Punk Rocker Henry Rollins Writes Letter to Toby Keith

December 17, 2013 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  51 Comments

henry-rollins-toby-keith-letterA video of punk rock frontman turned public speaker, comedian, and actor Henry Rollins penning a letter to Toby Keith has been making the rounds lately, likely stimulated by the political site positing it on their human interest page a few days ago. The video features Henry undressing Toby Keith’s oafish approach to entertainment, and the damaging effects the message of his music could have on the psyche and behavior of his consumers.

The video nothing new though; it was uploaded to YouTube in late June, and actually originates from a 2006-2007 episode of The Henry Rollins Show on the Independent Film Channel, of which the “Letters From Henry” segment was a staple of. However it doesn’t make the letter any less poignant, or Henry’s approach any less intelligent, or the information any less topical, except for the specific song and album that Rollins references in the letter.

Keith actually responded to the open letter in 2009 when he told Country Weekly,

Well I happened to be [watching TV] one night and I come upon this show called The Henry Rollins Show on one of the small cable networks. I just happened to click on it to see what he was doing…and [he] critiques my song ‘Get Drunk and Be Somebody’ and in the middle of it this guy, who’s supposed to be a no-nonsense, stand-up kind of guy, goes, ‘Hey, I’m not asking for an ass-whipping here . . . ’ Talk about a hypocrite! I see those kinds of things on a daily basis. You just sit back and scratch your head. I will not come out of the box on somebody, especially that I don’t know, and critique their music. That’s not right and I won’t do it. We don’t bring a bunch of hate to the table.”

- – - – - – - – - – - -

Dear Mr. Keith,

I must confess. I have never written to an icon such as yourself. I’m not trying to be funny. You are most certainly aware of your popularity, targeted as it is. Mainly for the blue of collar, and the red of neck. I can’t see NYU hipsters going out of their way to load your music into their iPods. I saw you interviewed on television a few months ago where you discussed the title of your recent album at the time, “White Trash With Money.” As I recall, you told the host that you overheard a conversation where you and your family were characterized as such. I’m sure these people are aware of their faux pas now, and I’m happy you were able to turn the insult into something positive.

I also recall you saying that a single off the album was called “Get Drunk and Be Somebody.” The title stuck with me so I looked up the lyrics. In the song you depict the life of the working man: nothing but a number, a cog in the machine who punches a time clock 5 days a week, and then finds himself through alcoholic salvation. I wonder if you tailor your lyrics to what you think your audience wants to hear, or if the lyrics really reflect how you think and feel.

Whatever the case may be, the sold out concerts and sheer tonnage of records you sold would testify to the fact that you connect solidly with millions of Americans. Please don’t take it the wrong way, but that fact troubles me. Now I’m sure you’re patriotic as all get out. I know you’re a USO member, and we all thank you for the time spends with our nation’s finest. But don’t you think that at some point your music loses its salve in the wound potency by merely pointing out the truth? And does it ever occur to you that perhaps you’re making a good living off the fact that a lot of people don’t? A little Nero-esque, don’t you think?

If it were me, I would want to be part of changing their situation rather than suggesting they just do their forty hours for the man, and then go get fucked up, and then providing the soundtrack for their beer soaked self-destruction. Do you ever consider your music defeatist? I’m not into censorship, and I’m not looking for one of those good time ass kickings you could no doubt hand me. But still, I wonder. Well, I’m sure you’ve got better things to do than read this elitist twaddle. I wish you and your family only the best. In the meantime, my hope is that you’ll stop convincing blue collar workers that the best thing they could do for themselves is buy a $40,000 pickup truck on a $30,000 salary.

51 Comments to “Punk Rocker Henry Rollins Writes Letter to Toby Keith”

  • So Toby Keith’s music appeals to blue collar whites, therefore there is something wrong with him becoming wealthy off it?

    So by this logic the CEO’s of Wal Mart, Applebees, etc. are hypocrites? (again, you may not like these corporations, but they are hypocritical)

    There’s a difference between saying “yes, I understand the frustration of blue collar workers” and “down with capitalism” If Keith was saying the latter, then he’d be a hypocrite.


