Sometime in the late 1970s, a young Toby Keith, who died Monday of stomach cancer at the age of 62, started working odd jobs at a place on Rogers Avenue in Fort Smith called Billie Garner’s Supper Club. He sang about the experience in his song “Honkytonk U”: “My grandmother owned a nightclub on the Arkansas-Oklahoma line / Momma put me on a Greyhound and I went to stay with her in the summertime.”
At Billie Garner’s he would observe the house band and, from time to time, sit in and play with them. And thus, the legend goes, a country star was born in Fort Smith, though his literal birthplace was in Oklahoma. A decade or so later, a mere six or so blocks away from the former home of Billie Garner’s Supper Club, at the more traditional location of St. Edward’s Hospital, I was born in Fort Smith.
Maybe that proximity created some cosmic inevitability that, despite the myriad legitimate reasons he gave me and many others to turn against him, I could never stop being a Toby Keith fan. Maybe that’s why I’d eventually and proudly possess a T-shirt with a giant picture of his face on it, or spend the better part of a year trying to rank his 2008 “35 Biggest Hits” album from most unhinged to least unhinged (don’t worry, I’ll reveal the winner in a bit). Or maybe it was just that he was really good at writing and singing ridiculous country music songs and I really like ridiculous country music.
As news of Keith’s death started making the rounds early Tuesday morning, reactions were predictably bifurcated: the right mourned a man they viewed as an uncomplicated patriot, unwavering in his conservative values and support for the military. The left turned a more critical eye on the man who became an avatar for all jingoistic male country stars, focusing (fairly) on his song “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” its catalyzing role in post-9/11 warmongering, and his ugly treatment of Chicks singer Natalie Maines after she publicly criticized President George W. Bush.
The truth, of course, is that Keith was surprisingly complex and that neither of these positions properly encapsulate his life or career.
Politically, he was a registered Democrat until 2008 who supported the reelection of George W. Bush while simultaneously campaigning for the successful reelection of local moderate Democrats. He wrote an angry post-9/11 call to arms, yet spoke publicly against the Iraq War and called for a time limit on the United States’ involvement in it. He released a bombastic album called “Shock’n Y’all,” which contained a simple song called “If I Was Jesus” that my mom used to teach confirmation each year at our progressive church. Some would say these things made him hypocritical. I’d argue they made him three-dimensional, even if some of those dimensions were problematic.
The reason I and many others were fans, however, was not the depth of his character but the depth of his song catalog, which got him inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015. Bursting onto the scene in 1993 as a 6-foot-3 former oil roughneck, rodeo worker and semi-pro football player, Keith immediately channeled his immense charisma and machismo into superstardom. His debut single, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” was an instant smash, with a supremely catchy melody, Keith’s smooth and cocky baritone, and its traditional subject matter providing the formula for many of his 20 future No. 1 hits.
Like all great mainstream country music, Keith’s songs teetered precariously close to caricature, but the specificity and humor of his songwriting kept them from swinging too far in that direction. One of my personal favorites is “I Love This Bar,” a meandering ode to dive bars in which Keith is in total control, crooning and humming in a lower register while pedal steel swirls around him and a sloppy sing-along builds. Or early hit (and my pick for Most Unhinged Toby Keith Song) “Who’s That Man,” where Keith sings from the point of view of a man stalking the family he has lost, singing creepy lines like, “There’s the window to the room / Where she lays her pretty head.” While the song ultimately gives more “depressed but harmless divorced dad” than “dangerous stalker” energy, I swear the main piano line sounds eerily similar to the intro music of shows like “Dateline.” It’s fully unhinged and I love it.
His music wasn’t all good and I mostly stopped listening to his output around 2005, when he became more mascot than musician, morphing into a worse, honky-tonk version of Jimmy Buffet (at one point in the 2010s he released five straight singles with a reference to alcohol in the title). I also think you can draw a straight line from his brand of country music to the type of vapid Jason Aldean nonsense often topping the modern-day country charts.
But nostalgia is a powerful thing, especially when it comes to country music, where you get a double dose: you’re nostalgic for a song, which itself is often nostalgic for its subject matter. And nostalgia doesn’t really care much about politics or for poking holes in an artists’ massive discography, drowning inconvenient facts in its sepia glow.
Which is why when I hear any of the countless Toby Keith songs I love, I don’t think about the “Political beliefs” section of his Wikipedia page, but instead of the time my mom took me and my friends to see him and he drove onto the stage of Alltel Arena in an F-250, which itself then unfolded, Transformers-style, into another stage.
Or, most often, I think of early mornings stuck in traffic on Interstate-40 with my dad on the way to school, singing songs like “How Do You Like Me Now?!” at the top of our lungs and laughing at each other’s Keith impressions. I’m not thankful for everything Toby Keith gave the world, but I’m very thankful for that.