Toby Keith scored a chart-topping hit with his single "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" when he released it as the debut single from his 2002 album Unleashed. Keith wrote the song in response to the terrorist attacks on 9/11; however, he was unaware that his knee-jerk response to the nationwide tragedy -- influenced by a personal tragedy, the death of Keith's father, a military veteran -- would turn into one of the biggest hits of his career.
At a media event, Keith shared the story behind "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)." Read on to read his memories.
My father had begged me for years to go on USO Tours, and I was so busy -- we were doing 130 shows a year -- that I just didn’t have it in my schedule. Finally, he passed away in March [of 2001], and then 9/11 happened. I was like, "Now I have to go honor him."
I was sitting out there, just a few days after the [Twin] Towers came down. I was working out in the gym, and I heard these talking heads say, "Well, I guess we could bomb them. That would be so the American way," and I was like, "What just happened to us? Are we supposed to just stand by and let this happen? Could we not be mad as hell about this?"
I wrote ["Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue"] on the back of a Fantasy Football sheet that was laying there; I just turned it and wrote around the edges and, in about 20 minutes, wrote the lyric out and called it "The Angry American." When I turned it in, they said, "Well, it really doesn’t say 'angry American' in there. Why don’t you call it "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue?"" So, I did.
I was at the Pentagon, playing for a bunch of Marines that were shipping out to Afghanistan for the first time … I said, "I’m going to play this song. The band doesn’t know it, but I’m going to play it on my acoustic ..." And when I got done, [the commander] said, "You’ve got to release that as a single ... That’s the most amazing battle song I’ve ever heard in my life." And so I prayed about it and discussed it with everybody for a long time, because I knew it was going to cause a storm. But at the end of the day, I was like, "If it means that much to those guys, then I don’t care. I’ll do it." And that’s when we finally decided we were going to release it.
[My dad] would be so angry right now to know that we’ve gotten so soft. He was a Yellow Dog Democrat; he was a lifetime Democrat. In fact, my brother, who is a preacher, he’s the first Republican who’s ever been in my family. So my dad, he always was like, "Everybody feels like everybody’s getting their toes stepped on these days. Everybody has to have thicker skin, and you can’t be that soft on things. You have to be stronger and know right from wrong, instead of right from left." And I thought, man, when those buildings came down, he would be really angry.
[My dad] was a true patriot: He never complained about his eye, [which he lost while serving]. He never complained about the time he served or how they treated him after. He just went back to work. He was just a good, old, solid cat.
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"Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" is a song written and recorded by American country music artist Toby Keith. The song was written in late 2001, and was inspired by Keith's father's death in March 2001, as well as the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States later that year. It was released in May 2002 as the lead single from the album, Unleashed. The song topped the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart and reached number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, becoming his biggest solo hit on that chart.
The reaction was so strong that the Commandant of the Marine Corps James L. Jones told Keith it was his duty as an American citizen to record the song. "It's your job as an entertainer to lift the morale of the troops," Jones said to Keith. "If you want to serve, that is what you can do."
In a November 2003 interview with CBS, Keith gave his take on the song: “It wasn’t written for everybody. And when you write something from your heart – I had a dad that was a veteran, taught me how precious our freedom is – I was so angry when we were attacked here on American soil that it leaked out of me. You know, some people wept when they heard it. Some people got goose bumps. Some people were emotionally moved. Some cheered, turned their fists in the air.”
ABC invited Keith to sing "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" on a patriotic special it produced in 2002; however, the host of the show, Canadian-born newsman Peter Jennings, requested Keith soften the lyrics of the song or choose another song to sing. Keith refused both requests and did not appear on the special. The rift gave the song a considerable amount of publicity, which led to many national interviews and public performances of the song. During an interview with 60 Minutes, Keith spoke about his public comments about Jennings, saying "I thought it was hilarious. My statement was, ‘Isn't he Canadian?’ to a bunch of press. They laughed and then I said, ‘Well, I bet Dan Rather wouldn't kick me off his show,’" says Keith." Responding to criticisms of the network decision, a representative for ABC stated that because Keith was performing in Utah when the show would broadcast, Keith could be on the program only as the opening act, and that the song was "angry" and "not the kind of tone the producers wanted to use to begin this three-hour celebration."
Keith had a public feud with the Dixie Chicks over both the song and comments they made about President George W. Bush. The lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, Natalie Maines, publicly stated that the song was "ignorant, and it makes country music sound ignorant." Keith responded by belittling Maines' songwriting skills, and by displaying a backdrop at his concerts showing a doctored photo of Maines with Saddam Hussein. On May 21, 2003, Maines wore a T-shirt with the letters "FUTK" on the front at the Academy of Country Music Awards. While a spokesperson for the Dixie Chicks said that the acronym stood for "Friends United in Truth and Kindness", many, including host Vince Gill, took it to be an obscene shot at Keith and understood the acronym to mean "Fuck You Toby Keith". In August 2003, Keith publicly declared he was "all done feuding with Natalie Maines 'cause I guess there's more important things than that to concentrate on".
Maines later agreed that the FUTK shirt was directed at Keith. In the 2006 documentary Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing, backstage footage prior to her appearance wearing the F.U.T.K. shirt recorded the conversation between Maines and Simon Renshaw and confirmed that the original intent of the shirt was in response to Keith's public criticism of her: the letters stood for "Fuck You Toby Keith".
"Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" debuted at number 41 on the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Songs for the week of May 25, 2002. The album was certified Gold by the RIAA on January 3, 2006, and platinum on March 27, 2012. The song has sold 1,607,000 digital copies in the U.S. as of July 2019.
Charts and certifications
How popular was courtesy of the red white and blue?
The song topped the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart and reached number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, becoming his biggest solo hit on that chart.
Did Toby Keith's dad serve in the military?
“My father was a soldier. He taught his kids to respect veterans,” said Keith. “It's that respect and the thank-you that we have a military that's in place and ready to defend our nation; our freedom.”
Did Clint Eastwood say don't let the old man in?
Eastwood and Keith were playing golf and Toby asked Clint, “How do you remain so young and active?” It was the eve of Eastwood's 88th birthday. Clint replied, “I don't let the old man in.” Toby went home and wrote the now famous song.
Was Toby Keith in the military?
While Toby Keith didn't serve in the military, he's always among the first to release songs in support for service members.