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The Red Herring: Country Singer’s Latest Effort Strikes a Different Chord

By Orion Archibald

Toby Keith’s 2001 hit “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue” was the anthem of a nation poised to deliver righteous wrath from on high — but six years later, as that righteous wrath has spiraled out of control into misdirected carnage and the nation finds itself more confused than confident and more bitter than boisterous, Keith has found himself singing an entirely different tune.

“It was impossible to go on the same way I had always been, to take the money and just sit there with my fingers in my ears and ignore things that were going on,” said Keith in an interview last week with Country Music Weekly, a Sacramento-based magazine covering the American country/western scene. “I took a look last year at all the destruction and hate in the world and I said, ‘Maybe it’s time that The Angry American got angry about something else.'”

And so, he says, his latest album, Euphrates Delta Blues, was born.

The album, released on Tuesday, has already had a profound effect on the entire country/western scene, a style of music renowned as much for its folksy sensibilities as for its staunch conservatism. Critics across the nation have responded to the album with varying shades of disbelief and anger.

“Mr. Keith has made an abrupt about-face from the patriotism and pro-American attitude of his past and has joined ranks with the worst defeatists and liberals in the nation,” wrote Ken Southern of the Nashville Observer.

“Euphrates Delta Blues is as vicious an attack on our fighting men and women overseas as any speech by Pelosi or Clinton or any of the Defeat-o-crats,” said Karl Grover of the Los Angeles-based Honky-Tonk Times,

And it is indeed an about-face for the musician.

On the title cut, written about a wounded soldier, Keith croons with remarkable emotion: “The doc told me that it’s the arm I’ve gotta lose/ and now I’ve got a bad, bad case of Euphrates Delta Blues.” Elsewhere on the album the tone is the same. In “Cafe Baghdad,” Keith’s guitar twangs its way through a lively ballad about a suicide bomber who tries to blow himself up in the middle of a crowded restaurant. One of the final tracks on the album is an acoustic cover of Pink’s “Mr. President,” which Joel Morganstern of New York’s Village Voice described as “probably the most ridiculous and improbable cover in the history of popular music.”

Even more notable on this album are the musicians Keith invites to perform with him. Bob Dylan lends his skills with the harmonica and backing vocals to several songs, and Zach de la Rocha of the militant rapcore band Rage Against the Machine produced many of the tracks. He performs a duet with Keith during the nine-minute “Farewell to Fallujah,” an ironic love song sung by a departing soldier to the city where he was stationed.

Keith is adamant that his work not be dismissed as the product of lunacy.

“I haven’t gone off the deep end like some people seem to think I have,” Keith said. “I’ve always been a Democrat and it’s just that I felt like now was the time to speak up.”

Still, if the record continues to sell as it has sold in its first week — which is to say, very badly — then it might not matter what Keith would like his audience to think of him. But to the musician, “this record was absolutely not about making money. This is about making a statement, and if that statement gets across, I could care less how many albums get sold.”

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