  • I can’t stand Toby Keith or Henry Rollins. Hope this is some insight that will help.


  • Toby Keith is nowhere near the most prominent entertainer in country music today. I just do not understand the point of this letter.

    Furthermore, why would Rollins assume that working people want to “change their situation”? In today’s world, those who still have factory jobs paying $30,000/year know that they are pretty fortunate. For many (perhaps most) blue-collar workers, their jobs have been outsourced and they have been forced into either unemployment or into taking minimum-wage jobs at McDonalds, Walmart, etc.


    • As stated above, Henry Rollins wrote his letter in 2006-2007. Toby Keith was the best selling artist for the 2000′s decade. So criticizing him for not being topical I think is missing the point.

      By the way, one of the reasons I posted this was to set the context of this video. It was in the midst of going viral, and many people were reacting like it was posted yesterday.


  • Rollins is also forgetting that the relaxation that comes from drowning the day’s hardships has always been at the heart of country music. His criticism here would apply to classic country songs like Moe Bandy’s “Barstool Mountain” or Ronnie Milsap’s “Home Fires Burning”.


  • Lools like another case of trigger trying to use anything somewhat relevant to justify his criticism and disdain for an artist. I by no means love toby but the song referenced would not be criticised if sang by a poorer less mainstream artist. So criticise him for being able to relate. You are right, he should write about being rich and golfing….guy cant win.
    Many great articles on this website….this one is a waste.


    • Rob,

      If that was the case, I would have just posted the video, and not tried to put it in context. I would have not spent the time to research if Toby Keith had responded to it, and then certainly wouldn’t have posted Toby’s response here.

      Unfortunately this video was not accompanied with any description or context. I gave equal time to Toby by including his response, which is something viewers don’t get by watching the video in the raw.

      I have no agenda with Toby Keith, and have actually defended him in the past, like when Ethan Hawke posted a clearly fabricated story about him in Rolling Stone. At the same time, I think Henry made a good point, and I though it would stimulate an interesting discussion here, of which I’m interested in seeing differing viewpoints.


  • As a college educated professional in California, I find Toby Keith’s lack of political correctness quite refreshing. Being around urban cultural elites all the time can be spiritually suffocating. Sure, most of Toby’s songs aren’t classics and were not intended to be. I think of them as an antidote to the stress of modern day life in metropolitan areas, a good Toby song is like a cold beer after a long day’s work. It’s about having a personal life where I can be who I want to be, I don’t have to conform to the social elites, I don’t have to be politically correct or apologize my masculinity, I can be free to be myself.

    I’m sure some of my “culturally refined” urban colleagues would take issue with some of my favorite tracks to crank up in the car, such as Alabama’s “Mountain Music” and Travis Tritt’s “It’s A Great Day To Be Alive”. These lyrics just capture my lifestyle on a day off, and if that’s not “good enough” for them yuppies in Frisco, well that’s too bad (:

    “I got rice cookin’ in the microwave
    Got a three day beard I don’t plan to shave
    And it’s a goofy thing but I just gotta say, hey
    I’m doin’ alright”


    • My cousin and her family live in Frisco (Texas mind you) and I was utterly shocked and horrified to learn that her home owners association had banned trucks from being parked on the streets or any a persons own dang driveway (seriously?). The rule only applies if you drive something below a Cadillac level truck. Frisco makes me want to puke. Texas is not Texas anymore (unless you visit a smaller town like). Freaking stuck up yuppies.

      Keep in mind when this story came out this man’s truck was a 2 year old 2007 Ford F-150 (heck the sticker price on my 2006 F150 was $38K – so a $38K vehicle isn’t cool enough for these posers?):

      After my cousin moved into the neighborhood a year or so ago, the HOA actually sent her a letter thanking her for being a good resident and parking her vehicles inside the garage. I told her “Sorry, I can never visit you. They’ll fine you if I park outside”.


      • A truck ban in Texas, on private property? I am shocked.


        • I’m for it, everyone knows real Texans ride horses, those fake Texans riding around in cars and trucks are just posers!


