Score a decisive victory in the culture wars for the Dixie Chicks. Their five-Grammy sweep in Los Angeles on Sunday night delivered the Texas trio a heady helping of sweet revenge on the country music establishment that abandoned them after singer Natalie Maines talked trash about George W. Bush in the lead-up to the war in Iraq in 2003.
The Chicks' Grammy dominance - the group took home trophies for album of the year for Taking the Long Way and best record and song (a writer's award) for "Not Ready to Make Nice," their adamant refusal to apologize to either the president or the former fans who demonized them for speaking their minds - sent a clear message: Blue state-friendly country is back on top.
It's as simple as that. Isn't it?
Not quite. The Chicks may have grabbed all the headlines from the largely uninspired telecast. (Even Christina Aguilera's incendiary version of James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" didn't make up for the fact that not enough was done to pay tribute to the Godfather of Soul.)
But the stealth winner on Sunday - when even noted honky-tonker and Philadelphia Soul owner Jon Bon Jovi won a country Grammy, for a duet with Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland - was Carrie Underwood, an Oklahoman whose geographical proximity to the Lone Star state Chicks can't disguise the fact that she hails from the opposite end of the country universe.
Stalwart rockers the Red Hot Chili Peppers grabbed more awards, with four, and hip-hop soul queen Mary J. Blige got more face time. But Underwood, who topped James Blunt and Corinne Bailey Rae for best new artist, and won two more country awards for her all-but-evangelical monster hit "Jesus, Take the Wheel," was the voice of Middle America, demanding to be reckoned with.
And the success of the American Idol winner - who made sure to shout out to Simon Fuller, the Idol creator whom Kelly Clarkson failed to give props to when she won last year - shouldn't have come as a surprise. Country music had what passes for a good year in the music business these days, with total receipts down only 1 percent. Compare that with genres like alternative-rock, which saw a 12 percent fall, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
But for Underwood, 2006 was a whole lot better than that. It was widely reported that the 'tweener soundtrack High School Musical was the best-selling album of last year, with 3.7 million copies moved. Underwood's Some Hearts came in third (behind truly abysmal pseudo-country trio Rascal Flatts) at 3 million. If you add the CDs that Underwood sold from the time the CD was released in 2005, though, it brings her total up to 4.8 million.
That's far more than any of her Grammy competitors on Sunday, and more than twice as many as the 1.9 million that the Chicks managed to sell of Taking the Long Way despite receiving next to no play on country radio stations.
Underwood, by contrast, had the full array of electronic media working in her favor. Single after single from Some Hearts got country airplay, the latest being the not-bad-at-all "Wasted." Plus, there was the immense built-in audience for American Idol, which has turned even rocker Chris Daughtry into a million-selling star.
Their success underscores the latest music-industry truism that when it comes to nascent stars' getting their music heard, TV is the new radio.
Some Hearts has an added factor going for it. Both "Jesus, Take the Wheel," and "Don't Forget to Remember Me" - in which a mother sends her daughter off from the nest with the words "here's a map and here's a Bible, in case you ever lose your way" - topped Christian radio charts in 2006.
And the popularity of the overtly religious "Jesus," which won Grammys for best female country vocal and best country song for Underwood, signals that America is at heart a Christian nation as surely as Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy's telling the Super Bowl TV audience that the Christian values he shares with cohort Lovie Smith are of more significance than the fact that they are both African American.
So does that mean that a red state, red meat country starlet like Underwood has nothing at all in common with the Chicks, who might have been received even more enthusiastically than Al Gore at the Grammys on Sunday? Not exactly. They both have a taste for the more traditional type of country music that is often frowned upon in Nashville, where conformity is king.
For now, Underwood's image as a straitlaced good girl is as secure as Maines' reputation as a loose cannon. On her terrific recent single "Before He Cheats," though, Underwood takes revenge on a wayward man, slashing his tires and taking "a Louisville slugger to both headlights."