Toby Keith's gift as a performer is that he can hold a grudge for 11 years, or at least pretend to. Despite the fact that he is country music's biggest male star and his current album, Shock'n Y'all, is hanging around the Top 10 months after its release, Keith is still wounded over not having been nominated by the Country Music Association for top new vocalist--in 1993. "We've got two awards shows in country," says Keith, "and new artist is hands down the easiest thing to win. But did I even get nominated? All I can say is, 'Those people nominated that year can't smell the record business anymore, and I probably sold more records in the last six weeks than they sold in their careers.'" At the apex of his creepiness, he laughs, "You think I got a chip on my shoulder?"
You would expect a 6-ft. 4-in., 240-lb. ex--semipro football player and oil rigger to be menacing, and Keith certainly can be. But he's also funny. Oh, Keith really does believe that the Nashville elite conspire against him because he "doesn't play their game." And he is the poet laureate of righteous indignation, as evidenced by his notorious promise to America's enemies to "put a boot in your ass," in his massive hit Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American). But Keith also knows that playing the role of country's resident rogue--the permanent outsider who speaks manly but unwelcome truths--is great show business.
Until 2001 Keith was a steady country hitmaker, but probably only aficionados would have known how different he was from the wholesome likes of Kenny Chesney or Tim McGraw. That changed after Sept. 11 when Courtesy tumbled out of him in a 20-minute writing binge. "I wrote it so that I had something to play for our fighting men and women," he says. In a trial run at the U.S. Naval Academy, it brought the house down. "But once people said I should release it, I knew there was going to be trouble. I'm comfortable being extreme, but saying 'boot in your ass' is so extreme. Of course, if you say, 'foot in your butt,' you got no song."
Courtesy was a massive crossover hit, yet as he predicted, "it wasn't for everybody." Peter Jennings reportedly had Keith axed from ABC's July 4, 2002, special (the network denied that it was Jenning's call), while Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines minced no words: "I hate it. It's ignorant, and it makes country music sound ignorant." All of this played right into Keith's exaggerated sense of grievance. He notes that Jennings is Canadian born and wonders whether Dan Rather would have barred him from CBS. At his concerts last year, he briefly put up a doctored photomontage of Maines meeting with Saddam Hussein.
Keith, 42, knows that during the course of his various feuds, he has become a caricature. "In trying to defend yourself all the time, you end up looking pretty simple," he says, adding, "I'm not the banger of the war drum people think." Even though his new album title is a horrible pun on "shock and awe" and he included yet another anti-Taliban song, Keith describes himself politically as "an extremely conservative Democrat," and has expressed ambivalence about the motivations for the war in Iraq. Still, he doesn't mind his more-hawkish-than-Rummy image. "Most people think I'm a redneck patriot. I'm O.K. with that."