          • “I’m for it, everyone knows real Texans ride horses, those fake Texans riding around in cars and trucks are just posers! ”

            Glad someone pointed this out : )


      • Did you read the article???? The truck owner is the CEO of Concentra. He might drive a truck but he is a certified yuppy. Furthermore, “From our inception in 1989 until this spring our restrictive covenants excluded all trucks from overnight parking in the street or driveway”. It’s not a new rule and he should move into a double wide and guzzle whiskey if he doesn’t like it. By the way, many cities ban overnight street parking for many good reasons including free passage of street cleaners. Might also help the truck owner because it prevents theft/vandalism and the occasional late night drunk who sideswipes parked vehicles. Be nice to the yuppies and rednecks; it’s a mutually beneficial relationship in many ways. Merry Xmas and Happy New Year.


  • Henry Rollins has great insight into the human psyche. The motivations of both the consumer and the peddler. Henry is not putting down either person, just asking the question “Don’t you want something more? Something with more substance?” As Trigger pointed out that is the lasting lesson of this letter as it is a few years old


  • Adrian,

    That’s a Darrell Scott song, you suburban,
    soccer mom wanna be. Jesus, if you’re going
    to be so sanctimonious, you could at least get
    your scripture right. Travis Tritt couldn’t carry
    Darrell Scotts guitar case.


    • But he did carry his song to the top of the charts… did you have another tab open to check your darrell scott facts too? don’t be a dick… there are enough already.


      • Three cheers for Darrell Scott AND Travis Tritt!


  • Do I like Toby Keith? Not really. Do I like his music? Yeah, there’s still a few tunes of his I’ll listen to. (Yeah, I know, heresy. Sue me.) Do I have any problem whatsoever with songs about tossing a few back at the end of a shitty week at work? Hell no! Last I checked drinking your troubles away is a fairly well cemented country music trope. Not condoning it, just saying.

    As far as his Ford sponsorship goes: Hey, it’s business. I’m not about to go and buy a brand new F-150 because I have TK, Mike Rowe and Denis Leary telling me how hard-core they are. I like my ’83 just fine and I can’t exactly afford a new one.


  • To truly understand Hank (Henry for those at home)
    You need to read some of his books, listen to his spoken word stuff, and if you have the cajoles listen to some Rollins Band.
    He is hands down one of the most intelligent people I have had the honor of meeting. He also is a member of the USO or was at one point. Probably still is.
    He isn’t ripping on Toby Keith or his fans. He’s only stating the obvious.
    While I will say I have spun a few Toby Keith tunes in my day, not because of lyrical content mind you, but if you listen to his lyrics he really is 1. Patriotic and 2. Mainly conveying messages through his music that honestly bring no value to the human existence. It’s common pandering to mostly the lowest common denominator lyrically.

    The point Hank is trying to make in this letter to Toby is that maybe he should give more intellectual thought into his lyrics to maybe help improve our society, rather than getting drunk and being somebody he should encourage his fan base to go out in the world and actually be somebody that makes a difference. Now that wouldn’t make for a good old lets get shitfaced tune, but I think if he tried to motivate folks to better themselves it could have a serious impact on his fan base. If you want to listen to that type of music go for the oldies of country. Your Willies, Waylon’s and so on. Because let’s face, Think I’ll just sit here and drink is much better than getting drunk to get drunk and be somebody.

    Just my thoughts especially since I’ve met Hank a couple times and had lengthy conversations with him.


    • “maybe he should give more intellectual thought into his lyrics to maybe help improve our society”

      Why are we expecting this much from Toby Keith? When has country music ever been centered around waging a struggle to “improve society”? Hank Williams would fail by that standard.


      • With how big he is, he could do it. Why can’t it be centered around improving society? Because history dictates that it’s taboo?
        Obviously you focused on ONE line in that entire statement, and that’s fine if you can’t read between the lines about what I wrote.
        Why drown in your sorrows or party like its paycheck Friday when you can pull yourself up by your boots and get to work?

        Forward thinking always recieves the most push back.


        • My question is: why single out Toby Keith? The same criticism applies to the vast majority of famous singers.

