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How Toby Keith put Ribfest in political crosshairs

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  • Country singer Toby Keith's song "Beer for My Horses" contains a lyric about stringing up "bad boys."

    Country singer Toby Keith's song "Beer for My Horses" contains a lyric about stringing up "bad boys."
    Associated Press/April 2011

  • Naperville Ribfest organizers say they expect large crowds to buy tickets to opening day headliner Toby Keith on June 30, despite online backlash against some of his lyrics and his performance at the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

      Naperville Ribfest organizers say they expect large crowds to buy tickets to opening day headliner Toby Keith on June 30, despite online backlash against some of his lyrics and his performance at the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer, July 2015

 
 

Toby Keith's scheduled performance at Naperville's Ribfest has landed organizers of the annual July 4 weekend bash in the midst of a political debate that could have implications for festival planners across the suburbs.

After Keith played at the inauguration of President Donald Trump -- reviving concerns over lyrics of his song "Beer for My Horses," which some say are racist and allude to lynching -- some Naperville-area residents such as John McGuire and Gina Crosley-Corcoran said the country star won't strike the right chord for the suburbs.

They wanted Ribfest organizers to know it, so Facebook became their voice -- and the site of an online outcry against the singer set to take the stage June 30.

In an era of political polarization and constant online communication, the social media backlash is a sign of the times, music business experts from Columbia College in Chicago say. And it's not likely to subside, as artists face growing expectations to make their views known, yet walk an increasingly fine line between building support from some fans while alienating others.

"There's always a nerve you might strike with some people if you're talking about something that has an impact on them," said Jerry Brindisi, an associate professor in the Columbia department of business and entrepreneurship who coordinates the college's music business program. "That's the beauty of music; that's why we love music. But it doesn't always manifest itself in a positive way."

When concerns about Keith's politics and lyrics started coming in on the Naperville's Ribfest Facebook page, organizers with the Exchange Club of Naperville deleted some of them, President Bob Pschirrer said. That riled the complainers even more, so when Pschirrer got wind of the deleting, he made sure it stopped.

McGuire posted that the lyrics and tone of "Beer for My Horses" -- recorded as a duet with country icon Willie Nelson -- "severely highlight many of the issues that so many people have with the new (presidential) administration -- the marginalization of minorities, and most frightening to me, the endorsement and encouragement of law enforcement killing 'bad guys.'"

In its most controversial line, Keith's 2002 song says, "Take all the rope in Texas, find a tall oak tree, round up all of them bad boys, hang them high in the street."

McGuire said the lyrics and Keith's choice to play the song at Trump's inauguration should disqualify him from taking the stage at a suburban bash like Ribfest.

"I personally don't feel it's appropriate for a charitable fundraising event," McGuire said. "I'm supporting the artists and their free speech, but I also don't think it's appropriate to be singing a song about lynching and killing people at a family-focused event."

Normally a Ribfest attendee, Crosley-Corcoran said she won't be supporting the Exchange Club's fundraiser to help end child abuse and domestic violence. While the cause remains important, the Woodridge resident said she'd rather make a donation to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Keith's inauguration performance, especially "Beer for My Horses," is the reason.

"He pointedly chose to play it at the inauguration when racial tensions are at the highest we've ever seen them," she said this week. "The current (presidential) administration has already made political moves to hurt the very cause that Ribfest stands for -- child abuse and domestic violence."

She said choosing Keith to play Ribfest was "tone-deaf" at best or, at worst, proof that Exchange Club members don't take domestic violence and child abuse prevention as seriously as they say.

Pschirrer says it was neither. He said the Exchange Club never intends to make any political statement with its choice of artists for the annual festival, which is preparing for its 30th year. He's been booking talent for the past three years and says he considers many factors, including the artist's fee and likelihood to sell tickets, along with the tastes and views of Naperville residents.

"I've always tried to be really sensitive to the community," Pschirrer said.

But because Keith's inauguration performance connected him to Trump -- at least in the eyes of those who oppose the president -- the club has experienced its small part of "an unprecedented call to action and backlash against anyone who is in any way saying positive things about President Trump," said Justin Sinkovich, assistant professor of business and entrepreneurship at Columbia College.

Still, Pschirrer said, the club has received largely positive reactions to its announcement Keith will be Ribfest's opening day headliner. The fact most of the backlash came on social media is telling.

"It's a volatile source of communication," Pschirrer said. "People can hide behind the computer and be vicious."

Concert organizers such as the Exchange Club now are in a tough spot, says Sinkovich, who grew up performing and working in the Nashville music scene. If they book someone whose political views rile the community, organizers risk losing sponsorships -- which in Ribfest's case are a large part of how the club raises money. They risk drawing protesters, too.

"It could create a very negative experience or disruptive experience at that event," Sinkovich said. "That's when you might say, 'This isn't worth the gamble to move forward.'"

After a club meeting to shape reaction to the Keith concerns, the Exchange Club said the show will go on. Ticket sales began Friday at ribfest.net for what the club expects will be a patriotic show. General admission is $40.

"There's a lot of support for having him perform at Ribfest, and we're excited to have him," Pschirrer said. "It's going to be a great show."

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