If there's one thing Americans love doing these days, it's taking sides. So let's have a vote on the polarizing country singer Toby Keith:
Raise your right hand if you think Keith is a pro-military type who voted twice for George W. Bush, supported the invasion of Afghanistan and watches Fox News. Raise your left if you think he is a registered Democrat who voted twice for Bill Clinton, opposed the war in Iraq and suspects Fox News merely panders to the right to boost ratings.
Either way, you're correct -- and whichever hand went up probably says more about you than about Keith. Intentionally or not, the 45-year-old country star, who plays New Jersey's Continental Arena Friday, has become one of the most controversial figures in popular music thanks to a handful of politically charged songs, including "American Soldier" and "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," which touched off explosions among a public already deeply divided over issues of war, terrorism and the very idea of patriotism itself. For those on the right, Keith is a red-blooded hero; for the left, he's a symbol of redneck ignorance.
Right, left or apolitical?
The singer himself says it's not so simple. Speaking by phone recently from the ranch he owns in Norman, Okla., his native state, Keith spoke -- between mouthfuls of a burger -- for nearly 90 minutes about politics, the media, Iraq, Saddam Hussein and a certain Bush-bashing female country singer he refuses to name. Some of his opinions, of course, seem lifted straight from his ostensibly conservative songs. But to those who know Keith only as the guy who sings about vigilante justice and dropping bombs on the Taliban, some of his opinions might come as a surprise.
"I don't apologize for being patriotic," Keith says -- a phrase he repeats several times during the conversation. "If there is something socially incorrect about being patriotic and supporting your troops, then they can kiss my -- -- on that, because I'm not going to budge on that at all. And that has nothing to do with politics. Politics is what's killing America."
Keith has long been known as one of country music's more "socially incorrect" artists. Initially, it wasn't easy to distinguish him from Clint Black, Ty Herndon and other hunky male crooners who dominated country music in the early 1990s. (He even recorded a duet with Sting, "I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying.")
But in 1999 Keith broke that mold by publicly fighting with his label, Mercury, and taking his rejected album, "How Do You Like Me Now?!" to DreamWorks.
That label change was the start of Keith's transformation from go-along guy to pain in the neck, says Jon Anthony, senior program director for country music programming for XM Satellite Radio in Nashville. "Where a lot of people aren't going to stand up and take on a record label, he does," Anthony says. "Country music's always been an amenable format. We don't have rivalries between artists and things like that. This is a town where all these artists are friends and neighbors -- and for gosh sakes, Toby doesn't live here."
What's more, "How Do You Like Me Now?!" positioned Keith as a swaggering rabble-rouser, with songs such as "Die With Your Boots On" and the in-your-face title track.
"It was just a little more outlaw," says Nashville-based Billboard correspondent Ken Tucker. "There was more attitude there than what Nashville had been releasing. And I think Toby grew in his confidence."
Singing meets cinema
These days Keith continues to buck the system -- or rather, create his own. In a further snub to the record industry, he established his own label, Show Dog, in 2005. He recently starred in a movie, "Broken Bridges" (he plays a country singer) and proudly reports that the soundtrack is on his label. It's sold 203,000 copies, and Keith's debut album for Show Dog, "White Trash With Money," has sold 1.2 million, according to Nielsen
"I'm a student of sitting and watching and asking all the right questions," Keith says. "And trying to know that the next time, I won't have to rely as much on the other guys."
The next movie he stars in will also be written and produced by him -- not necessarily out of vanity, but because he wants a larger share of the profits. Some might say Keith's foray into politics was also a shrewd business move.
His 2002 song "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" transformed him from a reasonably successful country singer into a household name. "Courtesy," a pro-military rallying cry, was released not long after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and just as talk was turning toward Iraq, which led many to accuse Keith of scoring easy points by appealing to jingoistic fervor. When his performance on a Fourth of July special was axed, Keith blamed ABC anchor Peter Jennings and many country fans blamed the so-called liberal media.
The Dixie "tyrant"
But Keith also took flak from within the country music community when Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines called the song "ignorant." And after Maines made her famous comment to a London audience about being "ashamed" of President Bush, Keith began holding concerts that featured doctored images of Maines buddying up to Saddam Hussein. The move enraged liberals, who saw it as another effort by the pro-war right to brand the anti-war left as unpatriotic.
Keith says that wasn't the case. In his mind, that Dixie Chick -- "I still refuse to say the name" -- was attacking him personally and trying to squash his freedom of speech, just as dictators such as Hussein did. "Are you the new tyrant in town?" Keith says of Maines. "It's like, here, you're in this family -- this is where you belong."
Dixie Chicks remain mired in the controversy -- country radio stations banned them, and their latest album, "Taking the Long Way," is filled with combative songs such as "Not Ready to Make Nice" -- but Keith has moved on. His album "White Trash With Money" makes only a slight nod to politics with a song that advocates prayer in schools ("Ain't No Right Way"). For the most part the topics are drinking, heartbreak and taking the ugly chick so your buddy can score with the pretty one.
"I'm not a very political guy," Keith says with a laugh. "I know it's hard to believe."
Predictions on Iraq
So what are Keith's politics? He's happy to tell you when asked, and he considers himself better informed than most, thanks to the conversations he's had with soldiers, generals and North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials during his many USO tours. Between 2004 and 2006 Keith visited Kuwait, Africa, Afghanistan (twice), Iraq (also twice), Germany, Italy, Guantánamo Bay and Belgium, often playing more than one city in a day, according to the USO.
Keith doesn't support the Iraq war -- "Never did," he says -- and he favors setting a time limit on the occupation. He says he suspects civil war in Iraq is inevitable and predicts the Kurds will be the victors: "I promise you, they'll end up with it all."
Here at home, he worries that the Democratic party is being taken over by "every other nut and fruitcake organization" from the left, but he'd never switch parties. He counts among his friends several prominent Democrats, including Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry (for whom he campaigned) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (who announced last week he is considering a presidential run). And, as Keith has said many times, he won't apologize for being patriotic.
"At some point in our lifetime, bad as this world is, there's going to be a reason to call on these troops to go to war and the whole country's going to support it," he says. "And when they do, I'll still be right there playing for the troops."