Entertainers come under fire all the time; look at Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, Miley Cyrus. But when Toby Keith came under fire in April, he was literally under fire — as in, a mortar attack at a U.S. military base in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Entertainers come under fire all the time; look at Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, Miley Cyrus. But when Toby Keith came under fire in April, he was literally under fire — as in, a mortar attack at a U.S. military base in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
 
The singer was performing the song “Weed with Willie” on his sixth USO tour when the show was interrupted. The attack sent him and his audience scrambling to take cover in a concrete bunker until the threat passed and he could return to the stage to pick up where he left off.

You’d think that after an occurrence like this, the singer would decide to keep his tour on safer turf. But Keith is planning to embark on his seventh USO tour — which includes stops in both Afghanistan and Iraq — this spring.

“I’ve been all over the world and there’s no place that can touch the U.S., so we have to defend this soil vigilantly,” Keith said recently in a telephone interview with the Peoria Journal Star. “And we have people willing to volunteer to go put themselves in harm’s way for what their government has asked them to do — the key word being ‘asked’ here. And so I feel like it’s my duty every year to take about 14 or 17 days and go over there.”

Keith, who performs at the Civic Center on Jan. 29 after opening act Jason Aldean, has entertained troops in Africa, Cuba, Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Germany, Italy and Belgium. His fierce patriotism has been well-documented; it was highlighted in a public feud with the Dixie Chicks over lead singer Natalie Maines’ criticism of Keith’s song “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (the Angry American).” The song, which Keith wrote after Sept. 11, 2001, has the lyrics, “And you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A. / Cause we’ll put a boot in your (expletive) / It’s the American way.”

Maines had said the lyrics make country music sound “ignorant.”

The feud has, for the most part, dissipated, but Keith never considered backing down. In fact, he would defend his country against critics from both the right and the left.

“When Bush was re-elected, you heard … all those really liberal people say that they hate him so bad they’re moving out of the country. And now that Obama has been elected, you hear the same stuff from some of the rights. …

"But you never see them move, it’s just all of them flapping their gums,” he said.

Made in America

Keith’s patriotism may have sprung from his small-town upbringing. He was born in Clinton, Okla., a town of less than 10,000 people along historic U.S. Route 66. He started playing guitar at age 8, inspired by the musicians who performed at his grandmother’s supper club. Keith went on to work in the oil fields and had a short stint playing semi-pro football — all the while playing country-rock with his Easy Money Band, mostly in honky tonk bars.

Keith said he feels a connection with the military; he could have seen himself enlisting had his singing career not taken off.

“If I didn’t have it so good here in America, where I live, there’s a good chance that I would’ve, at some point, joined the military and finished my education and did all of that,” he said. “But I’ve had a great life. It’s been very fulfilling and it’s been very rewarding. I’m living the dream.”

Realizing a dream

While Keith spends some of his time keeping overseas troops entertained, he’s also managed to keep the rest of the nation paying attention to his songs — from “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” the lead single off his debut album in 1993, to “That Don’t Make Me a Bad Guy” off his current album. He’s also cultivated a decent acting career. “Beer for My Horses,” co-written with comedian Rodney Carrington and also starring Ted Nugent and Willie Nelson, recently was released on DVD. 
 
“It had been a dream of mine for five years,” Keith said of the film, about two deputies that defy the sheriff and embark on a road trip to save a girlfriend kidnapped by drug lords.

“It took us 10 months to write the script. I had been trying to create a story and a way to pull the thing off for five years, and then all of a sudden I got Rodney involved, he jumped on it with me and started writing the screenplay. Having 10 months time chasing dialogue around with Rodney Carrington was a blast.”

No going back

After talking with Keith, you sort of get the feeling that his entire career has been a blast. Or maybe it’s just that the Oklahoma native and former oil rig worker has a deep appreciation of the fame he’s found in singing everything from rowdy anthems (“I Love This Bar”) to sweet ballads (“He Ain’t Worth Missing.”)

Even now that he’s topped Forbes magazine’s most recent list of country’s top earners (with an estimated income of $48 million in 2007), all that money doesn’t seem to cloud his memory; Keith still remembers the first time he heard one of his songs on the radio.

“I was on a bus leaving Nashville to start a radio tour, and they had just released my single. I went rolling through Bowling Green, Kentucky. I was headed for Louisville. And the radio station came on and said, ‘Here’s a brand-new song that we really like, called “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” by Toby Keith.’ And that was the first time I had ever heard anything of mine.

“You never get that feeling back, know what I mean? You never get to go back and do that again. I’ve had 40 hits or something since then, 30 million albums (sold). You can never relive that first time. There was high-fives all over the bus.”

Danielle Hatch can be reached at (309) 686-3262 or dhatch@pjstar.com.

If you go...

• What: Toby Keith’s “Biggest and Baddest Tour” featuring Jason Aldean.

• When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 29.

• Where: Peoria Civic Center’s Carver Arena.

• Cost: Tickets are $49.75 and $34.75 at the box office, Ticketmaster locations or by calling (309) 676-8700.