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Singer says ABC's Jennings gave him the boot

Country star says lyrics too controversial for July 4 special

Toby Keith
Keith: "I know how angry I was when I saw those towers come down, and this is my way of serving my country."  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- ABC's Peter Jennings gave the boot to country singer Toby Keith after deciding the lyrics of his hit song, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue," were too controversial for the network's July 4th special celebrating America.

At least, that's the version from the roughneck Oklahoma native. ABC, on the other hand, has said logistics and "a number of other factors" prevented the network from booking Keith for its three-hour special, being hosted by Jennings, who is Canadian.

How will this tune play out?

The controversy centers on the lyrics at the end of the song, a tough-edged tune that captures much of the patriotism and anger that swept the country in wake of the September 11 attacks.

"You'll be sorry you messed with the U.S. of A. 'cause we'll put a boot in your ass. It's the American way," the song says.

Keith, 40, wrote the song, initially titled "Angry American," soon after the attacks as a tribute to his father, an Army veteran who lost his right eye in a combat training mission. His dad, H.K. Covel, had died about five months before September 11 and taught his boy to "be a flag-waving patriot."

Country singer Toby Keith explains his gripe with ABC's Peter Jennings after being dropped from a July 4 television special (June 13)

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"I was real angry when I saw that second plane hit that tower and wondered what my dad would have thought about it. And the lyrics just fell out of me," he told CNN's TalkBack Live.

Keith never planned to record the song. But when he sang it at the Pentagon, the U.S. Naval Academy, and for troops serving in the Bosnia region, he knew it was his duty as singer and songwriter to release it.

"The response was so tremendous, I said, 'Hey, we're allowed to be angry.' I know how angry I was when I saw those towers come down, and this is my way of serving my country," Keith said in an interview on CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports.

Keith said he had no plans to discuss publicly the row with Jennings, but he was outraged after the network released its statement, which said the country singer had never been booked for the show. The statement didn't mention anything about Jennings' alleged objections.

"They're saying this isn't about lyric content, and it is. And I respect my right as an American to say what I want to say, and [Jennings] can say what he wants to say," Keith told CNN.

Keith said the network approached his agent about him opening the show -- "practically begged us" -- and that he agreed on May 16, sending ABC written confirmation that he would appear. But last Friday, the network informed him that "we'd been nixed from the show."

"They said Mr. Jennings didn't like the lyric content, and this wasn't going to be on his show," he said. "Let's make sure that everybody knows that it's not because we weren't booked on there. It was because of lyric content."

And let there be no doubt, Keith added, that he is a patriot.

"When nobody really thought you needed to fly a flag and patriotism was gone, we flew one in our yard," he said.

In ABC's statement, the network said its three-hour special is "to celebrate the history of America through its music," including country, jazz, rock, barber shop, and gospel tunes. Among those scheduled to appear are Sheryl Crow, Brooks & Dunn, the Boston Pops, the United States Air Force Band, and the Singing Sergeants.

"While we have cast a wide net searching for performers and considered adding Toby Keith to the lineup, unfortunately a number of factors, including logistical ones, prevented us from booking him," ABC said.


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