          Also, what if Toby Keith believes that society as currently constructed is just fine and does not need improvement? Should he then go against his own beliefs to satisfy some critics?


    • There’s a problem, not everyone agrees about how to “improve” society. Maybe Toby Keith thought Beer for My Horses and Courtesy of the Red White and Blue are a road map for a better world.


  • Rollins commentary should be directed at the country music genre as a whole and not one individual. Keith’s “Get Drunk and Be Somebody” is nothing more than a rehashed tribute to Merle Haggard’s 1967 song, “Drink Up and Be Somebody.” It’s as trite as a theme in country music as left wing, anarchist stances are in the punk music that Rollins’ band re-recorded for years. Keith was still a polarizing lightning rod back then, so this was Rollins attempt of sensationalized humor.


    • Hey don’t take this the wrong way, I’m in no way trying to be a dick, just pass along information. If you want to get technical, an extreme view of liberalism is actually socialism,communism or something along those lines. because when it’s all boiled down through all the bullshit, liberal politics lean towards more government control, whereas conservative politics are supposed to be geared toward less control, and an extreme view would be anarchy, or absolutely no gov control. Just an fyi


  • Rollins is taking as many shots at the fans that listen to TK’s music and really buy into it as he is at TK himself.
    The people that think “hey, I love Toby Keith so I’m going to buy a Ford.” (even though you may not be able to afford it.)
    Or the people that do go out and drink it up to escape their situation and day to day problems rather than maybe focus on them and make changes so drinking it away isn’t the only/easy option.

    Rollins is smart enough though to not rip on fans so he wrote the letter to TK.

    I think the most important line in the letter is- “I would want to be part of changing their situation rather than suggesting they just do their forty hours for the man, and then go get fucked up, and then providing the soundtrack for their beer soaked self-destruction. Do you ever consider your music defeatist?”

    If Rollins has a problem with a TK fan is living life based on TK’s music, I think the Rollins letter is addressed to the wrong person.


  • I’ve seen Rollins’ spoken word show 3 times, and read most of his writing. I’m also a country fan. So, three things:

    1) Henry is making a valid point here, and is NOT ragging on country music. In fact, he has respect for country music, amongst other types of music as well. The guy is well rounded in his music, and KNOWS the music, as well as being a music fan in general. He also contributed to a Waylon Tribute album. His observation about TK is right on the money.

    2) TK has never been about “intellectual country”. Yeah, he records songs about inane subjects sometimes, but is he an worse than the current crop of tailgaters, midnight drinkers, and truck aficionados? Not really. He is what he is. In another article’s comments, I called TK a “ham and egger”, and he is. Why do we expect more of him? He’s made a good living off of what he’s released. So, it’s not Shakespeare…so what? Once again, Hank isn’t going after TK, but simply posing a question.

    3) This article was written a while ago. Maybe some folks have changed their mind or shifted their paradigms about the issues discussed! There is such a thing as enlightenment.


  • That last paragraph in Rollins’ rant is very spot on. I agree 100%. I’ve thought that I was the only person who thought those things about not only Keith’s music, but most of country music. Just continue to be an ol’ blue collar redneck with no ambition in life other than to pull down your very modest salary, but lease a $40,000 Ford F-150 and live in your single-wide. It’s almost as though Toby Keith’s lyrics are making fun of his fans.


  • Uh as much as I am not a fan of Toby Keith I think Mr. Rollins needs to stick to playing in shitty punk rock bands and spouting off his usual political nonsense and stay out of country music. What would he know about it? Look at the kind of degeneracy punk rock breeds – I don’t think Mr. Rollins has a leg to stand on here. Too self righteous for me.


    • Being drunk, miserable and self destructive pretty much has been a theme in country music for a LONG time. Not the only theme of course but this whole letter seems really unnecessary and is soaked in arrogance. I will take drunken blue collar working man songs over any of this “positive” spring break go play on the beach and soak up the sun while having a tailgate trash.


    • Black Flag and Rollins band were far from being shitty, man


      • Yes, it’s too bad some of the people who responded didn’t take the time to actually go and listen to some of Rollins’ work, with and without a Black Flag.

