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A dusty radio is pumping out an old-time country tune. Toby Keith's pumping iron in the gym built inside a barn on his sprawling Oklahoma ranch. The radio is locked onto the same classic country station Toby's late father listened to. In honor of his dad, Toby never changes the dial.
It's only a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. by terrorists.
Thoughts of his passionately patriotic Army veteran dad - who died six months earlier in a car crash -- are swirling inside Toby's head. The anger that boiled up inside Toby when he watched those Twin Towers fall is also there -- focused with intensity on the murderous cowards who slaughtered thousands of innocent Americans.
Suddenly, like a slide projector, rapid-fire images flash into Toby's churning mind: the eagle will fly ... the Statue of Liberty shaking her fist ... Mother Freedom ringing her bell. In only minutes he has most of the chorus for what would become his latest hit, "Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)" -- the fastest-rising single of his career and an anchor song for his just-released Unleashed CD.
"I hadn't heard any truly angry American songs in the wake of 9/11," declares Toby. "It seemed like everybody wanted to swim in the sorrow pool. I was angry about what happened, so my song shows that anger. "The terrorists kicked us in the teeth and awakened a sleeping giant. They took us for granted, not realizing we'd be angry from coast to coast -- and they'd suffer our wrath. "I live in Oklahoma City," he continues, "and I saw the aftermath of the bomb blast at the federal building there. I saw 168 people lose their lives, and I knew some of those killed. That senseless killing of innocent people angered me. I thought about all the moms and dads who didn't come home that day, and about the children who perished in the building's nursery. "Then came the terrorist attacks on New York, Washington, D.C., and the plane in Pennsylvania -- and I was angry all over again. That sucker punch changed the way we live from now on. I know we can live differently and still be free -- we just can't ever forget what happened and we can't let our guard down again. And, you know, it's OK to be angry."
Then Toby had to deal with a sucker punch of his own.
The Oklahoma native was booked in May to sing his patriotic anthem on an ABC-TV special set for a live July 4 broadcast. Asked to open the show with "Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue," Toby was glad to do it. It made sense to kick off an Independence Day program with a song that had tapped into what a lot of Americans were feeling and it would serve as a tribute to his father.
But something unexpected happened. The host of the program, ABC network newsman Peter Jennings, decided he didn't like the song, and he pulled the plug on Toby's performance slot.
"We got a call on June 12 from the producer's office saying we didn't need to show up," notes Toby. "They explained that Peter Jennings said he would not have the song on his show. He objected to the 'lyric content of the song.' So they kicked me off."
The reaction against ABC was swift. Phone calls, e-mails and letters poured into the network, and Canada-born Jennings became an instant punching bag for Toby's legion of fans, free speech proponents and politicians. U.S. Senator Zell Miller harshly criticized the TV network for refusing to let Toby perform, and he officially entered the lyrics of Toby's song into the Congressional Record. The senator accused ABC executives of "engaging in the rankest kind of hypocrisy. These so-called advocates of free speech, who complain loudly at any hint of censorship, are now guilty of it themselves."
Some radio stations even collected truckloads of old boots from listeners and shipped them off for delivery to Jennings' office -- giving him "the boot."
"It's clear Jennings is out of touch with what America wants," adds Toby. "I don't know if that's because he's Canadian or if other factors are involved. But he is guilty of being tragically unconnected with the American people. But this is America, so he has a right to his opinion, and a right not to like what I wrote."
What Toby wrote that stuck in Jennings' craw were the last few lines of the third verse:
This big dog will fight
When you rattle his cage
And you'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A.
'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass
It's the American way
"I wasn't just using the word 'ass' to shock," explains Toby. "I even prayed about it, knowing I was gonna catch flak for using it. But there's not really another word that works within the context of the song. You can't get real angry about a brutal terror attack and then say 'We'll put a boot in your butt.' That's too soft. It doesn't carry out the anger of the song. "I was disappointed not to be on the show because that song came right out of my soul and upbringing -- and it's getting great response. But I had plenty of other offers, so I certainly wasn't devastated. My mom, however, got pretty emotional about Jennings nixing the song. To her, it was a patriotic song written about her husband by her son - and she was hurt. It was like Jennings had kicked a mama bear's cubs."
Jennings replaced Toby on the TV special with Hank Williams Jr.
"Hank Jr. is his own man, I'm my own man," notes Toby. "I've met him and he's a hero of mine. If he felt like it was something he needed to do, that's fine. He does, after all, work for ABC because of his Monday Night Football intros and he lives in Montana, where the special was shot. And, hey, Hank's got a great patriotic song with his rewritten 'A Country Boy Will Survive.' "
The whole Toby/ABC incident could have easily faded into a footnote in yesterday's news. But it didn't work out that way.
Find out all the details behind Peter Jennings, ABC's and Toby's recent scuffle in the current "Newsstand Issue" on sale now