The Max-Blum Incident


Jason Zengerle has said most of what needs to be said about the penultimate Toby Keith controversy. No, not the country singer's unfortunate remarks about Barack Obama ("I think black people would say he don't talk after or carry himself as a black person"), which I won't defend. I mean the other hubbub, in which the scalp-hunting liberal Max Blumenthal accused Keith of a deeper, more disturbing level of racism (and of pandering to the "radical right"). His chief evidence is the nostalgia for nooses expressed in Keith's 2003 song "Beer for My Horses."

Zengerle points out that Keith, who Blumenthal describes as a "chickenhawk" who has "carefully calibrated his image" to endear himself to "freeperland," is actually a Democrat with doubts about the Iraq war. More importantly, Zengerle points out that the verse in "Beer for My Horses" that set Blumenthal off ("Take all the rope in Texas/Find a tall oak tree") was sung by someone else:

Blumenthal never mentions that Keith sings "Beer For My Horses" with Willie Nelson, and it's actually Nelson who sings the supposedly incriminating lyrics (as you can see at about the 1:43 mark of the music video).

Now Willie Nelson's been called a lot of things—a pot head, a tax cheat, etc—but I don't think anyone's ever called Willie Nelson (who just recorded an album with Wynton Marsalis) a racist. So if Blumenthal wants to argue that Keith is pro-lynching, he needs to argue that Nelson is, too—which is something he doesn't do.

Nelson, for the record, has recorded music not just with Marsalis but with Ray Charles and Snoop Dogg. (No, not at the same time.) And when the black country singer Charley Pride was starting to establish himself, at a time when racial hostility was much more overt and violent than today, Nelson toured with Pride and helped him win over white audiences. In Jan Reid's classic account of the Austin country scene, The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock, Nelson tells the story of a Louisiana concert where "We didn't know what was going to happen there, so I really laid it on about him, and when he walked out I kissed him, kissed him on the mouth. Of course we had to move on fast to something else, but by the time they got over the shock he was already playing, and he had them hooked." (Nelson's friend Lee Clayon adds: "Yeah, but later on they were looking for the guy who kissed that nigger.")

At any rate, "Beer" isn't about white terror. It's an "I Got Rights"-style paean to vigilante justice, which isn't necessarily the same thing. Its nostalgia is for the Old West, not the Old South; for vengeance, not racial hierarchy. In practice, of course, you can't always disentangle those two traditions—the west was never free of racially motivated lynchings, and southerners sometimes lynched whites as well as blacks. But the two threads aren't identical: not in history, and—more important when you're interpreting pop lyrics—not in cultural memory. "Beer for My Horses" is a mediocre record, the sort of song you could hear five times in a day and still have trouble humming the next morning. But it's a stretch to call it racist.