Courtesy Of The Red, White & Blue

Singer Talks About His Defiantly Patriotic Songs

Toby Keith is not only one of the biggest stars in country music -- he may also be one of the most talked about, and argued about. He has won legions of new fans by writing songs that are defiant, and defiantly patriotic.

But not everyone has liked what they heard – and he's attracted a few high-profile enemies, including the Dixie Chicks' lead singer, Natalie Maines.

None of that, however, has dimmed his luster. Next week, he is a favorite to win Entertainer of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards.

You could say his success has come, as his most famous song puts it, "courtesy of the red, white and blue." But there's more to it than that. Correspondent Dan Rather traveled with him this summer, and what he found is that his fans love everything about him.
Look around at a Toby Keith concert and you'll see the America he sings about: blue-collar fans and families, proudly showing their colors and embracing the music that gives voice to the lives they live.

His point of view is that of a 6-foot-4, 240-pound Oklahoman. There's God and country. There's women and whiskey. And not necessarily in that order.

"As far extreme as I seem, I'm probably catching the average Joe in the middle better than anybody," says Keith.

And to Toby Keith, the average Joe thinks just the way he does – and it's all right there, in his music.

For a long time, record executives worried that women would be turned off by some of his songs.

"I was just told the other day that one of the executives in Nashville said that he can't believe and would have never thought that a woman would have liked anything that I ever had to say," says Keith. "And our CD sales are driven by the female buyers. I don't do a lot of love songs or anything. But I think there's a void there that nobody ever touches on, and they're afraid to touch on. And I hit it right in the … it's in my wheelhouse."

There are certainly those who would say that Keith is the quintessential macho man.

"But that's the guy that the girl wants. The girls always end up with the one that their mothers don't want them with. The rough cut guy's the guy they always go after," says Keith, laughing. "I'm absolutely that guy."

Keith, 42, was born in Oklahoma. The son of an Army veteran, he worked the Oklahoma oil fields after high school, and then played semi-pro football for a couple of seasons.

Singing in bars at night, he hit it big in 1993, with an instant, albeit conventional, country classic, "Should Have Been A Cowboy." This song was played more than any other song on country radio during the 1990s.
But the song he is best known for is called "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," and he told 60 Minutes II that he wrote it in just 20 minutes, a week after 9/11.

He wrote it to play for troops on USO tours – something he often volunteers to do. He never intended to release the song on a CD, but then, he played it for Pentagon brass in Washington.

"He [the Marine Corp commandant] said, 'You have to release it. You can serve your country in other ways besides suiting up in combat.' We will go kick their butts. But we survive on morale," says Keith. "I mean, we live on the morale. That's what we travel on. And, he said I highly recommend you put that song out."

So he did, and Keith's career was never the same. It's been used as a battle cry by U.S. armed services in Iraq. Bombs were branded with it. One of the first tanks into Baghdad was, as well.

And none of that is lost on President Bush, who asked Keith to be his opening act several times this year.

But not everybody embraced the song. Weeks after "Angry American" was released, producers for ABC television asked Keith to perform on the Fourth of July concert, a show hosted by Peter Jennings.

"Then they come in, and start putting the show together. And Pete comes in and says, 'Who is … who does this Toby Keith think he is? And he is not singing this song on my show,'" says Keith.

ABC disputes that Jennings said that. Instead, the problem, according to ABC, was that the network didn't want to start the show with a song that, at times, can be very angry. For his part, Jennings was quoted as saying it was a pity about the Toby Keith issue. But that opening the show with Keith's song "probably wouldn't set the right tone."

"I thought it was hilarious. My statement was, 'Isn't he Canadian?' to a bunch of press. They laughed and then I said, 'Well, I bet Dan Rather wouldn't kick me off his show,'" says Keith.

Rather responded: "And I'm not gonna be a hypocrite, you wouldn't want me to. I like Peter, he's a good guy."

"Well, I don't like him and I'll be honest with you, too," says Keith.
Keith also ran into a problem with the Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines. Months before Maines said she was embarrassed that George Bush was from Texas. She also said that the song, "Angry American" made country music sound ignorant.

Keith fired back at his concerts, projecting an image of Maines and Saddam Hussein on a giant screen. It turned out to be an all-out country music feud that lasted for months, and got him a lot of attention.

Since Keith released "Angry American," he has never been more famous or wealthy. This year alone, he will personally gross more than $45 million from his music.

What does he think about his battle with Maines? "If my career keeps going the way it's going, I'm going to hire her as my publicity agent," says Keith, laughing.

The success he's enjoying will put the finishing touches on his massive spread outside Norman, Okla., and pay for the more than 100 thoroughbred racehorses he's raising. Horse racing, he says, is his retirement plan: "You know that at some point, you're not going to be, you know, the new flavor of the year or something. And horse racing is a great thing to fall back on."

For now though, he'll be busy promoting – or shall we say – explaining his newest album, due out next week. It's called "Shock 'N Y'all," and it contains more controversial songs, including "The Taliban Song."

"I'm just a middle-aged, middle Eastern camel-herdin' man. I got a two-bedroom cave here in northern Afghanistan…So we prayed to Allah with all of our might and then those big U.S. jets come flyin' in one night. They dropped little bombs all over our holy land and man you shoulda seen 'em run, like rabbits, they ran: the Taliban."

"Now, the Taliban song is a funny song. It's about a peace-loving Afghanistan man who's trying to get out of Afghanistan while the Taliban evening news report is telling everybody to remain calm," says Keith. "'We've got everything under control.' And he's like, 'BS, I'm out of here.'"

What does he have to say to those who believe the song is anti-Islam, anti-Muslim, and angry and arrogant in its nature?

"You could say a lot of those topics you just covered there … you could say that about any of my songs," says Keith, laughing. "That is the reason that they don't like us, because we are so American. So, you know, that the gifts that we have here and the freedoms that we have here are … is the one thing that makes the militants as mad as they are -- at us anyway. And that's everything I sing about."

Keith says his success has made him a target, but his critics won't silence him. He's making a lot of money making a lot of noise. And he says his music and his message resonate with many people across this country -- from his native Oklahoma to New York City.

"You know, until I became very successful, I didn't get these hits. So the higher you fly, the bigger targets you make. And I can take that," says Keith. "And I'll be there every time. If you, if they need me to respond, I'll be that guy because I'm not gonna lay down. And I'm not gonna shut up."
  • Rebecca Leung

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