        Just because music isn’t country doesn’t mean that it’s not worth listening to. The short-sightedness of some folks is astounding.


        • Me not liking Rollins and his shitty punk rock band somehow translate into me not liking anything besides country music? You want to talk about being short sighted some more?


          • Actually, I want to talk about your neat compartmentalization of punk rock and how terrible it is. It seems with the zeal that you attacked it with that you fell into the “haven’t listened to enough of it to know any different” category. How you think your comments are any less short sighted is beyond me, what with your “punk rock breeds degeneracy” comment. If you knew anything at all about Rollins, he’s about as straight a commentator on things as there is. So there’s that.

            Mind you, that’s just my opinion, just like you have yours. We’ll agree to disagree.


          • I think you may need to take in your magic crystal ball for repairs because I have no idea where this information youre getting about my music tastes is coming through. I wish I could live in such a simple world where not liking Rollins shitty punk rock band equals not liking punk rock at all and then that of course would mean I havent heard any punk rock at all right? You have such a hardon for big bro Rollins you have already developed a system of rationalization to help you cope and make yourself better when someone says a mean thing about your buddy.

            Black Flag isn’t some grand marker for good taste – not even within punk rock. Henry Rollins is a braindead egomaniac who has no idea about what he sounds off about most of the time. Remember this.

            And yes punk rock breeds degeneracy. Dirty homeless jobless lazy drunks and drug addicts who pretend to have some sort of cause or ” fight the system” while collecting government welfare checks is the height of degeneracy. If you’re one of those people who think punk rock has some deep important meaning and value then this will all fall on deaf ears. No one takes punks or punk rock seriously unless youre one yourself and if thats the case then my advice is to grow up and learn to deal with authority and step into the real world where your idealism means nothing.

            Finally I came here to discuss country music as the site says. Punk rock has as much business in country as hip hop does – NONE AT ALL. Trig is worried about the country/ hip hop monogenre while I think anyone who gives a damn about real country music should be worried about the country/punk monogenre because we may get more Rollins fans with their inane opinions and hero worship in tow!


          • You’re absolutely right. It is outrageous that anyone is discussing punk rock on this website. I think the owners of this site should fire this Trigger guy for posting a piece professing some “shitty punk rocker’s” view on a country musician.


          • Oooh! Another Rollins fan out of the woodwork! Trig can post whatever he wants ive been coming to and enjoying this site for years and supported it so dont turn this in to a shot at him, Jack.


          • Saving Country Music has faced many challenges since I started this website. The biggest challenge right now for this site is the fact that the American public has become so polarized and reactionary that there are certain names I can’t post without immediate vitriol from some individuals, regardless of the context. The biggest challenge SCM faces is not people reading content and disagreeing with it, but NOT reading content and disagreeing with it based off a reactionary response to a name or subject. This is very unfortunate, and I wish it would stop.


  • Henry Rollins, like all extremists, is obsessed with a certain object or objects. For a long, long, time Rollins has been obsessed with alcohol and people who drink. As a modern day teetotaler, he is akin to the unstable, self-righteous, and rabid prohibitionists of yesteryear.


  • So is Rollins going to write his next letter to Muddy Waters and criticize him for encouraging people to wallow in their troubles, instead of bettering their situation?

    I don’t like Toby Keith BTW. Or Henry Rollins.


  • I’m another Rollins fan. I enjoy both incarnations of Rollins Band, have read several of his books, and have seen two of his his spoken word shows in his hometown of Washington, DC. He’s one intense individual. A workaholic. Fitness nut. Does not drink nor do any drugs. He thinks that imbibing alcohol or taking drugs is a crime committed on one’s body. I can imagine that when he heard that Toby Keith wrote a song called “Get Drunk and Be Somebody”, it probably really set him off, as that phrase woud be total anathema to Rollins and that it would seem that to him that TK was encouraging self destructive behavior. Even so, the tone of this letter is fairly reserved for Rollins. He can be a very angry individual and I’ve seen and heard him get pretty nasty when discussing certain celebrites that he seems to actively dislike (e.g., Bono, Sheryl Crow, Anne Coulter).


