Toby Keith: The story behind country singer's hit 'Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue'

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks, patriotism in the United States was high – a sentiment demonstrated through country music with songs like Alan Jackson’s "Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)" (2002), Darryl Worley’s "Have You Forgotten?" (2003), and the unapologetic "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" (2002) by Toby Keith.

Keith, who died this week at age 62 after a battle with stomach cancer, was a sometimes polarizing figure in country music. The 6-foot-4 singer was known for his overt patriotism and wrote the song following the March 2001 death of his father, veteran Hubert "H.K." Covel, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

The song was released in May 2002 as the lead single from Keith’s multi-platinum album, "Unleashed." It reached number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart – his biggest solo hit. 

FILE - Toby Keith performs

FILE - Toby Keith performs "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" at the 37th Academy of Country Music Awards at the Universal Amphitheater on May 22, 2002. (Photo by M. Caulfield/WireImage)

"I wrote ['Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue'] on the back of a Fantasy Football sheet that was laying there; I just turned it and wrote around the edges and, in about 20 minutes, wrote the lyric out and called it 'The Angry American,'" Keith once recalled at a media event, according to country music news site The Boot. "When I turned it in, they said, 'Well, it really doesn't say 'angry American' in there. Why don't you call it 'Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue?'' So, I did."

The lyrics include references to his father’s military service, and the events that took place on Sept. 11, 2001.

My daddy served in the army
Where he lost his right eye but he flew a flag out in our yard
Until the day that he died
He wanted my mother, my brother, my sister and me
To grow up and live happy
In the land of the free

Now this nation that I love has fallen under attack
A mighty sucker punch came flyin' in from somewhere in the back
Soon as we could see clearly
Through our big black eye
Man, we lit up your world
Like the fourth of July

In the days after 9/11, Keith noted how the song channeled the anger many Americans were feeling.

"So I thought about my dad, being the veteran he was and the flag-flying patriot he was. He served in the Army. He did lose his right eye. He did come home, and he never did gripe about it,"  Toby Keith later told CMT about writing the song. "So that’s the reason I wrote the song — for him."

The song continues with lines like, "Hey Uncle Sam, put your name at the top of his list / And the Statue of Liberty started shakin' her fist / And the eagle will fly man, it's gonna be hell."

Later, Keith sings: 

Justice will be served and the battle will rage
This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage
And you'll be sorry that you messed with
The U.S. of A.
'Cause we'll put a boot in your a–
It's the American way

Keith wrote the song in 2001, but didn’t record it right away, according to The Boot. He later played it for service members at the Pentagon, and a commander approached him and urged him to record it. 

"(The commander) said, ‘You’ve got to release that as a single ... That’s the most amazing battle song I’ve ever heard in my life.’ And so I prayed about it and discussed it with everybody for a long time, because I knew it was going to cause a storm," Keith recalled, according to The Boot. "But at the end of the day, I was like, ‘If it means that much to those guys, then I don’t care. I’ll do it.’ And that’s when we finally decided we were going to release it."

FILE - Fans cheer as Toby Keith sings his hit single

FILE - Fans cheer as Toby Keith sings his hit single "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" during halftime of the Tennessee Titans vs. the Philadelphia on September 8, 2002, at the Coliseum in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

During his career, Keith clashed with other celebrities and journalists and often pushed back against record executives who wanted to smooth his rough edges. And as predicted, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" did cause something of a storm at the time. 

Keith famously got into a public feud with Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines, who was openly critical of the invasion of Iraq and President George W. Bush – as well as Keith’s song.  

"Don't get me started," Maines was quoted as saying in 2002. "I hate it. It's ignorant, and it makes country music sound ignorant. It targets an entire culture - and not just the bad people who did bad things. You've got to have some tact. Anybody can write, 'We'll put a boot in your a–.' But a lot of people agree with it. The kinds of songs I prefer on the subject are like Bruce Springsteen's new songs."

Pictured: (l-r) Emily Robison, Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire of musical guest The Dixie Chicks perform on September 5, 2002. (Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Pictured: (l-r) Emily Robison, Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire of musical guest The Dixie Chicks perform on September 5, 2002. (Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Keith also got into a spat with Canadian-born newsman Peter Jennings in 2002 over the song. Keith was reportedly invited by ABC to sing the song on a patriotic special it produced that year, but the country music star claimed Jennings objected to the confrontational lyrics, according to news reports at the time. Instead of softening the lyrics, Keith refused to appear on the special. 

"It wasn't written for everybody," Keith later told CBS in 2003. "And when you write something from your heart - I had a dad that was a veteran, taught me how precious our freedom is - I was so angry when we were attacked here on American soil that it leaked out of me. You know, some people wept when they heard it. Some people got goose bumps. Some people were emotionally moved. Some cheered, turned their fists in the air."

Editor's note: This article previously referred to the year of the September 11th attacks as 2002, and has been updated. 

This story was reported from Cincinnati.