Country star Toby Keith on his bad-boy image -- The ''Angry American'' talks about how his music has split Nashville, his feud with a Dixie Chick, and his redneck pride

By Chris Willman
Updated October 31, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
Tobey Keith Photograph by Richard McLaren

”They got Uday and Qusay,” Toby Keith tells his manager, directing his attention to a newscast on the dressing-room TV. It’s a late afternoon in July, and country music’s biggest male star is in Burbank, killing time between ”Tonight Show” sound checks with news updates on the commando raid that took out Saddam Hussein’s sons. It’s safe to assume Keith approves. Unlike, say, the more placid Alan Jackson, this is a hat act who not only can tell you the difference between Iraq and Iran but might eagerly perform some Tony Lama proctology on both.

It was Keith’s massive Afghan-war-era hit, ”Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” after all, that reminded terrorist coddlers that the U.S. ”lit up your world” and ”put a boot in your ass.” Keith will fess up to slight ambivalence about the current war effort’s aims (”This war here [in Iraq], the math hasn’t worked out for me,” he told the Los Angeles Times in September). But he has no use for TV’s ubiquitous armchair quarterbacks. ”There was a woman on there a little bit ago going, ‘Did they have to kill [Saddam’s sons]?’ They’d have loved taking ’em alive, believe me. But if you would’ve been there, hon, taking that fire, when you don’t know what’s in there…” He shakes his head. ”We don’t live in a PC world. Reality is not PC.”

Ten years into a recording career characterized by almost as many controversies as hits, Keith, 42, knows a little about firefights. He sparred with his original label, Mercury, to the point where they finally dropped him. When he released last year’s triple-platinum ”Unleashed,” many critics blasted ”Angry” for being overly jingoistic. He’s had high-profile dust-ups with Peter Jennings and Dixie Chick Natalie Maines. But even with all this friction — or perhaps because of it — Keith has grown into country music’s first real post-Garth male superstar.

Comparisons with the congenial, pop-friendly Brooks end there. Keith is a charmingly rude bad boy seldom seen since the Waylon ‘n’ Willie outlaw days — an image cemented by his new album, ”Shock’n Y’all” (due Nov. 4). Charming to some, anyway. To many along Music Row, he’s an uncouth throwback to the redneck image country has striven to shed, endangering the genre’s progress. To others, he’s that uncouth throwback…and about damn time! If it turns out a majority are in the former camp, no sweat. ”It makes my job so much easier to know that I’m not what they want to be represented by,” he says. ”They live in a bubble [in Nashville]. I live in Oklahoma, so I’m separated from that. They muddle around in that safe mode while I’m out here just kicking their ass. When you allow yourself to get sucked right into the middle of the road, you’re in traffic. And it’s a horrible place to be — it’s music hell.”

No wonder he’s taken to covering Merle Haggard’s ”The Fightin’ Side of Me” in concert.

”Where’s all the drinking people out there?” Toward the end of his set, Keith will, of course, also ask the crowd if there are any angry Americans in the house. But at the midpoint of tonight’s show at the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles, it’s time for the new CD’s first single, which — it may surprise his critics — is an anthem of inclusiveness and tolerance. It’s called ”I Love This Bar,” and it describes a sort of fantasy watering hole where cowboys, yuppies, bikers, tech execs, hookers, and ”dumb asses and wise guys” all cheerfully commingle. The live audience gets a coda not heard in the radio version, suggesting that ”if you get too drunk, just sleep out in your car.”

As an ode to imbibing, ”I Love This Bar” utterly fulfills outsiders’ stereotypes of country while being utterly unlike most of the country of the last decade. While patronizing comedians weren’t paying attention, country drifted from the sudsin’ and cheatin’ of yore into soccer-mom-friendly family values, creating a genre so positive it rivaled Nashville’s other big export, Christian pop.

On ”Shock’n Y’all,” Keith occasionally meets contemporary expectations — ”If I Was Jesus” covers the God bases, and ”American Soldier” is one more for the troops. But he’s tossed the sensitive love ballads that usually pepper his records, making what he calls his first real ”straight ballsy” CD. ”I’ve always wanted to do a complete attitude album,” he adds. And attitude tends to connote drinking and women, or, better yet — as in ”Whiskey Girl” — drinking women.

In ”Shock’n Y’all”’s hilarious closer, Keith and his frequent cowriter, singer Scotty Emerick, even tell the story of visiting Willie Nelson’s bus to ask him to sing on what would become the smash duet ”Beer for My Horses,” only to meet their match in his industrial-strength ganja. (Parting lines: ”In the fetal position, with drool on our chin/We broke down and smoked weed with Willie again.”)

”I think it comes as a breath of fresh air” — so to speak — ”to people that [think] Wow, here’s somebody that wasn’t afraid to write something like that,” Keith says the day after getting a crowd full of farmers and full-dress soldiers to cheer on his pot-induced-coma comedy. ”It isn’t just weed. It’s gotten so politically correct, you can’t drink on the radio, either. Try being a new artist and bringing a hardcore drinking song, and watch your label dance around that. With me, they don’t have any choice. I don’t know if other people don’t have the green light [to record drinking songs] or they don’t have the balls.” He doesn’t have much sympathy for artistic fear. ”If you’re afraid,” he suggests, ”get a German shepherd.”

At 6’4”, Keith would make an intimidating presence even without the track record and clout, his beefy, unsculpted forearms belying his previous careers — a short stint as defensive end for semipro football team the Oklahoma Drillers, following years as an actual oil driller, a profession he followed his dad into after high school. Eventually he decided he played a better game of offense — in music. That confidence wasn’t misplaced: Mercury Records offered a deal, and his first single, 1993’s ”Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” became the most-played country-radio song of the decade. But his image was initially hard to distinguish from a pack of polite McGraws and Chesneys. Says manager T.K. Kimbrell: ”When I started working with him in ’95, one of the first things he told me was ‘I’m a lot more like Hank Williams Jr. than Vince Gill.’ That wasn’t a slam against anybody — just ‘I’m a little more rowdy than what you’ve seen in my videos and heard in my singles.”’