    • With all due respect, who really gives a shit what Henry Rollins thinks? Just another sanctimonious celebrity who feels the need to espouse his beliefs. Man, I don’t care…


      • Well, I guess I do to some extent, as he’s a little more than just some celebrity to me. I have several Rollins Band albums, a couple of spoken word DVD’s, have read several of his books and have seen him live in both a musical and spoken word capacity. I have a good amount of respect for him and his opinion, for reasons not unlike why I respect Trigger’s opinion.


        • Jack, I love Bruce Springsteen, I’ve seen him live 7 times, respect the hell out of him as a musician and songwriter. I just don’t give a shit about his views politically, or socially. Those views shape his music, I get that. I just don’t care who he votes for, what causes he champions. If I need to listen to him, or any celebrity, to make up my mind on things, that’s shame on me. If he slams a fellow musician, that’s on him. I’m not gonna rag on somebody just because Bruce does, I’ll make up my own mind. Rollins busting TK’s chops? Mr. pot, meet Mr. kettle.


          • Thanks for the reply, Scott. Turns out I also love Bruce’s music (Southside Johnny, too). In fact, his music is much more in my personal wheelhouse than is Rollins’s music and I would say that he is my my personal top ten as far as music artists go. That said, his last album (Wrecking Ball) largely left me cold because of how I think he injected his political views into most of the songs in a ham handed way. I just didn’t find the songs all that interesting. For similar reasons, I passed on Neil Young’s Living with War album. Even Steve Earle, who I love and who I think is much better at that sort of thing, can grate on me sometimes. I saw him in August 2011. Very good show, but for his last encore, he started playing Christmas in Washington and I knew we were in for a soliloquy on his political views. I somewhat resented having to sit through that and had a slight urge to get up and leave (out of annoyance, not outrage), but thought that would be disrespectful.

            Because of my familiarity with his writings and his spoken word work (typically two and half to three hours of him riffing on various topics), I tend to give his views on things outside of music more consideration than the typical music artist. Kind of like I would to an op-ed columnist who I respect. I think he’s a deeper, more nuanced thinker than a lot of music artists that I like. Doesn’t mean I let him make up my mind for me or agree with everything he says above, though.


  • Zero respect for Toby because he stole REK’S song and said it was his own. He is good at making loads of money not just on his music but others. Themes of blue collar folks drinking and tonking are as central to country music as a fiddle or steel guitar. I couldn’t tell you one song Mr Rollins performs. He doesn’t understand country muic or it’s hitory though let alone it’s audience. So his thoughts are just that his own. Personally I’d never buy a ticket to see either on of them perform.


  • First time in about 10 years that I have the urge to buy a TK cd.


  • For the most part, country music has been defeatist in tone and rhetoric.
    This trend started with Hank Williams Sr. Toby Keith did not start this.
    There is a reason why I (from the Northeast) have never cared for country music or the culture. We must work towards ensuring the basic needs of all are fulfilled.


  • Kinda interesting to me it that most of my favorites in the roots scene (including country, bluegrass, blues, etc.) are ex-punks or have a punk sensibility about them (Jayke Orvis, Calamity Cubes, Devil Makes Three, The Dirt Daubers) and are doing the most to keep roots music relevant and accessible. They seem to get what is important about music is that it suffers when it becomes a nothing more than a marketing tool.

    Hey didja hear Toby Keith is opening another strip mall bar right next to WallMart? Now the only locally owned business not crushed by WallMart is gonna put out of business by Toby Keith.


  • Not particularly a toby fan but he has some stuff that aint bad. Anyway I dont really find anything wrong with the song get drunk and be somebody. A little to pop for my taste but I can relate to the lyrics. You dont have to always get trashed. But sometimes Friday night after a p.i.t.a week it is best to let lose and have some beers I think its just typical Rollins over analyzing everything and taking himself/everyone else to serious. My .02


  • I wrote 18 letters to Santa…hope he answers one of them.

    I am interested in Big Foot. If he’s real, why don’t they bring the scat in for analysis? My husband has been hunting in the Rockies for 30 years and he’s never witnessed scat or any of Jake Owen’s hair hanging from a tree branch.


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