Hissin' Dixie.

Country stars battle it out on the eve of war

It is also one of the most timely hits in history. Even though the song is set during the Vietnam war, its author says it was actually inspired by his thinking about the human cost of a war in the Middle East. Austinite Bruce Robison wrote the song about 13 years ago, during that time before the first Gulf War when rumors were flying about the Department of Defense having ordered tens of thousands of body bags in expectation of high American casualties. "I was just trying to make sense of the build-up for the last Gulf War," he says. "Now we have the same questions about this military action."

And unlike Keith, Worley and Daniels and Earle, Williams and Harris, Robison doesn't know where he stands. "I always find myself agreeing in principle with about half the stuff that both sides are saying, and never finding that it's as simplistic as either is claiming. Who wouldn't agree with getting rid of Saddam? Who doesn't wish for a world where he's not in power? Who doesn't hope -- as a person who's pretty liberal on a lot of different things -- that things get better for the women of Afghanistan or the people of Iraq?"

But on the other hand…"It's hard to see who wouldn't see what trouble blind patriotism has gotten us into in the past. That's where you have a hard time with conversation -- where things degenerate into ideological name-calling."

Robison admits to a vested interest in the fate of "Travelin' Soldier" -- after all, the ban is eating into his royalties. Beyond that, though, he wishes that people would see Maines not just as some star with halfwit opinions but as a woman and a mother and an American and a Texan just as proud and patriotic in her own way as the most hawkish among us. "There's a lot of different ways of looking at it, and I would think that all of them would give you pause before you organized a Dixie Chicks CD-burning party."

Not that Robison can't see the other side of this coin, too. "When you get that popular, you really have to watch your words or suffer the consequences. It's not my place to comment on their lives, but I suppose that anybody would say that was true. Number one, country music fans as a group are very patriotic. And number two, I would imagine that these folks -- the real hard-core country fans -- are the people who have brothers and sisters and sons and daughters over there on the front lines. I don't have any friends in the Gulf -- I'm not proud of that, but that's the case. But these country fans -- that's who is over there."

Of the Worley and Keith tunes, Robison is slightly less forgiving. He is puzzled by their authors' statements that they are not political people, and thoroughly disagrees with their simplistic, placardlike sentiments. "If anybody wants to know my opinion on any of this they can stop me on the street and ask me, but they better have an hour and a half," he says. "I'm a believer in arguments and ideas and freedom, and that's a word that's taking a beating right now. A lot of things are hard for us, and there's a lot of open wounds. It's just really hard for me to take a simplistic view on any of this. I want people to get their intellects involved in my songs."

Which is just what "Travelin' Soldier" does. Like All Quiet on the Western Front, it stands unflinching and without preaching, in front of a hard eternal truth: Innocent young people die in every war and it's very sad when they do. Unsaid in the song but screaming through your mind is this question: Is this war going to be worth that pain?

"I've always thought that the strength and the weakness of my writing is that it doesn't take a stand," he says. "What I try to do is paint a story and not tell you what to think about it."

In other words, Robison wants you to arrive at your own conclusions, your own truth. And no one could argue that the words of "Travelin' Soldier" are anything but true. No matter how many country radio program directors tell the world it's by popular demand, the fact that this song has fallen victim to a boycott on the eve of combat's outbreak reminds Racket of an old adage, that one about the first casualty in every war.

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