First off, we hate Toby Keith. The jingoistic country star made a fortune on pro-war lyrics about putting a boot up your ass because "it's the American way." And his music sucks. So we were delighted to hear that an outlaw country singer thirty years his senior gave the stupid putz a schoolin.' That old guy would be Kris Kristofferson, a country boy himself, who also happens to be a Rhodes scholar and a Ranger who flew helicopters for the Army--and a liberal to boot!
Kris Kristofferson, early in his career
Ethan Hawke, a lifelong Kristofferson fan, wrote a great profile of Kristofferson in Rolling Stone which opens with details of a backstage showdown with Toby Keith at Willie Nelson's 2003 birthday concert at Madison Square Garden. Hawke doesn't identify Keith by name, but he makes his identity pretty clear. "At that moment in time, the Star had a monster radio hit about bombing America's enemies back into the Stone Age."
Toby Keith performing "in costume"
"Up from the basement came one of country music's biggest stars (who shall remain nameless)," writes Hawke, who reports the unnamed star told Kristofferson not to perform "any of that lefty shit out there tonight."
"What the (blank) did you say to me?," Kris growled, stepping forward. "Oh, no," groaned Willie under his breath. "Don't get Kris all riled up."
"You heard me," said Keith.
"Don't turn your back on me, boy," Kristofferson shouted. "You ever wear your country's uniform?" Kris asked rhetorically.
"Don't 'what' me, boy! You heard the question. You just don't like the answer." According to Hawke, Kris paused just long enough to get a full chest of air. "I asked, 'Have you ever served your country?' The answer is no, you have not. Have you ever killed another man? Huh? Have you ever taken another man's life and then cashed the check your country gave you for doing it? No, you have not. So shut the (blank) up! You don't know what the (blank) you're talking about!"
Kristofferson in uniform
After studying at Cambridge as a Rhodes scholar, Kristofferson flew helicopters for the army and completed Ranger School. After his tour of duty, he was offered a position as a professor of English Literature at West Point.
Hear Janis Joplin's version of "Me and Bobby McGee" by clicking the button:
Kristofferson became good friends with Johnny Cash, a man who wasn't offended by the scruffy look and long hair, which back then was still rare in country music circles. Johnny had been a wild man in his younger days, too. Here they perform a song Kris wrote, "Sunday Morning Coming Down."
Kris Kristofferson has been an outspoken critic of George W. Bush and the Iraq War from the start. He's an active member of Veterans for Peace, endorsed Obama for president, and described himself in 2009 on the Colbert Report as "left of liberal."
Toby Keith is incensed about the Rolling Stone story. "It was a fictitious (expletive) lie," he says. A Rolling Stone spokeswoman says that the magazine fully stands by the story and Hawke's reporting. Kristofferson claims he doesn't remember the incident.
"That was six years ago," Kristofferson said. "I spoke to Ethan before I put out my statement and thanked him for the beautiful story he wrote for Rolling Stone and I also told him I did not recall the incident at Willie's birthday party. This is the last statement I will put out about this nonsense."
"Don't get Kris all riled up"