Toby Keith spent the '90s as a solid, workmanlike country star
who met with considerable chart success yet never quite broke
free of the neo-traditionalist pack to become a household name
like Garth Brooks or Alan Jackson. That all changed in 2002 when
he recorded "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry
American)," a super-patriotic response to September 11 that
became one of country's most highly charged political statements
since Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee." The media
furor ensured that even people with no knowledge of country music
still knew him as "the guy with the 'boot in the ass' song,"
and helped make Keith a genuine phenomenon. Yet he'd been recording
for nearly a decade prior and already had several chart-topping
country singles to his credit.
Keith was born Toby Keith Covel in Clinton, OK, in 1961 and grew
up mostly on a farm in Moore, near the outskirts of Oklahoma City.
He took up guitar at age eight, inspired by the country musicians
who played at the supper club his grandmother ran. He listened
to his father's Bob Wills records and fell in love with Haggard's
music. He worked as a rodeo hand while in high school, and after
graduation, he found work in the nearby oil fields. In the meantime,
he formed the Easy Money Band and played Alabama-style country-rock
in area honky tonks. After about three years, the oil industry
hit a major downturn, and Keith turned to playing semipro football
for a USFL farm team, even trying out (unsuccessfully) for the
short-lived league's Oklahoma City franchise. Following two years
as a football player, Keith decided to focus on music and adopted
a much more rigorous touring schedule. He cut a few records for
local indie labels, and his demo tape eventually found its way
to onetime Alabama producer Harold Shedd, who helped Keith land
a deal with Mercury.
Keith's self-titled debut album was released in 1993 and made
him an out-of-the-box success with its chart-topping single "Should've
Been a Cowboy." Three more songs from the record -- "Wish
I Didn't Know Now," "A Little Less Talk and a Lot More
Action," and "He Ain't Worth Missing" -- made the
Top Five, and the album sold over two million copies. "Who's
That Man," the lead single from his second album, Boomtown,
was released in late 1994 and became his second number one; Boomtown
hit stores in early 1995 and went gold on the strength of further
Top Ten hits "Upstairs Downtown" and "You Ain't
Much Fun." Keith followed it later that year with the holiday
record Christmas to Christmas and returned with the proper album
Blue Moon in 1996. Its first two singles, "A Woman's Touch"
and "Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine on You," went Top
Ten, and the third, "Me Too," gave Keith his third number
one, also helping the album go platinum. 1997's Dream Walkin'
marked his first collaboration with prolific producer James Stroud,
with whom he would work regularly from then on. "We Were
in Love" and the title track were both Top Five hits, as
was "I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying," a duet with
Sting. However, Keith longed for an even bigger breakthrough,
and he was growing dissatisfied with Mercury's promotional efforts.
In 1999, he left the label and followed Stroud over to the Nashville
division of DreamWorks.
Keith's label debut, How Do You Like Me Now?!, appeared in late
1999 and started to bring him the wider recognition he felt poised
for. The title cut went to number one on the country charts and
brought him his first Top 40 pop hit; its follow-up, "Country
Comes to Town," went Top Five, and "You Shouldn't Kiss
Me Like This" also hit number one. Overall, the album had
a rough, brash attitude that helped give Keith a stronger identity
as a performer. It was also the first to bring him those long-desired
major industry awards, when in 2001 the Academy of Country Music
named him Male Vocalist of the Year and named How Do You Like
Me Now?! its Album of the Year. In the meantime, Keith became
more visible in the mainstream media, making cameos on Touched
by an Angel and in a Dukes of Hazzard TV reunion movie as well
as co-starring in a series of telephone commercials. Later in
2001, his follow-up album, Pull My Chain, became his first to
top the country charts and also his first Top Ten pop album. It
spun off three number one singles: "I'm Just Talkin' About
Tonight," "I Wanna Talk About Me," and "My
Keith was already a burgeoning superstar when he recorded "Courtesy
of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" in the summer
of 2002. A raging response to the September 11 terrorist attacks,
the song struck a fierce chord with aggressively patriotic listeners,
while others condemned it as knee-jerk jingoism. The whole controversy
came to a head when ABC News anchor Peter Jennings objected to
Keith's scheduled performance on a network Fourth of July schedule.
Keith was axed from the guest list, and the ensuing media flap
proved to be a publicity coup. Meanwhile, the song went to number
one on the country charts and crossed over into the pop Top 25.
All of this set the stage for Unleashed, which sold like hotcakes
upon its release later in 2002, debuting at number one on both
the country and pop charts. "Who's Your Daddy?" was
a number one country hit, and the Willie Nelson duet "Beer
for My Horses" also made the country Top Ten.