Patriotism in the United States was at an all-time high in the early 2000s following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and country music was an intrinsic medium for expressing that patriotism, as well as the shock and sadness that came after the unforgettable attacks. Memorable country songs from this era include Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)" (2002) and Darryl Worley's "Have You Forgotten?" (2003), but no song is quite as unapologetic and polarizing as Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)."
The song was released in May 2002 as the lead single from his Unleashed album (released on DreamWorks Records). "Courtesy of the Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)" was inspired by two tragic events: the death of Keith's father, veteran Hubert Keith (H.K.) Covel, in a car accident in March 2001 and the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Fueled by those emotionally-charged tragedies, Keith wrote the song, and once he started, the words came out quickly.
"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,'" Keith once said, according to The Boot. "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."
The song begins by featuring references to the servicemen and women who laid down their lives for the US and Keith's veteran father, who really did lose his eye in war.
"My daddy served in the army where he lost his right eye, but he flew a flag out in our yard
until the day that he died / He wanted my mother, my brother, my sister and me to grow up and live happy in the land of the free," he sings in the second verse.
Keith then turns his attention to the 9/11 attacks, and with biting lyrics, describes the anger he felt after the attacks and the retaliation the US would serve ("we lit up your world like the 4th of July"). The songwriting is clever, as he uses visuals of Uncle Sam putting "your name at the top of his list" and the Statue of Liberty "shakin' her fist," but a standout moment in the song comes in a line toward the end.
"And you'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A. / 'Cause we'll put a boot in your a--, it's the American way," he sings, defiantly.
Keith wrote the song in late 2001, but did not record it right away. However, when playing for servicemen and women at the Pentagon, the singer/songwriter surprised his band and debuted the tune. After his performance, a commander approached him and urged him to record the song, saying it was "the most amazing battle song" he'd ever heard. After a bit of deliberation, Keith took it to the studio.
"I prayed about it and discussed it with everybody for a long time, because I knew it was going to cause a storm," Keith said of his decision. "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.'"
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The song was a big hit for Keith, landing at No. 1 on the Country chart and No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100, but it also garnered its share of controversy. The first point of contention came when Keith was set to perform the song on a 2002 ABC special. Prior to the performance, anchor Peter Jennings asked Keith to tone down the song, which he refused. He did not end up appearing on the show, and instead, talked about the controversy on an episode of 60 Minutes on CBS.
The second main controversy regarding the song involved The Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks), and specifically lead singer Natalie Maines, who said the song was "ignorant, and it makes country music sound ignorant." Keith responded to her comments by displaying a fake photo of Maines with Saddam Hussein. The feud was also fueled by Maines' famous comments about President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.
Whether you loved it or hated it, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" has gone down in country music history as an influential moment. It also fits in perfectly with Keith's other rowdy songs, such as "How Do You Like Me Now?!," "I Wanna Talk About Me," "Who's Your Daddy?," "Beer For My Horses" with Willie Nelson, "I Love This Bar," "As Good as I Once Was," and more.