SALISBURY - If we go to war with Iraq tomorrow, and the United Nations doesn't like it, we can blame it on Toby Keith.
We just have to explain to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan that we went to Keith's concert Sunday night at the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center and got so carried away with his aggressive patriotism that we took the words to his controversial song literally and had to kick somebody's rear.
If you are not a country music fan, there are a few things you need to know about Keith, whose wildly popular "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)" has been stirring up controversy since May.
Keith is 41 years old, a husband, a father, an Oklahoma-born former high school football player whose father lost his right eye in the Army. He is 6 feet 4 inches tall, has bulging biceps, a goatee and favors faded blue jeans or black leather pants, sleeveless denim vests and ribbed T-shirts, and a white cowboy hat he wears rakishly low over his brow.
You should also know how many women in the civic center lobby hugged and kissed and had their picture made with the life-sized cardboard cutout of him before the concert and during intermission. A lot.
Keith's "Unleashed 2002 Tour" concert sold out the 5,100-seat arena in four hours, quicker than any show in 20 years. Tickets flew faster than they did for Sesame Street Live, World Wrestling Entertainment, Monster Trucks, Kenny Chesney and one recent sell-out, 14-year-old pop singer Aaron Carter. But remember, Keith is popular not only on Maryland's Eastern Shore. He has drawn crowds in Madison, Wis., Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Virginia Beach and Pittsburgh.
Here, first in line, waiting for the arena doors to open, is 6-year-old Kristen Downes, to explain. This concert is her birthday present (plus a CD player at home and the leather coat she is wearing). Kristen is a huge Keith fan and one of many children in the crowd. Her aunt is carrying a miniature Old Glory for her to wave. Her mother has painted their nails red, white and blue.
They listened to "The Angry American" on the drive over from Snow Hill and came at 3 p.m. for the 7:30 p.m. concert because they thought one of the two country music stations in town was going to feed the first 100 people supper.
Kristen is too young to know what brought Keith to such a place of prominence. She cannot tell you about his early years struggling to gain attention writing and singing songs, but she has seen him on TV pitching Ford trucks and 10-10-220 long-distance service.
If she knows Keith wrote the "Angry American" a few days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and struggled with the notion of releasing it, she isn't saying. The song was inspired by Keith's father and dedicated to the military. He volunteered to perform it for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. To call the lyrics bold is an understatement:
Justice will be served
And the battle will rage
This big dog will fight
When you rattle his cage
And you'll be sorry that you messed with
The US of A
’Cause we'll put a boot in your ass
It's the American way
Behind Kristen is Terry Tinker, an Air Force reservist who is here with his wife, his teen-age son and his daughters, who are 4 and 6. They all love the song.
Terry was at the arena on a cold, rainy night in October, at 3 a.m. when tickets went on sale. He arrived early Sunday to get a good parking space so leaving would be easy.
What is not easy for him now is explaining Keith's deep, broad appeal. His family did not get into country music until they moved to the Delmarva Peninsula in 1995. He nods when a woman in line says the thing she likes about Keith is "he speaks his mind. He's not afraid to be different."
Terry's son, 15-year-old Phillip, says Keith's patriotism touches a personal chord with him, since his dad is in the service. It doesn't hurt that kids at his school, Snow Hill High, listen to a lot of country and like Keith, he says.
Not everyone feels the same, though. ABC withdrew Keith's invitation to perform on its Fourth of July special, allegedly because anchor Peter Jennings didn't like the lyrics, and Keith's fans retaliated by mailing boots to Jennings, who was born in Canada.
Farther back in line are two high school seniors, Ashley Hall and Daniele Hall, unrelated, who like the bravado in the lyrics. They won their tickets in a raffle Saturday at the Harley-Davidson store in Ocean City.
Daniele says, "He's so not afraid to represent the USA."
Daniele says, "He's manly. He says what he wants to say."
Daniele has on a denim cowboy hat, which is perfectly frayed around the brim, and Ashley is wearing a felt cowboy hat and a turquoise necklace. They confess they've worn the hats just for this occasion.
Another thing that appeals to them about Keith is how the attitude creeps into other songs. They note "How Do You Like Me Now?!" "Who's Your Daddy?" and "I Wanna Talk About Me," in which he laments the one-sided nature of conversation between a man and a woman:
We talk about your skin and the dimples on your chin
The polish on your toes and the run in your hose
And God knows we're gonna talk about your clothes
You know talking about you makes me smile
But every once in awhile
I wanna talk about me
If none of this helps you understand how Keith whips up a crowd, come inside and experience the concert. Sit through the opening band, Rascal Flatts. Smell the french fries and feel the muggy warmth of the crowd. Take in the throng of people, the occasional red-white-and-blue-striped bandana or sweater or rain slicker.
Look at the people on the floor, near the back, holding up signs. One says "Salisbury University Girls Love Toby Keith." Holding it is 17-year-old Amanda Pritchett, of Linkwood, who is sitting beside her 24-year-old boyfriend, Lee Settle, who served four years in the Coast Guard.
"I think it's awesome how he wrote that song for his dad, and he didn't release it for a while, and when he did, it was a huge success," Amanda says. "It's truly how Americans feel, but nobody wants to say it."
Amanda is flanked on her right by her college roommate and a friend from high school, and on her left, her boyfriend, her mom and stepfather and their neighbors. Her mom also has a homemade sign leaning against her shins.
"His music is tugging the strings right now," says Amanda's stepfather, Tony Shockley, a Vietnam veteran. "People are not going to let anybody step on us anymore."
If that still doesn't explain the Toby Keith phenomenon, find a seat and watch the black curtain fall, the lights go out and the video begin. See the bulldog walking out of the house on the screen. Note the name "Toby" on the tag hanging from its studded collar.
The voice is meant to be the dog's inner thoughts. Hear the crowd laugh when the bulldog encounters two poodles and says he's never had twins before. Hear the dog comment as he looks up a woman's skirt. Then sit back and wait for the moment that says it all.
The bulldog comes across a newspaper lying on the sidewalk, and the camera zooms in on a picture of Osama bin Laden. The dog lifts his hind leg. The crowd cheers.
Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun