NASHVILLE — Shortly after country singer Toby Keith performed at President Trump’s inauguration concert in January, his phone lit up with text messages. Many entertainers were terrified to get anywhere near Washington, but according to Keith, several had regrets about turning down the invitation to perform for the controversial new commander in chief.
“I’m not naming names, but there’s a bunch of people that . . . were committed, and they backed out due to pressure,” Keith, 55, said recently during an onstage Q&A at the Country Radio Seminar (CRS) in Nashville. “Then they all texted me afterward and said, ‘Every guy would like to be you, standing up there.’ ” Excuses ranged from “Our camp wouldn’t let us” to “We just couldn’t bring ourselves to do it.”
Keith, on the other hand, never considered canceling on Trump. “I don’t apologize for performing for our country or military,” he said at the time, pointing out that he had played events for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. His message was clear. This was about America, not party lines.
Still, Keith is undeniably linked with politics. He’s known as the country star whose post-Sept. 11 patriotic anthem “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” famously includes the line, “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” Throw in his feud with the Dixie Chicks, particularly after Natalie Maines criticized Bush right before the Iraq War, and Keith became one of the prominent celebrity voices in the last Republican administration. So now, as we embark on a GOP era unlike any other and most country singers are staying quiet, what is the state of Toby Keith?
By all accounts, there’s every reason to believe that Keith will approach the Trump years just as he has every other significant point in his career, political or otherwise: By doing absolutely whatever he wants, and what he feels works for his brand. That’s what he did shortly after he arrived in Nashville from Oklahoma in the early 1990s. Decades later, as one of the richest singers in the music industry, it’s still working.
Not only is he savvier than those who disregard him as just the “roughneck, boot in your ass” guy, as one friend put it, he has a sharp instinct about how his fan base will react. As a result, he didn’t drop out of the inauguration, despite people telling him that he should.
“If you don’t succumb to that kind of pressure, you’ll always come out stronger. Your fans will love you more, your friends will love you more, your peers will respect you more,” Keith said at CRS, under a hat and sunglasses. “At the end of the day, you just get another notch on your gun belt.”
As a musician, Keith craves control. When he signed onto his first record label in Nashville, executives tried to dress him in suits, and he fought to record songs that he liked. Soon, he started dressing out of his own closet and moved to a label that promised he could record whatever he wanted. Then things started to change.
“I said, ‘I’m going down on my own ship. I can live if I go down with my ship, but if I’m not the captain and you guys take it down, I can’t sleep at night,’ ” Keith said at CRS.
One turning point occurred in 1999, when Keith (who was unavailable to comment for this story) went behind his bosses’ backs and urged radio stations to play his fiery album track “How Do You Like Me Now?!” Label executives had already released a safe ballad called “When Love Fades”; they were scared that “How Do You Like Me Now?!” — in which the narrator taunts a woman who rejected him before he became famous — would alienate female listeners.
Keith’s gut told him it would be a hit. Sure enough, the song exploded.
“He speaks the truth — but he also speaks his mind, even if it’s ornery, or a little misspoke, or ill-placed,” said country singer and frequent collaborator Bobby Pinson, adding that Keith is like “the biggest kid in class” with his confident swagger. “But he’s managed to find a charm in that.”
Although his brash attitude can rub people the wrong way, when it comes to politics, Keith — a former Democrat who is a registered independent — is fairly down the middle. So the public image of Keith as a political lightning rod is amusing to some of his collaborators. Pinson said Keith could be classified as a “Toby-crat” and “Toby-can” with his own set of beliefs.
“He is just a textbook independent from his music to his business to his politics. . . . He doesn’t set out to hit a nerve,” Pinson said, adding that people are projecting when they criticize Keith for playing at Trump’s inauguration. “They’re commenting on Toby’s performance based on their own political views, not Toby’s.”
Keith memorably hit a very significant nerve and cemented his reputation as a political entertainer in 2002, when he released “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American).” As Keith tells the story, he was working out at the gym shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks when he saw a talking head on TV say something like, “Well, I guess we could go bomb them. That would be so the American way.”
The words hit him hard. “I was like, ‘Well, what just happened to us? I mean, are we just supposed to stand by and let this happen? Can we not be mad as hell about this?’” Keith recalled at CRS. Inspired, he scribbled some lyrics on the back of a fantasy football sheet.
Later, he called his producer, James Stroud, and read the lyrics, which invoked Keith’s military veteran father who had just passed away. (“My daddy served in the Army/where he lost his right eye/but he flew a flag out in our yard until the day that he died.”)
