Toby Keith Was More Than Mere Bluster

His choice to become a post-9/11 culture-war champion overshadowed the work of a musician who was funnier, subtler and more politically slippery than his most famous work let on.

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.”

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