Craft Over Controversy 

Mr. Boot in Your Ass retreats from the culture wars.

Toby Keith is a country singer who has released 10 studio albums in 13 years. He's got two greatest-hits albums under his belt and is halfway to a third that is sure to sound better than the first two. But despite his considerable body of work, for noncountry fans, Keith is nothing but Mr. Boot in Your Ass.

Keith's post-9/11 anthem "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," a frightening celebration of military vengeance, was the most controversial confluence of country music and politics since Merle Haggard's hippie-baiting "Okie From Muskogee" and much harder to dismiss or laugh off.

The song made Keith an instant enemy on the political left, and not without reason. "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" may have been motivated by justifiable post-9/11 anger and may have been, as Keith later insisted, a rallying cry for invasion of Taliban-hosting Afghanistan -- not Iraq -- but those details are nonexistent in the song. Keith never sounded too concerned about which "you" was being put at the top of Uncle Sam's list or which "you" the "whole wide world" was raining down on.

Four years later, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" holds up better than most of its liberal detractors at the time (myself included) could have suspected. It's well written, musically stirring, rooted in an honest anger. There's a reason the song is remembered today while Darryl Worley's similarly themed hit "Have You Forgotten?" has already been forgotten.

But "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" wasn't even the most ideologically insidious song Keith released in 2002. Far more troubling now is "Beer for My Horses," a duet with Willie Nelson.

An intensely catchy vigilante-justice anthem that equates terrorists with "gangsters" and posits lynch-mobbing as an old-fashioned good time, "Beer for My Horses" not only drags Nelson into the muck but every listener who sings or hums along without considering the implications of the song's bloodlust, a group that includes most of the audience for Nelson's performance at AutoZone Park last summer.

Keith embraced his new role as right-wing spokesman with the title of his next album, 2003's Shock'n Y'All. But while Keith may have had a hit with the pro-military "American Soldier," the song's success seemed more dutiful than anything else. Musically, it was a dud. Instead, Keith struck gold with nonpolitical fare such as the alt-country-worthy rocker "Whiskey Girl" and the big-tent sing-along "I Love This Bar."

Keith's audience seemed to be suffering political fatigue, a subject addressed in Entertainment Weekly writer Chris Willman's interesting new book, Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music (The New Press; $25.95).

Keith and Nelson share space with the Dixie Chicks on the cover of Willman's meticulously reported book, which focuses on the role of politics in country music between 9/11 and Bush's reelection. Rednecks & Bluenecks is rooted in the polarity of Keith and the Chicks, between his ostensibly pro-Bush bent, the Chicks' potentially career-killing attack on the president, and in the spat that followed between the two acts.

As much as people like to position Keith and the Dixie Chicks as opposites, Willman is sharp in recognizing how both acts helped to spur country music from its artistic doldrums in the late '90s. As different as they are, both Keith and the Dixie Chicks were more (musically) and less (temperamentally) traditional than what had become the Nashville norm before these outsiders (from Texas and Oklahoma, respectively) helped change the template for country stardom.

But what's most revealing about Keith in Willman's book isn't his politics but his sense of craftsmanship and his self-consciousness. When Dixie Chick Natalie Maines criticized "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue," Keith was less bothered by the political disagreement than by the suggestion that it wasn't a good song and that someone like Maines, who isn't a songwriter, would dare say so. Keith's constant harping on his losing streak at industry awards shows is probably more revealing than he'd prefer. Keith may sound like Waylon Jennings sometimes, but bitching about not getting an award isn't exactly befitting an outlaw. I don't think Hank woulda done it this way.

So, though he may now forever be known as Mr. Boot in Your Ass, Toby Keith is really more a country-music craftsman than badass right-wing mouthpiece. Don't believe it? Take a listen to his latest album, Honytonk University, a calculated retreat from the culture wars where the songs are so polished and performances so colorful that Keith now seems to have moved beyond mere songwriter. The likes of "As Good As I Once Was" and "Big Blue Note" aren't so much songs as video soundtracks, and if you turn on CMT you'll see Keith trading neo-con boogeyman for a new persona that fits just as well: redneck teddy bear.

Toby Keith's Big Throwdown Tour II

FedExForum

Saturday, February 18th

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