radio vulture

Sympathy for Toby Keith, Author of Arizona Gunplay Ballad ‘Bullets in the Gun’

I never thought I would feel remotely bad for Toby Keith, the hyperpatriotic country singer responsible for songs like “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.” (Note: There is nothing patriotic about not using serial commas.) Sure, Keith’s actual politics can be more reasonable and multidimensional than the Angry American reputation he has in certain parts of the country, but that’s his image to manage. No, the twinge of sympathy comes from elsewhere: As I was sifting through this week’s Billboard “Hot 100,” I realized something unfortunate. Down there at No. 87, in its ninth week on the chart — and at No. 16 on the country chart — is the title track from Keith’s October LP, entitled “Bullets in the Gun.”

The song is a cowboy story, involving a saloon, a dark-haired beauty, an angry pimp, the robbery of said angry pimp, a flight across the border into Mexico, and a shootout with the Federales outside a motel.

It is, unfortunately, also called “Bullets in the Gun,” and it mentions early on that this story is taking place in Arizona, and the chorus begins: “Never see it comin’ / Just hits you by surprise.”

As of this week, it’s sitting at No. 62 on the radio airplay charts. Being generally stupid and clueless, I rarely make predictions about what will happen in the future. But I am going to take a wild guess that the song’s place next week, in terms of how often people feel like playing it on the radio, may be somewhat lower than it is now. Because national-scale scenes of tragedy and horror tend to make us hear snippets of lyrics like those and feel slightly sad and morbid and confused, even when we know that’s not what they’re about. And radio programmers do not want to make you feel sad and morbid and confused. You could say that’s square of them, but look: People are driving, and they need to focus on the road.

Sympathy for Toby Keith, Author of Arizona Gunplay Ballad ‘Bullets in the Gun’