It’s weird to think that the same person who wrote this song would go on to write “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” get ridiculously famous for a ridiculous, MTV-style feud with the Dixie Chicks, and wind up as shorthand for everything that’s wrong with “The Other America” among certain screechy, self-righteous persons.
It’s sad to think that’s going to be the legacy of such a great songwriter. Not only does Toby Keith write his own stuff, he’s one of only two artists who has more than one song on this countdown.*
This song is an extremely exaggerated view of divorce. It is apparent that Keith had never been divorced when he wrote it, because anyone who had would know that even if you don’t get custody, you still get regular visitation rights with the kids. Also, I’m somewhat skeptical that a man who seems as concerned about the welfare of his children as the narrator here is couldn’t at least get partial custody. Surely, his wife wouldn’t be that vindictive — unless he did something absolutely terrible, which would lessen your ability to empathize with him, so I’m hoping that’s not what Keith meant here.
But circumstantial realism is beside the point here, because he nails the feeling, and that’s what counts in a song. He’s looking in at the life he once had, which is going right on without him. He’s driving past the house his wife and children still live in — with his wife’s new husband instead of him. He’s surveying all of the landmarks of his former life: “I planted that tree out by the fence, not long after we moved in.” He’s observing how many of those landmarks have changed since he was last there. The street’s finally been paved, and it’s this little detail that finally drives him to tears.
He’s not supposed to be here. And being forced to take it all in from the confines of his truck is torturous. But like the protagonist in our #12 song, he can’t stop himself. So he sits in the truck, impotent, not wanting to create a disturbance in the lives of his poor children, who’ve already “…been through hell….”
And then he hits us with the most painful lyric in the whole song: “…I hear they’ve adjusted well.” This man has been reduced to hearing about the lives of his own children from third parties in his small town. Maybe that’s not circumstantially realistic, but even a father with generous visitation rights knows what it feels like to receive major news about your kid from the step parent, from a teacher, from a friend’s parents. And it’s not that it doesn’t happen to parents with full custody, it’s just that it hurts ten times worse when you know you’re not there to give them your love and support.
This song held a special resonance for me as a child, because Keith’s character drives an old pick-up truck in it, much like my father’s ugly brown camper truck. And sure, my father had joint custody of the rotten little hellions he’d sired (remind me to tell you about the time we both peed on the sofa so as not to miss a television show we were watching), but it still made me sad — not in the visceral, knot-in-my-stomach way some of these song did. It just caused a small twinge of wistfulness that in retrospect was even sadder. There was a gap that was starting to widen between my father and me from about this point, and I think it had more to do with the kind of people we both are than with the divorce, but a part of me could sense that widening distance, even at this age, and I think that subconsciously informed my response to the song and video.
But let’s not get too heavy here. I’d like to point out that — even with that curly mullet — Toby Keith is a fine looking man at this point in his career. Speaking of gaps between me and my father…
*”Spoiler Alert!”, as the kids say.