It means having your patriotism challenged. It means getting cussed when you call the country radio station to complain about the boycott on Chicks songs. It means dinner table squabbles with your soldier cousin who just returned from Iraq, with the whole family wondering why can't you just like Kenny Chesney."
People around the country were steamrolling their CDs in the streets when they played the then St. Pete Times Forum. I had tickets to their show during the height of an outrage that seems almost quaint by today's vicious 140-character standards.
On stage in Tampa, Maines said, "I get nervous when I talk now, because talking got me in trouble." She sang, "You don't like the sound of the truth coming from my mouth." I remember a little girl holding up a freedom of speech sign, and Maines nodding at her.
I felt exhilarated, but mostly sad, because I knew in my bones they would not be back for a very long time. It felt like having a beloved boyfriend ripped away, for reasons you didn't fully understand.
More than a decade later, when news came that they were touring again and stopping at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, I didn't care if I went alone. Natalie would be there, and together we would smirk and be annoyed.
It turns out I don't have to go alone. For Christmas, there were two tickets from my boyfriend nestled in the tree. They weren't front row, but the front of a row. Specifically chosen so I could be short, be proud, and see the Chicks, clear and uncompromising.