Toby Keith

Toby Keith (February 12, 2004)

The anger seethed. But instead of attacking something (or someone), Toby Keith picked up his guitar and sat down.

It was a few weeks after Sept. 11 and six months after his father, an Army veteran, was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Keith needed to release some tension. And the lyrics and music that flowed turned out to be one of his biggest hits, rocketing him to the top of the pop charts.

The song, 2002's jingoistic "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," brought Keith lots of attention - some of it not so flattering. With such lines as "Oh, justice will be served and the battle will rage/This bulldog will fight when you rattle his cage," Keith became known as America's favorite redneck, a tag that doesn't seem to bother the Oklahoma native and resident.

"That name-calling is overrated," says Keith, who's phoning from a tour stop in Alabama and plays a sold-out show Sunday night at 1st Mariner Arena. "'Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue' wasn't written for everybody. It was a gift from me to the military guys. I knew I was gonna run into my liberal critics with that song. But I did it. I'm proud I did it. I don't look back."

The country star followed up the platinum-selling Unleashed, which featured the controversial smash, with Shock'N Y'all. Like its predecessor, the album made its debut at No. 1, selling close to 600,000 copies in its first week. And the brawny, 6-foot-4 singer-songwriter continues to salute his country in song on his latest hit, "American Soldier": "I will always do my duty no matter what the price/I've counted up the cost/I know the sacrifice. ..."

"This is a tremendous honor to the troops," Keith says. "We get so desensitized seeing them on the news every night that we forget that under the helmets is a mind, under the camouflage is a heart. They put it all on the line for us, man" he says, his tone serious and direct. "The song was a tribute, but it also said to my critics, 'Now get up and say something about this ignorant redneck now.'"

"American Soldier," the second single from Shock'N Y'all, is currently No. 3 on Billboard's country charts. "I Love This Bar," which chronicles a rowdy night at a honky-tonk, was the CD's first smash. The rest of the album is standard Keith: tender ballads and rockin' jams overlaid with self-penned ornery and sentimental lyrics.

"I start with an idea," Keith says of his songwriting process. "I say, 'Here's a setting,' and the song builds from there. It's pretty easy."

Before Keith became a pop superstar - singing in Ford truck commercials and headlining major venues across the nation, he was a solid figure in the country field. The former defensive end for the Oklahoma City Drillers released his self-titled debut in 1993, spawning the hit "Should've Been a Cowboy."

Subsequent albums - Boomtown, Blue Moon, Dream Walkin' - solidified his status in the world of twang and bang. But after six years with Mercury Records, Keith left the label and signed with DreamWorks in '99. With the raucous single "How Do You Like Me Now?" Keith's star crossed over to pop.

He credits the wide exposure to the label change.

"I think sitting back in mediocrity, handcuffed by your label is a bunch of humble pie," he says. "I sat back and watched others and looked and learned. But I'm blessed, man, to be in a situation where I can do more of what I want."

Which includes injecting his tunes with his brand of patriotism.

"I understand completely why people say we shouldn't be in Iraq and at war," Keith says. "But I trust Bush's cabinet more than I trust some Hollywood guy yelling, 'Peace!' on some street corner. This is our government. If you don't agree with it, you can live somewhere else."

America's favorite redneck has spoken.