Toby Keith is without a doubt my favorite country singer. I’ve enjoyed him since he burst on the scene, and I will be the first to admit that it was in limited doses. You see, I’m more inclined toward rock or disco – yeah, I admit it: I’m a disco generation kind of guy. Scratch me and I’ll bleed Bee Gees blue, or ABBA gold.
But country has always had a place in my listening bin. I am not a fan of a lot of what was out there when I was a younger person, as the likes of Ferlin Husky did not much for me. The same goes for a lot of the pop music that passes as country right now. But there was a period from about 1990 to now that’s kept me interested, largely due to Mr. Keith.
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The music of Toby Keith is entertaining, amusing, and touches my soul. He is connected to Americans in a way that most politicians could only hope to realize. He’s funny and smart. His lyrics are in the best tradition of story telling, and the videos that accompany his hits are probably very easy to script and shoot: the words of the song do all the heavy lifting.
More than anything else, he’s a patriot. You may not realize it, but he’s in the top of the pile for most miles travelled/shows performed for the U.S.O. He belongs up there with Bob Hope, Ann Margaret, Wayne Newton and a few others.
As a result, you are not allowed to talk smack about any of those four named above. Especially Mr. Keith.
A while back I attended his concert at Grand Casino in Hinckley, Minnesota. It’s a long way from the metro area, and it was 90+ degrees that day. That didn’t matter to his fans. They drove for hours on a congested, construction clogged stretch of interstate to hear his band perform under the stars. Mind you, there was an ocean of beer consumed due to the heat, but I’d call that about right for the event.
Mr. Keith has my back.
I have always known that he’s my kind of guy: occasionally outrageous, liberty-loving, sometimes hammered, always entertaining. His supporting musicians, and the opening act were wonderful as well. My wife and I got to the venue very early so as to avoid the traffic-jam that would come with the normal “Minnesota goes north on Friday” exodus from the Twin Cities. Honestly, at 4:30 on a summer Friday, you couldn’t get more people on that freeway if you announced an army of zombies was attacking from the south. While we were baking in the heat, this very polite young fellow came over to where we were sitting, and just chatted us up. He thanked us for coming to the show and let us know our attendance was very much appreciated. I looked at the spousal unit and said, “I know he’s somebody, and he’s very nice to come out, but darned if I recognized him.”
It was Lance Carpenter, the opening act. I can attest to the fact that he is a gracious and pleasant young man, and he is an excellent performer. Keep an eye on that lad.
The second act was Krystal Keith – Toby’s daughter. She was also a fine performer, and did a number or two with Lance. They have a chemistry and it comes across in the music.Once they were done, it was about a 20 minute wait while they reconfigured the stage.
While the equipment was checked, I gave great thought to what I’d seen and heard that afternoon in preparation for the main act. A series of people of widely varying ages, ethnicities, levels of income, and visual appeal had gathered together on the land of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. There were quite a few western hats, more ball caps, a profound number of patriotic garments that ran from flag motifs to t-shirts supporting law enforcement and the military, and modes of transport ranging from cowboy boots to motorized wheelchairs.
And lots of real cowboy hats, including my extremely battered Stetson Stallion. Tattoos were in abundance as well, including things like “Marine Corps Mom” and a plethora of obscene military tattoos that told the enemy where to go and how to get there. More than a few pairs of “Daisy Dukes” were in evidence, including the pair that went with the battered cowboy hat and the beard. (I feel that it’s a faux paux to wear boots with cutoff jeans, guys. Take heed.)
The songs? There was no whining about how life was unfair. But there were songs about laundromats, pickup trucks, love, work, and a myriad of other concerns that the middle and lower classes all understand. Lots of songs about beer and horses as well. I’m betting that most of the office holders in Washington D.C. have never gone to a laundromat, much less one with two sets of machines. Not racially segregated, but the ones on the left are for oil soaked work clothes, and the ones on the right for your dress-ups.
When the moment came for the main event, it was kicked off by the jumbo video boards showing a montage of photographs and videos of Toby Keith doing U.S.O. shows and AC/DC blaring War Machine. Most in the audience knew all the words and sang along. It was the last time for almost two hours that they would not know every word to every song.
Toby knew his crowd. He played some of the hard rockers, a ballad, and more than a couple of tunes that make you giggle when you think about the words. His band is exceptionally talented, and they were all up to the task of backing one of the biggest names in the music business. For two hours people sang lustily along with the man at center stage. I can honestly say that I didn’t even mind the off-key woman behind me: we were both having too much fun.
Finally the house lights came down and people started to leave. But we stayed and so did most for about 10 minutes when the band came back out. He lit in to American Soldier and I knew I had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. If you’ve ever had your phone ring and have to fly away into the night with your gear like the soldier in the video, or been the spouse and kids left behind, it’d be hard not to choke up. Did it too many times myself.
When the song ended he spoke to the crowd and made it clear that he was in awe of the American military. And then he invited all the veterans in the audience up on stage.
My wife and I kept our ground. We’re old coots and it was young people getting up there who had just come back from somewhere. They were due the recognition. I was proud of Toby Keith for doing it, and proud of them. Then a strange thing happened: a police officer bent over and asked me if I’d served in the military. I said I had, but it had been quite a while past. He extended his hand and said, “I’d be glad to lead you up front, Sir. You should be up there as well.” My wife and I both got up and he let her know he’d bring me back.
“She’s got more service than I do.”
“Then let me take you both up there.”
And he did. We joined at least 100 other vets on stage with Toby Keith to sing The Angry American. And I can attest here and now, that I’ve never been more proud to cross a stage in my life. Awards are great, medals and certificates are nice, university diplomas hard won, but to be with our brothers and sisters, on stage with the legendary Toby Keith singing my favorite song of his on a starry night, that will be hard to top. My brothers and sisters were all there. We hugged, slapped backs, howled at the moon, and sang the anthem of our lives really loud and proud.
My wife got a hug from him, and I had the chance to shake his hand and thank him.
I want to do it again:
Thank you, Toby Keith, for honoring me, and my military family, by your generous actions day in, and day out, in visiting our troops and making us feel loved. I left that stage six inches taller, thirty years younger, and ready to take on the world for my country.
You, Mr. Keith, are now in my ring of friends. For life.
God Bless Toby Keith.
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