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He's not afraid to speak out for his country

Hawk? Toby Keith says he's just a straight-shooter

Short-tempered country star Toby Keith doesn't back down from anything. He has feuded with the Dixie Chicks, quarreled with ABC anchorman Peter Jennings, stood up for rednecks, bashed the Taliban, and furthered his hawk credentials by taking a swipe at terrorists in the radio hit, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)." Sample verse: "This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage/ And you'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A."

But Keith has a confession to make.

"People don't realize that I'm a registered Democrat," he says. "They automatically assume that I'm a chest-banging, war-drum-pounding Republican with my military stance."

Keith goes on to compare himself to Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut: "a conservative Democrat who is sometimes embarrassed for his party."

Party affiliation aside, Keith, who headlines "The Big Throwdown Tour" at Gillette Stadium tomorrow with Montgomery Gentry, Gretchen Wilson, Jo Dee Messina, and Scott Emerick, won't be hanging around for the Democratic National Convention. He's flying out right after the Foxborough show.

In recent years, Keith has become Nashville's most controversial personality. "I just don't take [expletive]," says Keith, an Oklahoma native who worked in oil fields and was a semipro football player before switching to music. "I'll rear up on you and say what I feel. Of course, the press loves that stuff and it's easy to get me going."

His cantankerousness has only stoked his fan base. Tomorrow's show -- the kickoff of Keith's summer tour -- is expected to draw nearly 40,000 fans and could challenge George Strait's New England country music record of 41,000 at a Foxborough show a few years ago. (Incidentally, that show also featured the Dixie Chicks, who last year drew Keith's ire for criticizing President Bush on the eve of the Iraq war.)

Keith has notched 19 No. 1 country hits -- most of which he wrote himself from a classic honky-tonk, not militaristic, perspective. They include the recent "Whiskey Girl" and "Beer for My Horses" (with Willie Nelson). Keith also recently winning four trophies at the Academy of Country Music Awards, among them entertainer of the year, male vocalist, and best album for "Shock'N Y'All," which, according to Billboard, has sold more than 3 million copies since its release last November.

"Toby is in a position where he can do no wrong. He has that working-man appeal -- and he appeals to all levels of listeners," says Mike Brophey, program director for Boston country station WKLB-FM (99.5). "I suppose if you really dug into his music, you'd see that he leans toward a more conservative appeal, but I don't see liberal folks calling up to complain, either. It's just entertaining music."

But Keith doesn't mind taking a stand. His spat with Jennings occurred after the news anchor wouldn't include Keith's 9/11-themed hit, "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue," in a Fourth of July network special two years ago. And on his latest album, Keith injects more politics on "American Soldier" and "The Taliban Song," about American jets hunting the Taliban in Afghanistan. The song is capped by lyrics some would call jingoistic: "Man, you should have seen them run like rabbits."

Still, the country star maintains that he's "more balanced than what some people would lead you to believe." For those searching for a full-blown conservative, Keith points to rocker Ted Nugent, with whom he just completed a USO tour of Iraq and Afghanistan. They were whisked around in Blackhawk helicopters to perform for the troops.

"Ted is so far out on the right that I can't even see him with a pair of binoculars," Keith says. "I'm probably the most right Democrat in the world, but Ted is so far on the other side that he's got problems with a bunch of Republicans."

If Keith sees himself as a conservative Democrat, he has no problem hanging with those whose politics are further left. Some of Keith's better friends in the music business are Nelson and Jimmy Buffett, both liberals. One imagines he shuns politics with them, but the stature of such friends gives him the justification to be occasionally cocky with everyone else.

"If I get criticized by another artist who isn't very successful, people will say, `Did you hear what so-and-so said about you?' And I go, `You know what, they're off the radar.' When I got Willie and Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson and [the late] Ray Charles and Jimmy Buffett and Buck Owens and people like that calling me and leaving me e-mails . . . and going, `Dude, you're doing it just like I did. You're the one, and you're our chosen guy,' then what do I give a [expletive] about what a guy who sold 200,000 records said about me? I got the ultimate endorsement from five or six people that matter."

Still, Keith concedes there are some entertainers (he won't name names) who wouldn't share a stage with him.

"I just laugh at those people and I wear that as a badge of honor," he says. "I'm thinking, `Where do you draw the line on that?' If your kid gets his toe cut off with a lawn mower and you rush him to the hospital and you get in there and find out the surgeon is a Republican, do you delay the friggin' surgery? You know what I mean? Where do you pick and choose on my right to be an American? What cracks them up is the look on their faces when they find out that I'm a registered Democrat. That kills them."

If you can't tell by now, Keith can be a bundle of contradictions. He may seem self-centered at times, but he has also raised $400,000 in a golf tournament to help the family of original bandmate Scott Smith, whose 2-year-old daughter, Ally, died last year of cancer. Dealing with an issue of that magnitude made him drop any "kitty fight" with the Dixie Chicks, one of whom had labeled him "ignorant."

And while Keith may be a hawk on the war against terrorism, he's also a free spirit who shared marijuana with Willie Nelson and lived to sing about it in a recent tune, "Weed With Willie," which talks about ending up "in the fetal position" after smoking on Nelson's bus. But don't think that is Keith's normal lifestyle.

"I've drank enough beer and whiskey to float a battleship, but you could put all the pot I've ever smoked in a teacup. It's not my high," Keith says. "But hey, if everybody could handle their high like Willie, then pot wouldn't even be a problem."

Keith enjoys a good party -- and he got one at this year's Super Bowl, where he performed before the game, then joined Aerosmith to sing "Walk This Way" and "Sweet Emotion" at an after-party hosted by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and his son, Jonathan. The hookup with the Krafts led them to book tomorrow's Gillette Stadium show.

"Toby is a great guy," Jonathan Kraft says, "and he brought us some good luck at the Super Bowl."

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Toby Keith, Montgomery Gentry, Gretchen Wilson, Jo Dee Messina, and Scott Emerick perform at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough tomorrow. Doors open at noon. Tickets are $45 and $75, on sale through Ticketmaster. Call 617-931-2000 or visit www.ticketmaster.com. 

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