But Keith was more politically slippery than his songs signaled. He was for many years a registered Democrat (“a very conservative Democrat,” he told Playboy in 2005), and though he sang movingly about the sacrifices of the military, he himself, unlike his father, had never served.
His father’s experience was part of his inspiration to write “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” though he chose to release it only after performing it at the Pentagon and being told that the troops would embrace the song as a morale booster. Keith told Rolling Stone in 2004 that he’d previously been unsure whether he would put out the song, anticipating the backlash that it eventually generated in spades. “This song’s gonna rub a lot of people the wrong way,” he said. “So I had to weigh the two sides. Are you willing to fuss and fight with people so other people who need to hear the song can hear it?”
That song became a statement of purpose, and set the tempo for the next phase of his career: “Unleashed” and “Shock’n Y’all,” his next two albums, both were certified platinum four times, his most commercially successful releases and the ones that shaped his public image in a way that he didn’t always shirk from.
“Most people think I’m a redneck patriot. I’m OK with that,” he told Time magazine in 2004. In 2009, the actor Ethan Hawke wrote in Rolling Stone about watching Keith (or someone very much like him) get dressed down in 2003 by Kris Kristofferson, a committed leftist and also an Army veteran, for his valor-stealing image. (The story is possibly apocryphal — both men shied away from confirming it later on, and they were photographed together not long after — but it reinforced the public perception of Keith as a performer preoccupied with posturing.)
When the Dixie Chicks (now the Chicks) spoke disparagingly of George W. Bush in 2003, Keith poured gasoline on the fire, showing a mock-up photo of the frontwoman Natalie Maines alongside Saddam Hussein at his concerts. At that moment, the genre was his — he remained a hitmaker for a decade, while the Dixie Chicks effectively went into exile.
In his 2005 Playboy interview, he expressed remorse about how the tension unfolded. “I disappointed myself tremendously with that exchange. The whole thing ended up a fiasco,” he said. “I felt like I lowered myself.”