The Atlantic

Toby Keith in Trump’s America

Talking politics with country music's bawdy, boozy star
Source: John Cuneo

When the country star Toby Keith flew to Riyadh in May to play one of the first public concerts held in Saudi Arabia since the early 1990s, he was given strict instructions: no songs about drinking, marijuana, or sex. Complying was no simple task for the author of such sloshed-and-horny classics as “I Love This Bar” and “As Good as I Once Was,” the latter a song in which Keith is propositioned by twin sisters. “It kind of knocked me down,” he recalled when I met him a few months later in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “There were only four or five things that I could play that were famous.”

Keith soldiered on with his less racy hits, filling out the set list with rock and soul standards. Until this year, even so tasteful a show would likely have been forbidden in the notoriously conservative kingdom. But, looking to diversify its economy as oil revenues decline, the country recently relaxed its decades-long de facto ban on live music. At the invitation of the royal court, Keith was the first Westerner to be booked. Billed as a night of “Arabian Lute & American Guitar,” the event paired Keith with the oud-playing Saudi superstar, you can see the all-male audience in white robes and checkered red-and-white head coverings waving their phones like Bic lighters to Keith’s heartbreak ballad “Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine on You.” “They were friendly,” Keith said of the Saudis. “They clapped and boogied and stomped their feet.”

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