“I cried,” Stroud recalled. “I said, ‘Toby, you need to record this.’ ”
At first, Keith felt it was too personal. He changed his mind after a show at the Pentagon, where he performed it for a group of Marines who were shipping out to Afghanistan. Marine Corps Gen. James Jones implored him to record it, saying, “That’s the most amazing battle song I’ve ever heard in my life.”
“I prayed about it, and discussed it with everybody for a long time, because I knew it was going to cause a storm,” Keith said at CRS. “But at the end of the day, it was like, if it means that much to those guys, then I don’t care, I’ll do it.”
“Courtesy” became Keith’s signature song and started a close relationship with the United Service Organizations; Keith has done a USO tour for nearly every year since 2002, according to a USO spokeswoman, and has played hundreds of shows for the troops overseas.
The song was also his most controversial. Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, called it “ignorant,” which set off a public fight between the two. Following her infamous comment about being ashamed the president was from Texas, Keith started using a Photoshopped picture of her next to Saddam Hussein in his concerts. Maines fired back with a T-shirt that said “F.U.T.K.”
In summer 2002, Keith was supposed to perform “Courtesy” on a July 4 special on ABC, but was dropped from the lineup. The network blamed logistics; Keith said the network’s news anchor, Peter Jennings, a Canadian, didn’t like the lyrics. “I find it interesting that [Jennings] is not from the U.S.,” Keith told USA Today. “I bet Dan Rather’d let me do it on his special.” In protest, Keith’s fans sent hundreds of boots to ABC.
Keith’s subsequent patriotic song was more toned down. Nashville-based singer Lari White, who produced Keith’s 2006 album “White Trash With Money,” is married to songwriter Chuck Cannon, who co-wrote the emotional “American Soldier” with Keith in 2003.
“They very intentionally worked hard not to be ‘The Angry American, Part 2,’ but to be universal and apolitical: ‘We want to support these men and women who sacrificed for us,’ ” White said. “It has nothing to with Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, whatever. That’s irrelevant. It’s a universal human story that’s really important.”
The song describes a father providing for his family, and eventually the lyrics reveal he’s a soldier. “I remember saying something like, ‘All right Toby, you put the boot in the ass in the last song. . . . Let’s write a song that Hillary Clinton can’t argue with,’ ” Cannon said.
But Cannon said that people have unfriended him on Facebook because they know he co-wrote the song — and Keith played it at Trump’s inauguration.
Two of Keith’s popular song themes are patriotism (“American Ride,” “Made in America”) and drinking (“Get Drunk and Be Somebody,” “Beers Ago,” “Red Solo Cup”). Sometimes, they’re combined (“Drunk Americans”). Some tracks get autobiographical, such as “Honkytonk U,” which references his blue collar roots growing up in Moore, Okla., where he played football and worked in the oil fields with his father, a lifelong Democrat .
Despite the everyday American themes in his music, Keith himself is a millionaire many times over. Forbes reported that Keith was the fourth-highest-earning country singer of 2016, earning nearly $48 million. In 2013, the magazine named him “Country’s $500 Million Man,” with an empire that includes his record label, Show Dog-Universal; a Ford endorsement deal; his own liquor line; a restaurant chain in his name; and a 4 percent stake in Big Machine, the record label that launched Taylor Swift.
Keith’s label, which merged with Universal in 2009, used to have a roster of artists, though it now only includes him and two other acts. In the last few years, the Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill chain faced closings and lawsuits. (The Arizona Republic reported that Phoenix-based Boomtown Entertainment just licensed Keith’s name for the restaurants, and Keith has no ownership stake.)
These days, while Keith rakes in the cash as a touring act, he hasn’t had a single go to the top of the country charts in about four years. His latest, “A Few More Cowboys,” was released last summer and only cracked the Top 50. Journalist Chris Willman, who interviewed Keith for his book “Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music,” pointed out that because Keith’s career is at a “plateau,” he actually didn’t have a lot to lose by playing Trump’s inauguration.
“He scored a lot of points for courage among the large percentage of the country that does support Trump,” Willman said. “And the points it cost him among people who hate Trump . . . he already lost those points, anyway.”
Some inauguration controversy lingers, such as the recent stir by residents in Naperville, Ill., who declared Keith “too political” when he was booked to headline a local rib festival this summer. However, as Keith reiterated at CRS, he’s not too concerned about outside approval.
“I’m going to write what I write, sing what I sing. If it works it works,” Keith said. “And if it don’t — I really don’t care.”