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The less angry American

August 26, 2003|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

As he sang the lyrics to his celebrated patriotic hit Sunday at Staples Center, red, white and blue confetti rained down on the curled brim of Toby Keith's cowboy hat and rocket-red pyrotechnics shot up past a video screen showing the Statue of Liberty. This was the Toby the crowd wanted and expected, the roadhouse patriot.

But a few hours earlier, in a hushed dressing room, it was a different Keith -- one who talked about the increasingly onerous challenge of playing the uncomplicated man in complicated times.

Away from the firepower of the stage, this fighting man from Oklahoma said that he has decided to call a cease-fire in his ugly feud with the Dixie Chicks ("We had fun with it, but I'm just done with it"), that he still has lingering questions about the necessity of the war in Iraq ("Honestly, I'm still doing the math on that") and that he wonders whether the hit song, "(Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue) The Angry American," has typecast him ("People think I bang the war drum, and that's not me").

Keith spoke before playing to a packed audience, one of the rare evenings when cowboy hats outnumbered ball caps in the aisles of the downtown venue. The tour is called "Shock'n Y'all," as in "shock and awe," and the concert T-shirts include one style in camouflage. On stage, Keith is about as subtle as a rodeo -- not only does he not mind his tour sponsor Ford parking an F-150 flatbed next to the drum kit, but he also points to it when a lyric mentions trucks. When he sings a song about the firepower unleashed on Afghanistan, he introduces it as "a love song."

It's a different tone in his backstage conversation.

"You know, a best friend of mine, the guy that started the first band I was ever in, he lost a 2-year-old daughter to cancer -- this was just a couple of weeks ago," a somber Keith said. "A few days after I found out she didn't have long to live, I saw a picture on the cover of Country Weekly with a picture of me and Natalie and said 'Fight to the Death' or something. It seemed so insignificant. I said, 'Enough is enough.' "

Natalie, of course, is Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, who felt the wrath of country music fans and radio programmers earlier this year when she expressed her antiwar sentiments by insulting President Bush from the concert stage. Maines also labeled Keith's "The Angry American" as "ignorant," instantly casting her and Keith as cartoon-simple rivals in Nashville and throughout the heartland.

Reflecting the beat of that constituency, the Chicks suffered boycotts and plummeting album sales. Keith, meanwhile, has cemented his position in the top tier of country music bestsellers, with a No. 1 debut on the U.S. pop album chart, a hot tour and the public praise of a president.

Much of it is due to "The Angry American," which skipped the mournful cadences or emotional pain offered by Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising" and Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" and instead essayed the pain of Sept. 11 as a roadhouse call to arms.

Blared from pickup trucks in the backwoods as well as armored vehicles in Baghdad, the song is reminiscent in its heartland ubiquity to "God Bless the USA," the soft-focus patriotic ode by Lee Greenwood that reflected a different era and vibe in the 1980s.

"Alan Jackson's song was everything we, as a country, wanted to hear, and Toby's song was everything we wanted to say," said James Stroud, the producer of the song and also chief of the record label DreamWorks Nashville. Stroud was backstage at Staples watching Keith get ready for the show. "You know, he reminds me of a young Willie Nelson as a songwriter. He's that good. And that song is one people will remember a long time."

A song can shape a public persona too, and "The Angry American," Keith says, has also already typecast him in some ways. "People think because of the song, I just bang the war drum at every chance, you know, 'Go fight, join up,' but that's not me," the 41-year-old said. "It's OK to be antiwar, until the war starts. Then you support the troops.

"Look, my stance is I pick and choose my wars. This war here [in Iraq], the math hasn't worked out for me on it. But I'm smart enough to know there's people smarter than me. [National security advisor] Condoleezza Rice, [Secretary of State] Colin Powell, George Bush -- this is their job, and I have to trust in them. I support the commander in chief and the troops."

Keith took a long pause to consider his words, and then added: "I was for Afghanistan, 100%. We got struck and the Taliban needed to be exterminated, but this war here, in Iraq, I didn't necessarily have it all worked out. It didn't work out for me. I know a tyrant is gone and all of that, but whether it was our duty to go do that, well, I haven't figured that out."

Keith has, however, figured out how to please a crowd.

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