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Sure, he's country's chest-thumping, flag-waving macho man. But there's so much more to Toby Keith than meets the eye - or the ear

Story by Larry Holden

When the gun smoke settles we'll sing a victory tune
We'll all meet back at the local saloon
We'll raise up our glasses against evil forces
Singing whiskey for my men, beer for my horses

Toby Keith and Willie Nelson are belting out "Beer For My Horses," Toby's rousing duet with the country music legend. They're on a ranch north of Los Angeles, one of the locations being used in the song's video.

"The video ties modern-day crime fighting with the Old West style of solving problems," explains Toby. "It's kind of NYPD Blue meets Lonesome Dove."

"Beer For My Horses" will be Toby's next single, after his fast-rising "Rock You Baby" finishes its run on the charts.

"In the video we're both lawmen," continues Toby. "Willie's a retired FBI profiling expert who lives in a mountain cabin. I play his son, a cop who needs Dad's help in stopping a serial killer who's murdering prostitutes."

When it's pointed out the irony in two of country music "outlaws" playing lawmen, Toby roars with laughter. "I love being called an outlaw - when I ain't done half the crap Willie's done!"

Willie smiles. "Well, you're not half as old as I am," he says. "So you've got plenty of time to catch me!" (Willie actually turns 70 on April 30, and Toby's a mere 41.)

With cameras rolling, Willie steps out onto the porch of a rustic tin-roof cabin. As scripted, his cordless phone rings.

"Hey, long time no hear," he drawls. After listening, Willie declares, "You come to me."

A little later, Toby pulls up in a pickup. It's a blue, four-door Ford. (Would you expect anything else from Ford truck spokesman Toby?) He carries a computer into the cabin. And, as the sun sets, Toby and Willie ride horses through an oak- dotted meadow.

"When filming shifts to an L.A. warehouse district," explains video director Michael Salomon, "there's a knife and gun battle. And - Holy moly! - it looks like Toby's about to lose! Then the barrel of a pearl-handled pistol comes into the frame. And Willie saves the day." Michael's been directing Toby's videos since 1997.

With the video's mixture of Toby, Willie, Old West justice, a ranch, rugged mountains and cagey police work, there are enough macho elements to peg the needle of any testosterone meter.

"When I was a kid I worked for people who produced rodeos," recalls Toby. "I remember the old-timers had clever sayings. When they'd throw back a drink of whiskey, they'd toast, 'Whiskey for my men, beer for my horses.' I always tied that to the Old West, where you meet back at the saloon, have a big toast and throw down drinks.

"My songwriting buddy, Scott Emerick, and I started writing a song with that toast as the hook. Along the way, we got into the Old West kind of justice and the modern-day court system."

"Justice today tries to take a middle road. If you do the crime, you should have to do the time. But our court system lets criminals off easy. And victims don't feel they get proper justice."

Toby says he and Scott wrote the second verse of the song specifically with Willie in mind, but having no idea if Willie would be interested or not.

Toby soon got a chance to find out. Spotting Willie in a Nashville restaurant, Toby approached him and told him he'd written a song he'd like Willie to sing on.

"After dinner, Willie came to my bus," recounts Toby. "We passed the guitar around and sang. Then he asked the name of the song. I said, 'Beer For My Horses.' He said, 'Hell, I don't have to hear it - I'll do it.' "

Willie laughs. "I was hooked by the title," he admits. "And the song reminds me of a time when there was pretty much 'instant justice.' " He chuckles. "That's when the original 'homeland security' was in place."

Speaking of homeland security, what does Toby - who struck a patriotic chord with his hit "Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)" - think about terrorism and other world events? Osama bin Laden - alive or dead?

"I have to believe he's alive. He was given too much time from the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks until we got into Afghanistan. I figure he had a great escape plan."

What about Iraq?

"War is bloody, ugly. And I'm against war, to the extent I don't want it to happen to anybody - but sometimes war has to be. And if you go to war, get in there, annihilate the enemy, make the changes that need to be made for the free world and be done with it. We obviously should have taken care of Saddam Hussein a decade ago. If we don't do it now and he attacks Israel, for example, and kills Americans and Europeans, everybody's gonna second-guess that we should've done something."

How's the President doing?

See what Toby Has to Say in the current 3/18/03 "Newsstand Issue" on sale now!