Americans Were Never Supposed to Hear Toby Keith's Ass-Kicking Post-9/11 Battle Song on the Radio

Singer Toby Keith performs at Forward Operating Base Courage in Mosul, Iraq in 2005. (U.S. Army/Sgt. Richard W. Way)

Toby Keith, country music superstar and avid USO supporter who performed for more than 250,000 troops in 17 countries over two decades, died of stomach cancer on Feb. 5, 2024, at his home in Oklahoma.

Among the most popular songs Keith, who was 62, performed for American troops was "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," which also turned out to be his most controversial -- even though Keith had never intended to release the song to the public in the first place

Looking back at 2002, one might think of the overly patriotic song's release as one of the most significant cultural flashpoints of the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. That year, Keith was kicked off the list of performers for an ABC Independence Day special when he refused to change the song's lyrics, and the anthem led to a yearslong feud with Natalie Maines, lead singer of the country band then known as the Dixie Chicks.

But Keith had only ever intended to play "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" at USO shows and military performances; he was never going to record the song and release it to the public more broadly, according to The Washington Post -- that is, until a few choice words from the Marine Corps' top officer changed his mind.

According to the Post, then-Commandant of the Marine Corps and future Supreme Allied Commander Gen. James L. Jones had told Keith outright that "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" was "the most amazing battle song I've ever heard in my life" and encouraged him to release the song as a single.

"Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and No. 25 on the overall list of top songs in the U.S. following its release. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, it's not hard to figure out why: Keith describes the attack as a "sucker punch" and the U.S. response as "a boot in your ass, it's the American Way."

Toby Keith rocks Forward Operating Base Sharana in Afghanistan's Paktika Province for a surprise concert at the 172nd Infantry Brigade headquarters, April 29, 2007. (U.S. Army/ Spc. Robert Holland)

Keith was at the height of his fame at the time of the attacks, and like other artists, he wanted to write a song about what he was feeling in the aftermath. But where other country artists wrote about grief and loss, Keith wondered why no one had written a song about how angry people were about the attacks. So he invoked the memory of his father, Hubert Keith Covel, and began writing angry lyrics on the back of a fantasy football sheet, dashing out the music and lyrics in about 20 minutes.

Covel was an Army veteran who fought in the Korean War, who really did lose his right eye and really did fly the American flag from his home every day until he died. The day he died also happened to be in 2001, when a charter bus collided with his car on a stretch of Oklahoma's Interstate 35. His father's death is also what compelled Keith to start touring with the USO as a way to honor his father, who had begged the singer to do USO tours for years.

Keith first played "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" while performing for Marines at the Pentagon prior to their deployment to Afghanistan. Keith told his captive audience he would have to play an acoustic version, because the band didn't know it yet. That's when Gen. Jones approached him and encouraged the singer to release his battle hymn as a single. Keith knew the song would be controversial, but he released it because "if it means so much to those guys, I don't care. I'll do it."

"Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" was a single on Keith's 2002 album "Unleashed," which was certified platinum four times by the Recording Industry Association of America for selling more than four million copies. Despite the subsequent rows with ABC News' Peter Jennings and a feud with Dixie Chicks singer Maines that lasted years, Keith never expressed any regret about the song's sentiment.

"Most people think I'm a redneck patriot," he told Time magazine in 2004. "I'm OK with that."

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