Amid the heated debates about Donald Trump’s impending inauguration, I suppose the predictable thing for me to feel about the news that Keith would be performing at the kickoff concert Thursday night would have been disappointment. As the president-elect has spent part of his transition attacking “Saturday Night Live” and throwing tantrums in response to Meryl Streep’s criticism, Trump has done one valuable thing. He’s provided a vivid example of how small and sour the world can feel when we judge art by only its political compliance — or in Trump’s case, how deferential it is to him personally. My feelings about Keith as a political actor were complicated before now, and they’ll be complicated after his performance, but I would be a fool to deny myself the pleasure of his music in pursuit of intellectual purity.
There are a lot of things about Keith’s work that ought to turn me off, if my politics are the only factor I’m considering. The women in Keith’s songs and videos range from Cool Girls who drink brown liquor and know their way around a car engine, to Bible-toting motorcycle chicks, to nags and hags. In one, he accidentally bricks himself in the basement while hectoring an ex about her big mouth, her mother and the poor quality of her cooking — she walks off and leaves him the trap he built himself.
Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” which famously promised revenge for the Sept. 11 attacks, has become one of the leading symbols of country music’s supposed conservative leanings. Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, who were effectively blacklisted for her criticisms of George W. Bush, also derided “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” as a song that made the genre look backward; Keith began using photoshopped images that appeared to show Maines with Saddam Hussein as part of his concert setup, and Maines retaliated by wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the letters “FUTK,” which stands for a slogan I cannot spell out for you in a family newspaper.
As unproductive and nasty as this feud was, and as goofy as the song is, the origins of “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” itself helped me to understand how Keith sees his role in public life.
He originally dashed off the tune as a visceral response to the attacks and performed it exclusively for members of the armed services, with no intention of recording it until he was encouraged to do so by military officials. Keith’s songs for members of the armed services wouldn’t crack my top-10 list if I have to choose my favorite Keith songs — the sincere schmaltz in the video for “American Soldier” is almost indistinguishable from a parody country music video that ran on “Parks and Recreation” — but they’re unmistakably the product of genuine admiration for American armed services personnel, and a sense of obligation to soldiers and the families and communities that support them, in the same way plenty of artists make work for and donate their performances to partisan causes.
In this context, Keith was being perfectly consistent when he told Entertainment Weekly this week that “I don’t apologize for performing for our country or military. I performed at events for previous presidents [George W.] Bush and [Barack] Obama and over 200 shows in Iraq and Afghanistan for the USO.” I don’t know that Keith’s performance will have a unifying effect, but I don’t think he’s a cynic looking to make a buck off of conservative audiences by profiting from liberal outrage, or that he accepted the invitation simply because it was there and is scrambling for a rationale to justify his decision.
The truth is, though, politics aren’t the only figure in this particular equation. And the fact that he spends more time writing and singing fun party songs than songs as rich and precise as “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” his debut single, “How Do You Like Me Now?!” and “God Love Her” doesn’t change the fact that Keith has a wonderful baritone voice. If I look back occasionally and wonder if he could have been Don Williams instead of the singer of an ode to ubiquitous, cheap drinkwear, well, it doesn’t do to dwell on the road not taken when you can sing along with Keith’s choruses.
In addition to that easy, commanding face, Keith has an easy, self-deprecating humor; as with the video of the ex I mentioned above, his videos often feature a twist that reveal whatever character he’s playing to be the butt of the joke precisely because the kind of sexism or yokeldom that seems to be present at the beginning. He’ll staple a feed cap to his head for a silly laugh. And his songs pair that goofiness with a deep and abiding affection, whether it’s for a neighborhood bar full of people wearing their best clothes to drink beer or the rhythm that poker games and NASCAR races bring to a small community. With all the post-election hand-wringing over the partisan divide, there are worse ways to spend your time than living in Toby Keith’s world for an afternoon, not to sympathize with jingoism or jovial sexism, but for a sense of what Americans who feel disparaged value about their neighborhoods and community traditions.
The truth is that Keith’s decision to play Trump’s inauguration can’t disappoint me or break my heart because I never had to convince myself that the former Democrat was some sort of secret progressive in order to like him in the first place. Unless his vocal cords suffer a catastrophic injury Thursday night or he experiences a sudden and total loss of his sense of humor, Keith will be the same remarkable artist who sometimes makes me groan that he was yesterday.