By Benjamin Leatherman
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The most recent chapter in the Keith saga is the controversy he's generated around his dismissal by Peter Jennings and ABC News, who, at one point, asked him to perform as part of a Fourth of July news special. Though the story changes depending on who's being quoted, the gist of it is that Keith intended to perform a track from his newest CD, Unleashed. The song is called "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)" -- apparently the song required two titles in case one didn't catch -- and it deals with the rage Keith was feeling after the 9/11 attacks and the death of his father some months prior.
According to Keith, he was divided on whether to release the track at all, but popular support, management insistence and the tremendous appreciation of the GIs and military personnel for whom he'd performed the song convinced him it ought to be included on the disc. In fact, the song is the album's leading track, and a short speech that Keith gave to an appreciative audience before beginning a live version of it provides Unleashed's final moments.
The decision to cut Keith's performance may have had something to do with these lyrics: "Soon as we could see clearly/Through our big black eye/Man, we lit up the world/Like the Fourth of July/This big dog will bite /When you rattle his cage/And you'll be sorry you messed/With the U.S.of A./Cause we'll put a boot in your ass/It's the American way." ABC said that it received many boots in the mail and was the subject of an Internet petition from viewers who objected to the idea of Keith's performance. The network decided to side with the viewers and removed him from the lineup.
In spite of this snub, the song became a huge hit -- but it also created some rifts between Keith and the country-music establishment. In an interview with Reuters, the Dixie Chicks' Emily Robinson said the controversy over Keith's song "feeds people's stereotypes about country and that everybody's a redneck and ignorant, and that the way we're going to deal with something is in an uneducated way."
Keith countered that anybody who didn't like the song was a "Commie heathen," which pretty much ended the dialogue. And though "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" certainly forged a divide between those who vilified the singer and those who embraced him, it didn't do much to help anyone understand him. There's a secret to Toby Keith that no one seems to have figured out: All that country-rock-pop sound and his larger-than-life stage/TV/video demeanor masks a folksy '60s character who is as much Burl Ives as he is Hank Williams Jr. or Charlie Pride. Listen to Keith wrestle a ballad -- his voice quivers and quavers like someone going over a washboard road in a pickup truck with bad shocks. And when he gets serious, he bellows like someone struck by injustice, wanting to strike back. There's a bit of Barry McGuire in the boy.
Keith is in his zone, with novelty numbers that are cleverly written and well turned-out, full of funny phrases and great hooks. It's no wonder he's becoming a pop icon, selling the 10-10-220 dialing business with Alf and Terry Bradshaw in national commercials. He's a natural in front of the camera, appealing even to people who might never listen to a country station or a Toby Keith song. Keith claims he's been approached to act in situation comedies, and its easy to imagine him in buddy-oriented action films as well.
For now, though, music remains his emphasis. Unleashedis actually pretty sweet . . . once you get passed the glare of the anthem. It's actually a little sad, defiant in places and defeated in others. There's a duet with Willie Nelson that has some Old West charm, and Keith's latest single, "Who's Your Daddy?," is a real slice of Tin Pan Alley country honky-pop, closer musically to the '30s than to today, with more than a touch of a "Walk Right In" feel. The song would have been a good choice for Jerry Lee Lewis in his day.
The fact is, if Keith is truly unleashed, it's probably because the big dog is less vicious than he pretends.