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It’s been a helluva good month for America’s favorite redneck, country star Toby Keith.

He was named the Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year for the second year in a row. And he’s on a USO tour visiting his buddies at overseas military bases, where his pull-no-punches patriotic songs are sure to be well received.

Keith and rocker Ted Nugent sat down for an interview before a June 1 concert in Naples, Italy. They’ve also played for troops in Kosovo and Germany.

“We’re gonna go hopefully into some of the forward zones … ,” Keith said. “I have a whole bunch of friends in Afghanistan in the Oklahoma National Guard. … We gotta go in there. I figure we’re protected by the best, so screw the rest.”

The straightforward Oklahoma native, sporting an Army desert camouflage shirt, was eager to talk about the troops, who’ve inspired some of his songs.

“I’m inspired by things that happen every day. I don’t know … whether I’m a good enough songwriter to write all of ’em,” he said seriously in his deep drawl.

The humble singer penned 12 of his 16 No. 1 hits and was 2002’s top country music concert-ticket seller.

Keith, who turns 43 on July 8, first picked up a guitar at age 8. During stints working in the oil fields, he formed a band called Easy Money to play the honky-tonk circuit. The 6-foot-4 brawny man also played defense end for the Oklahoma City Drillers, a semi-pro football team.

Keith, who still lives in Oklahoma with his wife, Tricia, and their three children, was noticed without ever moving to Nashville.

In 1993, his self-titled debut went double platinum, featuring three No. 1 hits: “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” “Wish I Didn’t Know Now” and “A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action.”

He released several albums and performed duets with legendary singers. A Grammy-nominated duet with Sting, “I’m So Happy That I Can’t Stop Crying,” hit No. 2. The quadruple platinum 2002 “Unleashed” album includes the No. 1 single “Beer for My Horses,” a duet with Willie Nelson.

“Unleashed,” with its “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” propelled Keith into the spotlight. He wrote the song after Sept. 11, 2001, about six months after his father, an Army veteran, died in a car accident.

The song resonated with the public and brought Keith a new title, America’s favorite redneck. Not everyone was comfortable with its message, with lyrics such as “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.”

Dixie Chicks’ lead singer Natalie Maines called the song “ignorant,” and ABC rescinded an invitation for Keith to sing it on a special program. Both events thrust Keith on news programs that introduced him to a more mainstream audience.

His latest effort, released in November, is “Shock’n Y’all,” debuted at the top of country and pop charts. It includes “The Taliban Song,” about an Afghan man applauding the U.S. bombing of Taliban positions, and “American Soldier,” which salutes the armed forces.

Keith said his current tour is a way of further showing appreciation to the troops.

He traveled to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia in 2002, and on this tour first stopped in Kosovo.

“Those guys are just kind of sitting in there forgot about,” Keith said, mentioning a recent firefight. “It’s real easy [for people] just to watch the news and hear about that and go back to eatin’ your Ho-Hos.”

At one base, he and Nugent (best known for “Catch Scratch Fever”) spent two hours in an Apache helicopter simulator.

“We proved to ’em that we was worthy of packin’ heat over here if they’d let us,” laughed Keith, sporting a “Hooah!” button on his shirt.

While talking about a visit last week with injured troops at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the two got emotional.

“It was hard to walk through there and see reality jump up and show its fangs right in your face,” Keith said quietly, stroking the sandy stubble on his face, his sunglasses hiding his blue eyes. “… [There were] guys just shot to pieces and you just have to walk through there and try to lift their spirit. There was a lot of tears and a lot of searching for the right words to say.”

The hospital visit solidified the men’s pro-troop stance and criticism of anti-war protesters. Nugent, who throughout the interview railed against the media and about the right to bear arms, drew chuckles from Keith when he ranted about “liberal goofballs that are spiritually retarded.”

Keith said, “If you’re gonna be outspoken against the war, you should have to go stand where I stood [in the hospital]...

“We said everybody that’s a sympathizer or a liberal or any of that stuff should have to come and walk through this hospital and see how hard these kids are fightin’ for our everyday freedom that we take for granted.”

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