The film opens during the Dixie Chicks' 2003 Top of the World Tour, discussing the Dixie Chicks' super-star status prior the incident at their London show. They had sold more albums in the United States than any other female band in history. With the release of their 2002 album Home, they were again at the top of the Billboard Charts. The new single from that album "Travelin' Soldier", a sensitive depiction of a soldier's life during the Vietnam War era, and the young woman who waited for him, finding he was killed in battle, had peaked at #1 on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart.
The film then cuts to a scene from the Dixie Chicks' March 10, 2003 concert at the Shepherd's Bush Empire Theatre in London, England. The atmosphere in the European audience is of dramatic opposition to the announcement from United States PresidentGeorge W. Bush's authorization of the invasion of Iraq. Approximately 1 million people had recently demonstrated in London against the impending war. During the introduction to their song "Travelin' Soldier", Natalie Maines, a Texas native, says:
|“||Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.||”|
The Guardian, a major English Newspaper, published Maines' statement as simply "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.". Shortly thereafter, the U.S. media picked up the story and controversy erupted.Conservative groups in the U.S. rallied against the Dixie Chicks and a firestorm of anger and criticism followed.
The film shows the band's reaction to the open hostility, political and corporate backlash, and physical threats directed at the group. The band did not expect such a strong reaction, and they are unsure if they should "shut up and sing", apologize, or stand by their convictions and let more sparks fly.
The film follows the day-to-day life of the Chicks. It shows them with their husbands and their children, at home in Texas and in the recording studio in Los Angeles, getting their hair and makeup done before appearances, exchanging ribald remarks with each other, writing song lyrics and working on musical arrangements. Simon Renshaw, the group's longtime manager, is the focus of many scenes as he attempts to guide the Chicks through the vicissitudes of the music industry.
The title of the film is a lyric from the Dixie Chicks' 2006 post-controversial single "Not Ready to Make Nice" from the album Taking the Long Way. It was the criticism and hate mail that they received because of their political statements, one of which drew such concern from both the FBI and the Texas Rangers that they advised the Chicks to cancel a concert in Dallas, Texas, and they were shown the original letter that specified a date, time, and location at which lead singer Natalie Maines would be shot dead, unless she "shut up and sang". However, the show took place without incident. Living in a constant state of fear took an emotional toll on the Chicks, in particular because they toured with their children.
The song, "Not Ready to Make Nice" includes a reference to that very real death threat:
And how in the world can the words that I said
Send somebody so over the edge
That they'd write me a letter
Saying that I better
shut up and sing or my life will be over?!
Commentator Laura Ingraham coined the phrase "shut up and sing"; it was the title of her 2003 book Shut Up & Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the UN Are Subverting America. The tagline of the film, "freedom of speech is fine as long as you don't do it in public", is a reference to a scene in which an interviewed protester says "freedom of speech is fine but by God you don't do it outside of the country and you don't do it in mass publicly".