An Oklahoma-born honky tonk singer with a few crossover hits, this past summer saw Toby Keith become the most politically relevant country artist of his time. Born on July 8, 1961 in Clinton, Oklahoma, Keith first encountered country music at his grandmother's dinner club, where live musicians would perform regularly. While he'd harbored a passion for country music since he was a young boy in Oklahoma, Keith did not pursue it as a career until he was let go from his job in the oil industry years later.
Since he was left without much to do, Keith entertained himself by playing in country/rock garage bands. One thing led to another, and Keith wound up as the leader of the Easy Money Band, who performed regularly at honky tonks in South Oklahoma city and the nearby Norman, Oklahoma. Keith would later return to working in the oil fields, and even had a stint playing football for the (now defunct) USFL, but music retained a large role in his life. In 1988, after having recorded for several independent labels, Keith decided to head out to Nashville and try his luck in the mecca of country music. Keith's big break came when a producer from Mercury records heard his demo tape and soon after flew to Oklahoma specifically to meet and listen to Keith and his band.
The producer, a man by the name of Harold Shedd, was obviously impressed, as he offered Keith a record deal. In 1993, Toby Keith released his eponymous debut album, which contained the number-one single "Should've Been a Cowboy". The two follow-up singles, "He Ain't Worth Missing" and "A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action" also cracked the Top Ten. 1995 saw Keith release a seasonal album, entitled Christmas to Christmas, which he followed up a year later in 1996 with the album Blue Moon.
It was his third album, How Do You Like Me Now? that made Keith something of a household name, containing the hit title track which made substantial waves both on and off the country music charts. Keith received his first Grammy for the album. By 2001, he had come up with yet another offering entitled Pull My Chain. Not only did he notch a huge country hit ("I'm Just Talkin' About Tonight"), but he also broke new ground by venturing into country/rap territory with the song "I Wanna Talk About Me". While the album contained some excellent songs, and was quite well-received, it did not make quite the splash that his third album had.
With his fifth release, Unleashed, Keith more than made up for what his fourth album was lacking in attention-grabbers with the smash summer hit "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)". Prior to its release, Keith was asked to perform the song on an ABC Fourth of July television special, but perturbed network executives (including high-profile anchorman Peter Jennings) had the song removed from the show. Drawing his inspiration from the horrific attacks on the USA on September 11, 2001, Keith took a rage-filled poem he'd written on the day of the attacks and put it to music, to see what the reaction would be. Described as "a 9/11 song for those who thought Jackson's [as in Alan Jackson, who had a post-9/11 hit with "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" heartbroken confusion was for pansies, but weren't redneck enough to embrace Charlie Daniels' 'That Ain't No Rag, It's a Flag'..." by the All Music Guide, his song was a gigantic crossover hit, no doubt helped along by the fact that it had drummed up so much controversy it was practically a guaranteed success even before its release.