Staff Columnist

Toby Keith's return to Iowa conjures memories of political controversy

(PUBLISHED: Country music star Toby Keith entertains at the Great Jones County Fair in Monticello on Friday night.) Country music star Toby Keith entertains at the Great Jones County Fair in Monticello on Friday night, July 19, 2002. Keith's show began shortly before 10 p.m.
(PUBLISHED: Country music star Toby Keith entertains at the Great Jones County Fair in Monticello on Friday night.) Country music star Toby Keith entertains at the Great Jones County Fair in Monticello on Friday night, July 19, 2002. Keith's show began shortly before 10 p.m.

Country music star Toby Keith will perform at the Iowa State Fair this summer, event organizers announced last week. Keith’s return to the grandstand in Des Moines conjures memories of one of recent history’s most interesting collisions between politics and popular culture.

Keith’s first appearance at the Iowa State Fair in 2002 came at a pivotal moment in his career. He recently had published “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” a rallying cry for the war in Afghanistan. The track had reached No. 1 on the Billboard country chart a few weeks before Keith’s visit to Iowa, and would become his first platinum single.

From its release, the song’s chest-thumping lyrics were variously celebrated and condemned. In the iconic kicker, Keith sings, “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.”

• Playlist: Country songs about war and peace

“Angry American” came in the middle of the most successful span of Keith’s musical life. Among 17 singles he released from 1999 through 2004, 12 reached No. 1 on Billboard’s U.S. country chart. The song would recast Keith’s public persona — the politically moderate singer-songwriter became recognized by supporters and detractors alike as a musical spokesman for American military interventionism.

In an interview published a few days before Keith’s Iowa State Fair concert in August 2002, Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines harshly criticized Keith’s song, setting off the most memorable country music feud so far this century.

“I hate it. It’s ignorant, and it makes country music sound ignorant. It targets an entire culture — and not just the bad people who did bad things,” Maines reportedly told the L.A. Daily News.

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Keith and Maines publicly exchanged criticisms in media interviews and on stage. Maines wore a shirt with the letters “F.U.T.K,” while Keith displayed a fake image at his concerts of Maines with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

The fight eventually fizzled out but remains an important piece of country music’s political and cultural history.

The genre celebrates the American identity, consistently elevating songs honoring the military and veterans.

Most often, they take the form of feel-good patriotic platitudes or somber remembrances. Think Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” or Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Some Gave All.”

Few songs, however, have been so aggressive and jingoistic as Keith’s 2002 anthem, which seemed to channel the conservative angst of music legend Merle Haggard’s early work.

Two songs released in 1969 — “Okie from Muskogee” and “Fightin’ Side of Me” — became No. 1 hits and positioned Haggard as a poet for the common man. The lyrics presented a hostile rejection of the era’s Vietnam War protests, with Haggard implicitly threatening violence against anti-war demonstrators.

“If you don’t love it, leave it. Let this song that I’m singin’ be a warnin’. When you’re runnin’ down our country, hoss, you’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me,” Haggard sang in “Fightin’ Side.”

However, Haggard exhibited shifting political views in the ensuing years. He later suggested he resented the way those two songs defined his early career.

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His 2003 song, “That’s the News,” can be heard as a mea culpa for his earlier work, honoring military personnel but condemning the political forces behind the War on Terror: “Suddenly the cost of war is somethin’ out of sight. Lost a lotta heroes in the fight. Politicians do all the talkin’: soldiers pay the dues.”

Indeed, the pro-war tunes of 2002 Keith and 1969 Haggard were aberrations from country music norms, not emblems thereof. Many of the genre’s timeless figures — Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson and Gram Parsons, to name a few — wrote or recorded songs that reflect on the grave costs of war.

Cash’s persona-defining song, “Man in Black,” was first performed in 1971 for students at Vanderbilt University, one of the many student bodies concerned with U.S. foreign policy at the time. Fundamentally, it is an anti-war song.

“I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been. Each week we lose a hundred fine young men,” Cash sang.

Cash, by the way, never made mention of inserting footwear into enemy orifices. Leave that to Keith.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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