It was easy to like and dislike Toby Keith at the same time.
The country music superstar was, to paraphrase Kris Kristofferson, a singin', talkin' contradiction. He was a conservative Democrat with an independent attitude, a mind of his own.
Keith, who died Monday night of stomach cancer at age 62, was a pro-troops centrist who made his living in country music, a field crowded with patriotic, beer-drinking, truck-driving, Second Amendment-loving conservatives. An exaggerated but complicated character, he was proud to wave the flag for the red(neck), white (trash) and blue (collar).
"I like Toby Keith, but I don't agree with his politics," Kristofferson, one of country music's greatest songwriters, told me in 2009. "There are a lot of things in artistry that transcend politics."
Keith appeared in concert many times in Minnesota, from the State Fair to the We Fest. Part Hulk Hogan and part Hank Williams Jr., the burly, bearded 6-foot-4 Oklahoman was a compelling performer. There was bluster, bombast and beer for his horses and for those who hoisted a red Solo cup. And there were tender, deeply romantic ballads as well as braggadocio, seasoned with a taste of humor.
Keith delivered self-penned hit after hit from 1993 to 2011 — from the dreamy "Should've Been a Cowboy" to the playfully self-absorbed "Let's Talk About Me" to the jingoistic post-9/11 anthem "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)."
He landed 20 No. 1 records in country music, not bad for a Nashville outsider, something he was proud of. That's why he chose to live in his native Oklahoma. The independent-minded singer/songwriter always did it his way.
When Mercury Records rejected his "How Do You Like Me Now?!" album in 1999, he bought the project for $150,000 and turned around and sold 2 million copies of it on DreamWorks Records.
Keith was a savvy businessman and marketer. He smartly used commercials for Ford trucks to promote his brand.
"People think when you do those commercials that you sell out. We were buying in," he told me in 2003. "You need to have the tools to compete. There's no way you can win the Heisman Trophy [for best college football player] if you're playing for North Dakota State."
When DreamWorks closed in 2005, Keith started his own record label, Show Dog, and, the next year, bankrolled his own movie, "Broken Bridges," in which he co-starred with Burt Reynolds and Kelly Preston. Though the movie wasn't a blockbuster, he must have done something right because, in 2013, Forbes dubbed him "Country Music's $500 million man" in a cover story.
Inspired by his hit "I Love This Bar," a restaurant group partnered with him on a chain of Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grills in a dozen or so cities including Las Vegas, Kansas City and eventually St. Louis Park, where it had a popular six-year run in the Shops at West End until 2015.
The shrewd superstar did not invest any money in the bars, but had control over decor, the music and, most importantly, "the attitude," he told me at the grand opening in 2010.
I interviewed Toby Keith Covel (his full name) a few times, on the phone and in person. He didn't sugarcoat things, skirt things or spew diplomatic or PC words. He was honest and straightforward. He told it like it was, at least from his point of view.
"I never was a very political guy, though 'The Courtesy of Red, White and Blue' was political," he said in 2008. "I'm a lifetime Democrat in the first place. I probably should just be an independent and stay in the middle `cause that's who I am. The righties think I'm a hippie, and the lefties think I'm a Nazi. It's hard when you're in the middle on the issues."
Not that he was contemplating running for office, Keith loved his country so much that he proposed a possible solution in a 2004 interview.
"We're so divided [between the] right and left, the best analogy I can come up with is, we're a big gas stove. If you're all the way to the right, things are going to burn up; your food's gonna overcook. If you're all the way to the left, it's going to be undercooked and never done. And we need to be in the middle like we have been in the past.
"I think we need a third party. We need an American Party. It would have to be closer to the middle. There's such separation right now. I want all of the little-man things to work without the liberal nuts involved. But I don't want all of the hard-core right-wing stuff. I want my government handling my money. At the same time, you've got to give and take. It's not that way right now; it's either give or take."
Between all the bluster and beer, there was a lot of horse sense with Toby Keith.