February 8, 2024

Toby Keith

Toby Keith, a hit country crafter of pro-American anthems who both riled up critics and was loved by millions of fans, has died. He was 62… He was known for his overt patriotism on post 9/11 songs like ‘Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,’ and boisterous barroom tunes like ‘I Love This Bar’ and ‘Red Solo Cup.’ He had a powerful booming voice, a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and range that carried love songs as well as drinking songs…

“Keith often wore his politics on his sleeve, especially after the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in 2001, and early on he said he was a conservative Democrat, but later claimed he was an independent. He played at events for Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the latter giving him a National Medal of the Arts in 2021.” AP News

Listen to YouTube’s “Best of Toby Keith” playlist here. YouTube

Both sides mourn Keith’s death and argue that his music offered something for everyone:

“The country superstar’s entire public life was defined by his second act — the moment he embraced the gaudy jingoism of the post-9/11 era, recording ‘Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),’ a 2002 country chart-topper that divided as many listeners as it united… [It] cemented the Oklahoma native’s position as one of the key cultural figures of the George W. Bush era: a rabble-rouser writing anthems for sports bars…

The cartoonish caricature, which Keith often happily exploited, obscured the other two acts in his career: his decade of earnest exploration, when he was scoring hits while refining his persona, and the measured, middle-aged music he made after becoming a superstar… Success freed Keith to do something that’s still fairly taboo in popular music: accept getting older. Comfortable in his stardom, he started to make subtle gestures: allowing himself to be the punchline of the jokes, deepening his musical roots, embracing the role of an aging outlaw.”

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Washington Post

“Keith’s music about the wars in the Middle East was certainly not politically correct, had overtones of neoconservatism and perhaps oversimplified the issue. But Keith was not a political commentator and he wasn’t trying to be. He was always more interested in presenting a unified front to the troops he loved and respected so much than he was in trying to deliver a nuanced approach to foreign policy…

“Keith was brash, raw and real. His music resonated because his song lyrics sounded like a blue-collar man talking to his buddies on the job or at a party. He was unequivocal and unapologetic. He took complete creative control over his career and never let anyone tell him what to say or what to think. These are rare qualities for musical artists nowadays and that’s why Keith demands great respect.”

Amber Duke, Spectator World

Other opinions below.

See past issues

From the Left

“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…

“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…

“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.”

Jon Caramanica, New York Times

“There’s a lot that’s ridiculous about ‘Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,’ his 2002 song dashed off in response both to his father’s death and to the 9/11 attacks. The image of the Statue of Liberty ‘shaking her fist’ in the general direction of Osama bin Laden is beyond hokey. And even at the time, the doctrine that ‘We’ll put a boot in your a-- / It’s the American way’ was a clear road map to a quagmire…

“But what’s not absurd is Keith’s memory from the second verse of the song: his father raising an American flag in his front yard every day to honor the country for which he gave his right eye. ‘Courtesy of the Red White, White and Blue’ is bad foreign policy, but Keith’s recollection renders it comprehensible as the sort of profound emotional reaction so many people had — but couldn’t express on a national scale — after 9/11…

Loving Keith’s music never meant endorsing every decision he made as a man. And I’m grateful for the lessons in complexity that Keith taught me: that a beautiful voice can be used to sublime or foolish ends, that values I share, such as respect for military service, can lead to actions I deplore.”

Alyssa Rosenberg, Washington Post

From the Right

“[Donald Trump’s inaugural] ‘Make America Great Again Welcome Celebration concert’ featured rock group 3 Doors Down and country acts Lee Greenwood, The Frontmen of Country (pulling from ‘90s groups Lonestar, Restless Hearts and Little Texas), and—the biggest star of the event—Toby Keith. Keith, already pigeonholed as a red state icon, undoubtedly knew that his presence would be taken as further support for Donald Trump. He didn’t care…

“Between ‘American Soldier’ and ‘Made in America,’ performed against the backdrop of a flag-draped screen at the Lincoln Memorial, Keith offered his only message of the evening: one of gratitude for service to the country he loved. ‘On behalf of my family, my band, and all my fans, I want to salute the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard,’ he said, ‘Thanks to Barack Obama for your service, and thanks for the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump. I salute you.’…

“In 2024, such sincerity is easily doubted and mocked. But amidst the countless USO tours and benefit concerts, perhaps Keith’s greatest service to this country is that he reminds us of a time when that wasn’t so. Toby Keith—the man who wrote of the Angry American, the Drunk American, the American soldier, the American ride—sincerely and unapologetically loved this country. May his songs remind us that we should, too.”

Emile Doak, American Conservative

“Americans of a certain age will remember his ballad ‘Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).’ Keith wrote the song after his father’s death and the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001. Diplomatic subtlety wasn’t among the song’s virtues, and the lines about punishing terrorists stirred controversy. But the lyrics said what most Americans thought…

“Keith was also loved by thousands of Americans in uniform. The military nonprofit USO said in 2014 that Keith had played nearly 300 shows for troops from Afghanistan to Iraq to Guam and Cuba. Ditto for stops on ships at sea… Perhaps it’s worth calling up a Keith track amid so much American division and dysfunction, as elements of both parties claim the U.S. is no longer worth defending. America could use more of the love of country that animated the life and times of Toby Keith.”

Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal

Get troll-free political news.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.