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Toby Keith's 'Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue' lives on in MAGA country

Toby Keith performs during a 2014 "Salute to the Troops" concert in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ethan Miller
Getty Images for ACM
Toby Keith performs during a 2014 "Salute to the Troops" concert in Las Vegas, Nevada.

While the crowd waited for former President Donald Trump to take the stage at a recent rally in South Carolina, "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" played three times.

The song was written in response to 9/11, but today, that's not all it signifies.

"It didn't have as much meaning to me, I mean, because that was right after the Twin Towers. But then now it's got more of a meaning to me because our country just sucks right now," said Tonya Helm, who pumped her fist while the song played. "Biden needs to go, and you know, what better song to do it to than to Toby Keith's 'Red, White and Blue'?"

Keith's death last week brought renewed attention to his music, but "Courtesy" had already found a new life in MAGA-adjacent politics. It's a mainstay at Trump rallies, and also played at Ron DeSantis events during his presidential campaign.

It's a well-known song, even among non-country fans, for a lyric about where America would kick its enemies: "We'll put a boot in your ass; it's the American way."

Arguably, "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" is a new political anthem, an in-your face cousin to Trump's walkout music, "God Bless the USA."

A "very specific" song

"Courtesy" was originally written for USO tours as the military response to 9/11 ramped up, according to Nadine Hubbs, a professor of women's studies and music at the University of Michigan and author of Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music.

"After 9/11, he had written and was singing it for these working class kids overseas, many of whom were about to go into harm's way," she said. "It is a very specific song directed to a specific audience at a specific moment."

Those troops urged Keith to record "Courtesy." And upon its 2002 release, it was immediately polarizing, becoming part of an early-2000s culture war. At the time, many Americans were worried that the Bush administration would take the U.S. into a costly, unnecessary war in Iraq.

Critics blasted the song as jingoistic. Natalie Maines, of the band the Chicks (then known as the Dixie Chicks), was blunt in her criticism: "I hate it. It's ignorant, and it makes country music sound ignorant. It targets an entire culture - and not just the bad people who did bad things. You've got to have some tact." As a result, the song became a key part of a feud between Keith and the band.

Not only that, but the song became a part of a persona Keith built for himself in the coming years. He would later record "American Soldier" and "The Taliban Song," two more songs that cemented his status as country music's saber-rattling patriot-in-chief.

There have long been patriotic country songs, and "Courtesy" was part of a wave written post-9/11. But "Courtesy" stands out in that field of songs.

"I don't know that you had many of them that were that aggressive," said Brian Mansfield, managing editor of trade publication Country Insider. "But you also didn't have attacks on American soil very often."

A song with a life of its own

In this file photo, Toby Keith performs at a pre-Inaugural "Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration" for then-President-elect Donald Trump at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017.
David J. Phillip / AP
In this file photo, Toby Keith performs at a pre-Inaugural "Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration" for then-President-elect Donald Trump at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017.

Keith's politics were complicated — he praised both Republicans and Democrats. Likewise, he both criticized Trump and played at a Trump inauguration celebration.

But Keith's politics are now beside the point, because "Courtesy" has a life of its own, resonating with a crowd spoiling for an election fight.

Rally attendee Cora McGrath cheered from her seat when the song played.

"This song applies to Trump because it won't apply to Biden. He's made us weak," she said. "There's no country song came out in support of this country talking about Biden."

Today, "Courtesy" fits neatly into a pissed-off political moment, in the view of Country Insider's Mansfield.

"There are large segments of the population that have gone from anger as a response to a specific event, to anger as just a way of seeing the world," he said.

Indeed, the song's subtitle is "The Angry American." And there's something distinctly Trumpian in the defiance of loving a song that originally upset so many — particularly liberals.

Still, Hubbs, at University of Michigan, sees irony in Trump using a pro-military tune.

"The former president who dodged the draft, who has mocked Gold Star families, who just recently mocked Nikki Haley, asking where Major Michael Haley, her husband, was," she said. "The level of disconnect is staggering."

It's not clear how Keith would have aligned in this election. But Trump diehards like Tonya Helm hear "Courtesy" and see Keith as one of them.

"We lost a legend, and I said we lost a vote," she said. "He put it out there like he says, you know, put a boot in their ass the American way."

It's a tune that will live on — especially as long as anger is central to American politics.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.