Toby Keith discusses the inspiration behind 'Happy Birthday America' and his deep fondness for the troops

'There's a big difference between right and left, and right and wrong'
Toby Keith
Photo credit Getty Images
By , Audacy

Singer, songwriter, and all-American Toby Keith joined Audacy's Rob + Holly for a chat about his storied career, new music, and his deep respect for the men and women who fight on behalf of the country he loves.

Recently honored with a Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame induction, voted into the class of 2021, Keith will be formally inducted on November 1 at the “50/51” Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame Gala at the Music City Center in Nashville. While his beloved songs from the past have proven to stand the test of time, Toby continues to freshen playlists with new tracks. His most recent “Happy Birthday America,” was released just in time for the July 4 holiday.

"Last Fourth of July, the world was upside down. There was riots going on, there was a pandemic going on, there was politic-crazy going on... everything was crazy," Keith says. "I'm up at the lake and there's like 5,000 boats tied together in this cove and they're getting ready to do a gazillion dollars worth of fireworks. It's a big deal. You sync your radio station; everybody syncs to the lake radio station. So there's 5,000 boats and all the people on the shore have their radios tuned to this one station, and it's gonna be synchronized to these fireworks."

Toby continued, "My buddy, he was hammered, he goes 'Hey, when they gonna play your damn song?' And I said, 'well if they play 'American Soldier' and 'Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue," they'll play 'American Soldier' probably early while it's slow, and 'Courtesy' while the sky's on fire.' I said, 'if they just play 'Courtesy' only' -- he goes 'what do you mean?' -- I said, 'they're GONNA play 'Courtesy. Forget about that,'" he laughs. Once "Courtesy" did kick in, Toby says all of the boats started honking their horns, "everybody's cheering, and I was thinking, 'it's our birthday, and our country's just a dumpster fire.' So I went, 'Happy Birthday America, whatever's left of you,' and then I went, 'Wow, I'm gonna write that.'"

A year later, Toby says he still feels as if the media and politicians are so divided that "at all costs they will try to divide our nation. I never thought they could do it but I was wrong. I'm seeing it every day. So, when you hear the words to that song I wrote... I'm not talking about a side, I'm talking about an existence. There's a big difference between right and left, and right and wrong."

Wise words, and words that struck Holly quite strongly. "Would you ever run for office," she asked Toby pointedly. "Because I would vote for you if you did." While he was appreciative of the kind words, Toby declined saying "it is a really s***ty job and it's a big cut in pay, so no."

Besides the patriotism in his music, Toby has also made it part of his life to perform overseas for American men and women in uniform. Holly's mother, who was in the Army, even got to see him perform while stationed in Iraq at Camp Liberty. It's a story told in her family at every gathering -- how the base came under attack and the band and fans were forced to take cover.

As we said, Toby has made these performances part of his life, and he surely remembers all of the time he has been in, and shuffled away from harm's way by soldiers. "There was a bunch of times we were taken away from the stage," he explains, "but the two I remember most, one was in Kandahar [Afghanistan] and the sirens went off. We had a gigantic crowd on that base. Usually the shows I'm doing over there are down range and I'm doing it for 20-25 guys. This was on a big base, it was anticipated, we had been over there already a few times, people were loving what we were doing. We had funny songs written just for this kind of thing. They'd hang posters up all over the base saying this was coming, and you had locals that work on that base that come and go every day. So, the word gets out that 7PM Thursday it's gonna be a big, fun show. And what do they do? They bomb the base."

"We went down, waited 'til the sirens went off, came back out and me and the band were doing 'Never Smoke Weed with Willie Again.' We were right in the middle of it when it went down. So when we came back out everybody moved back into that center area of the base, we came back out and didn't say two words. Just walked up there and picked up right on the word where we left, right in the middle of the song just like it was a pause."

The other base attack that Toby remembers clearly, "actually a rocket hit," he says. "We were at Camp Victory in Iraq and the sirens went off and a rocket actually hit not far from the mess hall. It was a bad guy dud, it just stuck in the ground. It didn't blow up."

Most of us would choose a new line of work after witnessing war first-hand, but not Toby. He returned 11 times to perform and support soldiers in combat. "I didn't plan on going that much," Toby admits. My dad had always said 'you ought to go over there and do what Bob Hope used to do for our guys.' Him being a wounded vet, he was like, 'you should go.' I was like, 'I'm busy, I'll get to it.' About the year he passed away, six months later 9/11 happened. I thought, 'I'm gonna go over there and check it out and do something for my dad, just in honor of him.' So I took off, and there was such a void there. I said, 'this is great for you guys to invite me,' and they go, 'we can't get anybody to come.' I remember one of the big anchors off of major news went there and came back saying the USO needed to step it up. I had already been like 5-6 years by then and I went on his program and I was like, 'dude, we jumped in when we saw the void and said we're gonna go for two weeks every year."

Although he credits artists like Gary Sinise and others who do spend a lot of time with veterans and and active troops, he noticed that many artists
"don't want to politically be associated with the military. I don't freakin' get it, but it is what it is."

Listen to the full interview with Toby Keith and Rob & Holly above, and stay tuned for more conversations with your favorite Country artists every week right here on Audacy. While you're in the mood, check out our all-new Red, White, and You exclusive station now!

LISTEN on the Audacy App
Sign Up and Follow Audacy
Facebook | Twitter | Instagram