This article originally appeared on The Word in 2011.
by Julian Spivey
Today is, of course, the 14th anniversary of 9/11. Looking back on that day, I can vividly remember two types of emotions most Americans felt — sadness and anger.
The two feelings are really similar as both came out of the grief that something that horrible, significant and catastrophic could happen on our American soil.
Both feelings brought on by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were soon conveyed to the American public through two important songs, both from the country music genre. One of those songs was championed by the masses. The other was beloved by those who shared its sentiments, but condemned for being “ignorant” by its disapprovers. Both songs were very appropriate at the time and remain just as appropriate a decade later.
The two songs were Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” and Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).” Both proved to strike a nerve with Americans as both quickly reached the top spot on the Billboard country music charts and cracked the top 40 overall on the Billboard charts, something that country songs didn’t often do at the time.
Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” was a song that was written to explain how both Jackson and the people of America felt on that dark September day. It’s a solemn song that was introduced to the world on the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards broadcast less than two months after the attacks and truly helped many at the time cope with the pain that hadn’t gone away and maybe never would. Most people – fans and critics alike – felt that the solemnity shown and the way that Jackson went about writing and performing the song was the right way to do it. Billboard writer Deborah Evans Price said of the song, “A multitude of songs have been written and recorded in the wake of 9/11, but none captures the myriad emotions unleashed by the terrorist attacks on an unsuspecting nation more perfectly than Jackson’s eloquent ballad.”
Jackson himself said that he simply wanted to write a song that showcased the way he felt and the way that others felt, without trying to write out of anger or avengement. He told Today’s Christian in a 2003 interview, “I didn’t want to write a patriotic song. And, I didn’t want it to be vengeful, either. But I didn’t want to forget about how I felt and how I knew other people felt that day.”
It’s a sentiment that was appreciated by most. Keith’s song, however, didn’t receive the same type of universal acceptance.
Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” was written out of anger for what happened on 9/11 based on his love of country and what he thought his father’s point of view would have been on the attack, had he been alive to see it.
The song is a revenge song about what the U.S. should do to those who did such a cowardly, as Keith saw it, thing to us.
“Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” was lambasted by many, including even some in Keith’s own genre. Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines told the Los Angeles Daily News that Keith’s patriotic anthem was “ignorant and it makes country music sound ignorant.” Blender took so much offense to Keith’s vengeful attitudes in the song that it named it the 22nd worst song of all-time.
Despite the fact that not nearly as many people feel Keith’s ‘Courtesy’ is as appropriate of a song as Jackson’s ‘Were Were You,’ it does represent a very real feeling that many Americans felt at the time. There were a lot of people in this country who wanted revenge and felt like somebody should pay for what happened that day. It’s a feeling that for better or worse — and in my opinion worse — even got us into not just one, but two wars. Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” is just as valid and important of a song as Jackson’s ‘Where Were You’ for that reason alone.
Both are real and filled with raw emotion and that’s something that we should expect out of our best songwriters. 9/11 truly caused a multitude of emotions and attitudes in this country and these two country singers tapped into those emotions and created two of the most important compositions in their genre’s long and illustrious history.