Is the Long-Rumored Toby Keith vs Kris Kristofferson Story True? | Features | LIVING LIFE FEARLESS
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Is the Long-Rumored Toby Keith vs Kris Kristofferson Story True? 

Country singer Toby Keith died of cancer earlier last week, which led many people to react by remembering his post-9/11 career heyday, his feuds with the then-Dixie Chicks, and his (partial) repudiation of conservative politics later on. Others recalled nights spent at his “I Love This Bar and Grill” restaurants, in Las Vegas and elsewhere. 

But some immediately remembered a story, told by actor Ethan Hawke about an alleged encounter between Toby Keith and a country star of a different generation, Kris Kristofferson. 

The story has often been described as “possibly apocryphal.” How real is it? Let’s look into it. 

The Story

The story originates from a Rolling Stone profile of Kristofferson, written by Hawke in 2009. Hawke’s piece begins with an anecdote set at Willie Nelson’s 70th birthday concert, six years earlier in 2003, at the Beacon Theatre in New York. 

The piece names Nelson, Kristofferson, and other music luminaries, as well as another artist, referred to only as “The Star.” This “Star” is described as having “had a monster radio hit about bombing America’s enemies back into the Stone Age,” which in 2003 could only refer to Toby Keith, whose song “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” had been released in 2002, in between the 9/11 attacks and the start of the Iraq War. The Nelson birthday concert took place on April 9, 2003, weeks after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. 

The Hawke story has “The Star” wishing Willie a happy birthday and then warning Kristofferson, to perform “none of that lefty shit out there.” 

This leads to Kristofferson, a star of a different generation, dressing down Keith: 

“What the luck did you just say to me?” Kris growled, stepping forward.

“Oh, no,” groaned Willie under his breath. “Don’t get Kris all riled up.”

“You heard me,” the Star said, walking away in the darkness.

“Don’t turn your back to me, boy,” Kristofferson shouted, not giving a shit that basically the entire music industry seemed to be flanking him.

The Star turned around: “I don’t want any problems, Kris – I just want you to tone it down.”

“You ever worn your country’s uniform?” Kris asked rhetorically.

“What?”

“Don’t ‘What?’ me, boy! You heard the question. You just don’t like the answer.” He 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 fuck up!” I could feel his body pulsing with anger next to me. “You don’t know what the hell you are talking about!”

“Whatever,” the young Star muttered.

The punchline has been much-quoted: 

“You know what Waylon Jennings said about guys like him?” he whispered.

I shook my head.

“They’re doin’ to country music what pantyhose did to finger-fuckin’.”

Is the story true? Let’s just say it’s been disputed. 

It does sound just a bit too perfect and cinematic, like something Aaron Sorkin would write. And indeed, Kristofferson has said that he doesn’t remember saying anything like that, to Keith or anyone else. He also stated that “I have nothing but admiration and respect” for Keith. And while Kristofferson thanked Hawke for writing a reverential story about him, he disputed other details, such as the idea that he had been class president in college. 

However, in a later interview with the Star Tribune Kristofferson said that while he doesn’t remember the backstage incident, his wife does. 

Keith later later ripped Hawke for the story: 

The “what pantyhose did to finger-fuckin’” quote, meanwhile, was supposedly said by Waylon Jennings about Garth Brooks, as part of an international country music beef of the decade previous. 

Kristofferson, meanwhile, would say in multiple subsequent interviews that while they disagreed about politics, he likes Keith. 

And while Toby Keith has passed away, both Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson are still alive, aged 87 and 90. 

So, while we’re not likely to ever get the real story of what happened backstage at that concert, it’s a fair bet to say it didn’t happen exactly the way Hawke reported it in Rolling Stone. 

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