Toby Keith, who has died at the age of 62, forged his own path. As Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said in a statement, “Keith was big, brash, and never bowed down or slowed down for anyone… He relished being an outsider and doing things his way.” The terrorist attacks of 9/11 sparked a succession of songs in the years that followed, but none had the divisive impact of his country anthem Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).
The song, released in May 2002, begins with recognition of his father Hubert “HK” Covel Jr, a US Army veteran who had died the previous year. “He wanted my mother, my brother, my sister and me/to grow up and live happy in the land of the free,” he sang.
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In interviews, Keith often noted the song originated as a personal account of the rage he felt his father would have expressed in response to the attacks. But the song became much bigger than that, particularly due to its chorus, a revenge fantasy: “Justice will be served and the battle will rage/This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage/And you’ll be sorry that you messed with/The US of A/’Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass/It’s the American way.”
The song was released in that fraught era of impassioned arguments between those who were for eradicating terrorism in the Middle East and those who viewed war as a reckless adventure for corporate profiteers. Having Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American) raging on the radio at a time when a culture war was raging across the US itself gave it greater significance than maybe he even intended. The song elevated the Oklahoma native’s career to new heights and remained one of the biggest hits of his career.
He would turn the song into an opportunity to become actively involved in the military charity United Service Organisations (USO), performing in 17 countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan, while fighting off critics including Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines, who said that the song was “ignorant, and it makes country music sound ignorant”.
The feud with Maines continued over years – he displayed her picture in concert next to Saddam Hussein; she responded by wearing a T-shirt that read “FUTK” – seen as a thinly-veiled insult directed at Keith – at the Academy of Country Music Awards in 2003. “People try to make everything black and white. I didn’t start this battle. They started it with me; they came out and just tore me up. One thing I’ve never, ever done, out of jealousy or anything else, is to bash another artist and their artistic licence,” he said.
He responded with other songs that sympathised with the military, like American Soldier (2003), a gentle ballad sung in the first-person voice of an Army reservist who is being asked to leave his family and fight overseas. The 2011 song Made in America is another portrait of a US citizen, this one of an elderly man in a small town mourning the ravages of globalisation on his community: “It breaks his heart seeing foreign cars/Filled with fuel that isn’t ours/And wearing cotton we didn’t grow,” he sings. “He won’t buy nothing that he can’t fix/With WD-40 and a Craftsman wrench/He ain’t prejudice, he’s just made in America.”
The concept of “America First” that President Donald Trump would later use in his first White House campaign is hinted at in lyrics like those, but to Keith – a rare country music hitmaker who either wrote or co-wrote most of his songs – the songs were not meant for the pundit class or for political campaigns, but were instead simply documents of everyday people.
Throughout his career, Keith insisted he was not political. He performed for President George W Bush and President Trump, but he also performed at the annual Nobel Peace Prize Concert in 2009 that honoured President Barack Obama, whose Afghanistan policy Keith said he supported. In the past, he said he was a Democrat but switched to become a registered Independent in 2008.
“I’ve never been political. I thought it was cool to support the military,” he said. “You can’t go out and support the military in Afghanistan or you get all the right-wing checkmarks that come with it. I was like, ‘Well, I’m just gonna take ’em. Mark me down. Just check me off however you want to check me off.'”
Contrarianism is a well-trodden path in country music history and includes songs like Merle Haggard’s Okie from Muskogee and Johnny Cash’s The One on the Right Is on the Left, which each mock both the left and the right on the political spectrum. Haggard’s lyrics criticising smoking marijuana in the midst of the counterculture-revolution of the 1960s were considered radical, while Cash’s song is emblematic of how the singer flirted with conservative and liberal values throughout his career.
Many of Keith’s songs ultimately fall in line into that tradition. However, there is no doubt that the sabre-rattling he conjured in Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American) created an opening, more than two decades later, for Try That in a Small Town by Jason Aldean, which similarly caused screaming headlines.
But perhaps Keith’s intentions weren’t so divisive. By focusing on the plight of military members and telling their stories in his music, he struck a single note that in the current climate of extreme partisanship, feels almost quaint.
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