Back in 2002, Toby Keith appeared on the very first episode of Total Nonstop Action Wrestling to perform his song “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” — only to be interrupted midway through by the dastardly wrestler Jeff Jarrett. There is maybe no better metaphor for the kitschy nationalist spectacle of the era. A few years before, a heel in wrestling might have incited boos and jeers from the crowd by burning an American flag. But in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, you make them hate you by interrupting a Toby Keith concert.
Keith further solidified his reputation — an outspoken patriot to some, an obnoxious blowhard to others — by way of a public dispute with Natalie Maines of the then- Dixie Chicks. Keith seemed to enjoy talking smack as much as defending America, almost like a wrestler in a feud. At several concerts in 2003, he projected a doctored photo of Maines alongside Saddam Hussein, as if she were Sgt. Slaughter. Later on, he’d say he went too far.
But short of anyone who has actually held political office, few public figures have made a business out of their patriotism like Keith. The Oklahoma-born singer-songwriter, who died Monday at 62, was one of the foremost faces of country music’s commercial boom in the 1990s, but with the dawning of the new millennium, he became the symbol of a very different movement, as a hardline supporter of all things America in the “Freedom Fries” fervor of the post-9/11 era. Almost every major country artist took up flag-waving in the early 2000s, but Keith made it his brand, as songs like “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” and “American Soldier” served as de facto national anthems for hawkish voters who believed in supporting the troops above all else.
You don’t have to look very far to find antecedents in country music to Keith’s jingoism, like Merle Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” but there’s an anger and aggression to a song like “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” that took it to a new level. Keith’s resounding call to stick a boot in the ass of America’s perceived enemies became a rallying cry to those looking for villains to blame. To those rightfully unsettled by Keith’s thirst for blood, that song — and Toby Keith himself — became a symbol of all that’s wrong with Nashville, an easy shorthand for the most reactionary and regressive tendencies of country music.
But the reality of Keith’s politics was a little more complicated, and not as easy to place inside the neat and tidy box of a three-minute radio single. Though Keith always carried himself with a brash swagger, his pivot to fearmongering was somewhat startling for an artist whose prior work had not only been fairly apolitical, but even sensitive and tender. Early albums like Blue Moon and Dream Walkin’ are filled with heartbroken belting and tearful power ballads that practically beg for placement on the soundtrack of a Jerry Bruckheimer production. As much as Keith could exude arrogance, his pre-9/11 songwriting could also be self-effacing, casting him as an unreliable narrator who falls prey to his own pride and overconfidence. Even though the protagonist of “How Do You Like Me Now?!” has achieved superstardom, he still hasn’t gotten over a girl who was mean to him in high school.
That kind of petty vindictiveness also defined Keith’s political statements. As the subtitle “The Angry American” indicates, the song was not written from a carefully considered political viewpoint, but from a wounded place of unfiltered emotion. That’s not to justify any view expressed in the song, but more to suggest that it was never intended to be taken as a coherent position. On some level, the song was Keith’s response not only to 9/11, but to a more directly personal tragedy: the death of his own father, whose reaction to the terrorist attacks Keith imagines. Beneath the surface-level nationalism, there’s the despairing nihilism of a grieving child who lashes out in anger at a world they blame for the loss of a parent. The song’s misplaced rage embodies the prototypically masculine arrogance that often defined Keith, as he takes out his own emotional trauma on others rather than processing it himself.
Keith always stood firmly behind his most reactionary songs, and he certainly never balked at Republican candidates using his music at their rallies, but he often seemed frustrated with the perception of himself as a conservative. It might have been an effort to play both sides, but he was always quick to remind interviewers that he had actually been a longtime Democrat, prior to registering as an Independent in 2008, and even spoke positively of Barack Obama. “I’d never been a Republican, and my family were Democrats, but because I made the war cry,” he said, alluding to “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” in a 2018 interview with Dan Rather, “I got the checkmark.”
Contemporary conservative politics might have taken on an anti-government edge, but Keith belonged to an older school of conservative thought, one that put a fundamental respect for the office of the President ahead of party affiliation. When questioned about his decision to perform at Trump’s inauguration in 2017, he bluntly replied that when “the president of the frickin’ United States asks you to do something and you can go, you should go instead of being a jack-off.” At the end of the day, Keith’s political persuasion mostly depended on whoever was paying the bills, like so many performers: In 2017, he would become one of the first Western musicians to publicly perform in Saudi Arabia, at a gender-segregated concert in Riyadh.
If anything, like his heroes Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, Keith landed somewhere toward the libertarian end of the spectrum, prioritizing individual freedoms above all else. And like those icons, he often maintained an adversarial relationship with Nashville, retreating back to his native Oklahoma like a fortress of solitude as Willie would go to Austin or Merle to Lake Shasta.
But unlike his idols, the vitriol and anger that Keith was identified with — rightly or not —often overshadowed his body of work. For all his attempts to fight against the boxes other people put him in, Keith ended up boxing himself in better than anyone. Like the spotlight-hungry pop star of “How Do You Like Me Now?!” Keith was a showman playing a part. He relished a role he was cast in so long as it brought attention, whether it meant playing the avenging hero or the contemptuous heel.