In the post-"Summer of Love" late '60s — smack-dab in the middle of the Vietnam War protests, draft-card bonfires, and the Chicago Democratic convention melees — Merle Haggard dropped a couple of jingoistic little H-bombs titled "Okie From Muskogee" and "Fightin' Side of Me," which told the hippies burning their draft cards down on Main Street and running down Merle's country to go fuck themselves.
Being that Hag was covered by the Grateful Dead in concert and idolized by long-haired country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, it was an interesting message for Merle to send to a cross-section of fans who thought that Haggard, given his background as a former San Quentin inmate, had to be against authority. That "Okie From Muskogee" was tongue-in-cheek was lost on Middle America, and Haggard found himself anointed the standard-bearer for the right, a cheerleader for "the man," the dissenting voice in a chorus of antiestablishment protest.
If country music has a new icon for jackhammer jingoism, it is Toby Keith, the hulking, former semipro football player and oil roughneck from Oklahoma. To liberal country artists such as Dixie Chick Natalie Maines (whom Keith publicly took to task for announcing onstage in Europe her embarrassment that she hailed from the same Texas that spawned George W.) and Kris Kristofferson, Keith is a nightmare, a smarter-than-he-looks playground bully who also looks as if he could tear down a shithouse brick by brick. Keith will get in another artist's face if he or she voices a dissenting opinion — at least according to reporting by Rolling Stone.
Toby Keith, with Trace Adkins. 7 p.m. Saturday, September 4, at Cruzan Amphitheatre, 601-7 Sansbury's Way, West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $33.75 to $83.75. Click here.
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Before 9/11, Keith was a marginal '90s-era figure, but after al Qaeda dropped the Twin Towers, Keith became the "boot in your ass" guy, with his patriotic rant "The Angry American (Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue)" and its memorable line, "We'll stick a boot in your ass/It's the American way."
Though Merle Haggard may have drawn a divisive line in the political sand with "Okie From Muskogee," Keith touched a far less subtle nerve in America, for no matter your politics (Keith is a Democrat, by the way), the image of Osama bin Laden painfully crawling around the mountains of Pakistan with a rattlesnake-skin Tony Lama stuck in his ass was a most pleasing visual. In singling out a villain that every red-blooded American reviles as one of history's biggest assholes, Keith, with all the panache and elegance of a sledgehammer, threw down the gauntlet and tapped a nerve in Americans who, barraged by TV images of the Twin Towers crumbling, wanted some stone-cold revenge.
Other country tunes in the aftermath of 9/11 covered the same turf, notably Alan Jackson's stirring "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" and Darryl Worley's "Have You Forgotten?," but neither carried a single "boot, meet ass" mention. And as Americans, we have little patience for beating around the bush, so while Jackson sang poignantly, "Did you burst out in pride for the red, white, and blue/The heroes who died just doing what they do," Keith distilled a collective anger, boiling it down to a boot and an ass and promising a good ol' country butt-whippin'. America, fuck yeah.
Nearly a decade later, "The Angry American" still butters Keith's bread, still gets plenty of airplay, and stands alone as the rarest of rarities in popular culture: a politically charged song with a universal sentiment.