GO­ING HIS OWN WAY

Toby Keith was a loud po­lit­i­cal voice after 9/11. What about in the Trump era?

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY EMILY YAHR

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 illplaced,” 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 Phoenixbased 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.”

WAYNE BREZINKA FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Coun­try pol­i­tics in the Trump era Should singers speak up in this di­vi­sive time? We asked them. E12

RICK DI­A­MOND/GETTY IMAGES FOR SHOCK INK

Toby Keith per­forms in a con­cert for tor­nado re­lief in his home state of Ok­la­homa on July 6, 2013. De­spite his pub­lic im­age as a po­lit­i­cal light­ning rod, Keith’s friends say he is ac­tu­ally fairly mod­er­ate. Bobby Pin­son, a fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor, calls Keith a “text­book in­de­pen­dent” who could be la­beled ei­ther a “Toby-crat” or a “Toby-can.”

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