Bush's approval rating has plummeted, but the Chicks are on top of the pop and country charts with their first album since publicly criticising Bush three years ago.

They did it without the support of country radio, which largely ignored the Dixie Chicks after lead singer Natalie Maines told a London audience during a concert in 2003 that the group was ashamed Bush was from their home state of Texas.

"Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas," she said.

The remark sparked intense criticism and a boycott of their music in some quarters.

The trio also said they received death threats, which led to them installing metal detectors at their shows.

Maines later apologised for her remark, but said she remained passionately against the war in Iraq.

The group's new album, Taking the Long Way, took the No. 1 spot on Wednesday on the US albums chart and the Billboard 200 overall chart - which are based on sales rather than radio airplay - with 526,000 units sold in its first week.

For the year, the Chicks' first-week showing is behind only Rascal Flatts's Me and My Gang (722,000 units), according to Wade Jessen, director of Billboard's country charts.

Fans undeterred

Jessen said the strong sales figures may show that hardcore country fans are not as bothered by the controversy as many in the music industry thought, or simply that the group is attracting a broader audience.

"There also might be a certain amount of support that may have been thrown their way by folks who are a little more liberal and that maybe never bought a country album in their lives but want to show their support," he said.

Bush's approval rating has
plummeted  

The new album hit stores on May 23 amid a flurry of media appearances - including a Time magazine cover story - and its first-week sales are the trio's best since Home sold 780,000 units in its first week of release in September 2002.

The new album's first single, Not Ready to Make Nice, came out in March and stalled at No. 36 on Billboard's country songs chart.

It did slightly better on the adult contemporary singles chart, peaking at No. 32.

The song was co-written by the trio and addresses the controversy head on, with Maines singing in the chorus: "I'm not ready to make nice. I'm not ready to back down. I'm still mad as hell and I don't have time to go round and round and round."

The latest single, a more conventional song called Everybody Knows, reached No. 48.

Polarising

In January, Maines told Entertainment Weekly magazine that she was disappointed with country music and that she was "pretty much done" with the genre.

Jessen suspects that most country stations have already made up their minds about the Chicks' new album and probably will not play their music even if sales remain brisk.

For a lot of programmers, the group is still too polarising.

"Programmers are directly or indirectly responsible for the health of the bottom line, and if anything happens that distracts from that in the way they run their business, they won't deal with it," Jessen said.

Ken Boesen, programme director at WPOC in Baltimore, said his station played Not Ready to Make Nice a few times, but never added it to the playlist.

The Dixie Chicks, which comprises Maines and sisters Martie and Emily Erwin, has won several Grammy Awards, including Best Country Album in 2003 and Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 2005.