Toby Keith has died. It seems an appropriate time to ask, “what kind of a man was Toby Keith?” Well, we can directly ask him by looking at some of his song lyrics. Such as an old hit, Beer for My Horses
Grandpappy told my pappy, back in my day, son/ A man had to answer for the wicked that he done/Take all the rope in Texas find a tall oak tree/Round up all them bad boys, hang them high in the street/For all the people to see
That’s right folks, Toby Keith had a lynching song. Do I need to explain why that is problematic, we can all see it, right? It’s not even a dog whistle, its coming right out and dreaming for the lynching days of yore. The days when people of color stood to be murdered in the street in the most brutal and public fashion for nothing more than a false accusation or even just being perceived as looking at a white person the wrong way.
If you weren’t listening to country music in the early 90’s you might have missed the gradual, then sudden (thanks to the rush to nationalism in the wake of 9/11) shift from outlaw country and songs performed by proud rule breakers to blind, bootlicking patriotism. Toby Keith played a huge roll in that shift, namely with his song Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American) in 2002. With laughably vile lyrics such as
Oh, justice will be served and the battle will rage/this big dog will fight when you rattle his cage/ and you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A./’Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.
It continues with
Hey, Uncle Sam put your name at the top of his list/and the Statue of Liberty started shaking her fist/ and the eagle will fly and it’s gonna be hell/ when. You hear Mother Freedom start ringing her bell/ and it’ll feel like the whole wide world is raining down on you/brought to you the courtesy of the red, white, and blue.
Gag me with a spoon. This song almost single handedly ushered in a new era of eager authoritarianism to country music. I’ll never forget the first time I heard it while I was DJing at a country music station in Appalachia. All the DJs and the staff, even the station owner mocked Keith, the song, and those people who called in to request it.
Toby Keith did another great disservice to the world beyond his own music. In 2005 he entered into a joint venture with music executive Scott Borchetta to launch Big Machine Records, the first record label to sign Taylor Swift. Toby Keith is responsible for Taylor Swift entering, then completely oversaturating the public consciousness. I suppose for him it was a smart business move but what I would give to shove that genie back in her bottle.
There’s a legend about an encounter Toby Keith supposedly had with Kris Kristofferson at Willlie Nelson’s 70th birthday party. It has Keith coming by to wish Nelson a happy birthday when he saw Kristofferson and snidely said “None of that lefty shit out there tonight, Kris.” In reference to Kristofferson’s leftie political views. “What the fuck did you just say to me?” Kristofferson replied. “You ever worn your country’s uniform?” He continued “You heard the question; you just don’t like the answer. Have you ever served your country? The answer is, no, you have not. Have you ever killed another man? Huh? Have you ever taken another man’s life and then cashed the check your country gave you for doing it? No, you have not. So shut the fuck up!”
Maybe with time country music can undo some of the damage Toby Keith did to the industry, but I won’t hold my breath and I won’t be listening much until then. I think Keith’s lyrics speak for themselves. That’s all we need to see to get the measure of the man.