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By Nekesa Mumbi Moody
The Dixie Chicks completed a defiant comeback on Sunday night, winning five Grammy awards after being shunned by the country music establishment over the group's anti-Bush comments leading up to the Iraq invasion.
The Texas trio won record and song of the year for the no-regrets anthem "Not Ready to Make Nice." They also won best country album, which was especially ironic considering the group says they don't consider themselves country artists anymore.
"I'm ready to make nice!" lead singer Natalie Maines exclaimed as the group accepted the album of the year award. "I think people are using their freedom of speech with all these awards. We get the message."
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Mary J. Blige's comeback also was richly rewarded: She received three trophies for her double-platinum album "The Breakthrough." The Red Hot Chili Peppers won three for their double-disc "Stadium Arcadium," which also won a package-design award.
The Dixie Chicks won all five awards they were nominated for, sweet vindication after the superstars' lives were threatened and sales plummeted when Maines criticized President Bush on the eve of the Iraq war in 2003. Almost overnight, one of the most successful groups of any genre was boycotted by Nashville and disappeared from country radio.
With "Taking the Long Way," the women relied on producer Rick Rubin's guidance for an album that was more rock and less country. (Rubin, who also produced "Stadium Arcadium," was honored as producer of the year.)
The standing ovations the Chicks received Sunday illustrated how much the political climate has changed regarding the Iraq war, and even Bush.
"That's interesting," Maines crowed from the podium after the country award was handed out earlier in the night. "Well, to quote the great 'Simpsons' — 'Heh-Heh.'
"Just kidding," added Maines. "A lot of people just turned their TVs off right now. I'm very sorry for that."
Bandmate Emily Robison noted, "We wouldn't have done this album without everything we went through, so we have no regrets."
All the trophies collected by the Dixie Chicks, Blige and the Chili Peppers contributed to the evening's old-school feel.
The show often derided as The Grannys embraced its baby boomer status in its 49th year. Maybe the Recording Academy was trying to relive the industry's glory years — 2006 saw a sharp downturn in record sales, a decline that seems to grow each year as fans flock to the Internet and even ringtones to experience their tunes.
The Grammys tried to tap that new technology with its "My Grammy Moment" contest, in which three unknown singers vied for the chance to perform on stage with Justin Timberlake. Viewers determined the winner by voting on the Internet and text messaging, but the winner's performance was forgettable.
The "Moment" also incorporated a bit of "American Idol" into the telecast. Last year the Fox talent contest crushed the Grammys on a head-to-head Wednesday night. So it was no surprise when the Grammys returned to Sunday this year.
Though the show featured a medley with bright new stars such as John Mayer, John Legend and Corinne Bailey Rae, it relied heavily on the classics: Nominee Lionel Richie sang his '80s hit "Hello" and Smokey Robinson sang the Motown classic "The Tracks of My Tears" in a tribute to R&B. Rock and Roll Hall of Famers The Police, who split in 1984, reunited to kick off the show with their rendition of "Roxanne" — even though they were not nominated for anything.
Soon afterward, Tony Bennett and Stevie Wonder's duet on a remake of Wonder's "For Once In My Life" beat out two of the year's biggest songs — Nelly Furtado and Timbaland's "Promiscuous" and Shakira and Wyclef Jean's "Hips Don't Lie" — for best pop vocal collaboration.
Even some of the more contemporary artists were relegated to singing songs that weren't their own. Christina Aguilera sang the late James Brown's "It's A Man's Man's Man's World" instead of her own nominated songs, while Carrie Underwood, the newcomer with one of last year's most successful albums, crooned "Desperado" and "San Antonio Rose" instead of her signature tune "Jesus, Take the Wheel," which was nominated for song of the year.
For a while, it seemed as if VH1 Classics had taken over the show's production.
But new artists were celebrated, a bit. Chris Brown injected some hot-footed funk with his "Run It," while Underwood was celebrated as the best new artist. And double winners included youngsters John Mayer, T.I. and Ludacris.
Blige was the overall nominations leader with eight. She won best R&B album for "The Breakthrough," her double-platinum triumph, plus best female R&B performance and R&B song for "Be Without You."
A tearful Blige said her album "has not only shown that I am a musician and an artist and a writer, it also shows I am growing into a better human being."
"Tonight we celebrate the better human being because for so many years, I've been talked about negatively," said Blige, who during her 15-year career has often discussed her past substance abuse and self-esteem problems. "But this time I've been talked about positively by so many people."