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Toby Keith Was More Than Mere Bluster

It is important to note right from the beginning that Toby Keith, when presented with the opportunity to become the music industry’s jingoist-in-chief, leaned in. At the turn of the millennium, just after the Sept. 11 attacks, Keith, who died Monday at 62, released a string of songs that were notable for their political stridency, commitment to American exceptionalism and flexed-bicep threat.

Keith had a three-decade career in country music, selling more than 20 million albums and releasing 20 No. 1 Billboard country singles. But he will indisputably be remembered first and most intently for this era of songs: “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (the Angry American),” a thunderstorm of pro-war propaganda peaking with the exclamation “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way”; “American Soldier,” a warm hum of bombastic treacle; and even “The Taliban Song,” a cheeky ditty in the Jimmy Buffett mold aiming to satirize, if not quite sympathize with, life in Afghanistan under the repressive Taliban regime.

These songs, released in 2002 and 2003, made Keith a culture-war champion. He understood instinctually that culture is politics, and politics is theater, and for this fraught period in American history, he was determined to provide the soundtrack.

Nonetheless, Keith’s career was also an object lesson in how one incandescent and hard-to-ignore moment can shine so brightly that it obscures more nuanced truths below. For most of the rest of his career, Keith was a sly humorist, a good-natured blowhard, a chronicler of what really happens below thick skin.

Much of his best music was about how masculinity is performance. Take “As Good as I Once Was,” one of the great country songs of the 2000s, which is delivered from the perspective of a man in decline, physically and sexually:

I got a few years on me now
But there was a time, back in my prime
When I could really lay it down
And if you need some love tonight
Then I might have just enough

The semi-rapped “I Wanna Talk About Me” manages to wrap a critique of male petulance in a song superficially about a woman who doesn’t come up for air. And then there’s “How Do You Like Me Now?!” which is perhaps Keith’s most blustery song, a victory march in search of a Ford F-150 commercial.

But it, too, is about defeat, dedicated to someone who never gave him the time of day: “I couldn’t make you love me/But I always dreamed about living in your radio.”

In the earliest years of his career Keith was a burly loverman and an awwww-shucks himbo on songs like “Who’s That Man” and “We Were in Love.” Over time, he allowed the caricature to displace the man.

In an era before the threat of “cancellation,” Keith toyed with ostracization by drawing ideological lines that, for a while at least, Nashville found it expedient to paint within. Much of the outsider perception of country music as a bastion of walled-in conservatism was forged in this era, thanks to Keith and the many performers he inspired.

But Keith was more politically slippery than his songs signaled. He was for many years a registered Democrat (“a very conservative Democrat,” he told Playboy in 2005), and though he sang movingly about the sacrifices of the military, he himself, unlike his father, had never served.

His father’s experience was part of his inspiration to write “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” though he chose to release it only after performing it at the Pentagon and being told that the troops would embrace the song as a morale booster. Keith told Rolling Stone in 2004 that he’d previously been unsure whether he would put out the song, anticipating the backlash that it eventually generated in spades. “This song’s gonna rub a lot of people the wrong way,” he said. “So I had to weigh the two sides. Are you willing to fuss and fight with people so other people who need to hear the song can hear it?”

That song became a statement of purpose, and set the tempo for the next phase of his career: “Unleashed” and “Shock’n Y’all,” his next two albums, both were certified platinum four times, his most commercially successful releases and the ones that shaped his public image in a way that he didn’t always shirk from.

“Most people think I’m a redneck patriot. I’m OK with that,” he told Time magazine in 2004. In 2009, the actor Ethan Hawke wrote in Rolling Stone about watching Keith (or someone very much like him) get dressed down in 2003 by Kris Kristofferson, a committed leftist and also an Army veteran, for his valor-stealing image. (The story is possibly apocryphal — both men shied away from confirming it later on, and they were photographed together not long after — but it reinforced the public perception of Keith as a performer preoccupied with posturing.)

When the Dixie Chicks (now the Chicks) spoke disparagingly of George W. Bush in 2003, Keith poured gasoline on the fire, showing a mock-up photo of the frontwoman Natalie Maines alongside Saddam Hussein at his concerts. At that moment, the genre was his — he remained a hitmaker for a decade, while the Dixie Chicks effectively went into exile.

In his 2005 Playboy interview, he expressed remorse about how the tension unfolded. “I disappointed myself tremendously with that exchange. The whole thing ended up a fiasco,” he said. “I felt like I lowered myself.”

In his later years, he continued to evade clear-cut political affiliations. In 2009, he performed at the Nobel Peace Prize concert, the year the honor was presented to Barack Obama. (He was met with some resistance from Norwegians who deemed him a less-than-stellar advocate for peace.) And in 2017, he performed at a concert during Donald Trump’s inaugural weekend, where he conspicuously thanked Obama, a gesture of comity that already felt anachronistic.

In more recent years, Keith reframed his rebellion away from politics, toward getting-older mischief. He also had an unpredictable caress of a voice, and particularly in the last decade he was an almost sentimental soul singer hiding in plain sight. You could hear it on the 2018 whisper “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” about dodging death, literally and metaphorically. Gone was the puffed chest and the raucous machismo, stripped away to demonstrate that there’s resilience in frailty, too.

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