Remembering Kris Kristofferson and Toby Keith’s Reportedly Legendary Argument on Willie Nelson’s Birthday

by Chris Haney

Back in 2003, country icon Willie Nelson was celebrating his 70th birthday, but two other country stars stole the headlines years later. Allegedly, Kris Kristofferson and Toby Keith got into a heated exchange in a now-legendary he said, he said argument.

Nelson celebrated his 70th birthday with a special concert in New York City at the Beacon Theater. Numerous famous musicians attended and performed, including the late Ray Charles, Elvis Costello, Wyclef Jean, Norah Jones, and Paul Simon. Additionally, Kristofferson and Keith attended Nelson’s birthday bash and so did actor Ethan Hawke.

Fast forward to 2009, and Rolling Stone had Hawke working on an extensive feature story about Kristofferson for their April 16 issue. Hawke as a makeshift journalist opened the article with his recollection of Nelson’s birthday. More importantly, he began the feature article by recounting the 2003 backstage incident between Kristofferson and an unnamed musician. Although he didn’t name the second musician, he did say he “had a monster hit about bombing America’s enemies back into the stone age.”

According to Hawke’s first-person account, Kristofferson and presumably Keith got into a politically charged argument backstage. The fight never got physical, but tempers flared.

Kris Kristofferson and Toby Keith’s War of Words

As the legend goes, Keith came out of the theater’s basement to wish Nelson a happy birthday. He then saw Kristofferson and quipped, “None of that lefty shit out there tonight, Kris” – a reference to Kristofferson’s left-leaning political views.

“What the f–k did you just say to me?” Kristofferson replied. “You ever worn your country’s uniform?”

“You heard the question, you just don’t like the answer,” Kristofferson continued. “Have you ever served your country? The answer is, no, you have not. Have you ever killed another man? Huh? Have you ever taken another man’s life and then cashed the check your country gave you for doing it? No, you have not. So shut the f–k up!”

Supposedly things cooled down and everyone continued on with Nelson’s birthday celebration. Yet when Keith caught wind of Hawke’s article six years later, he fully denied the encounter altogether. During a CMT Insider interview, he found out about the Rolling Stone feature story, which released the same week. After reviewing Hawke’s story he called it “100% fiction.”

“Kris and I are good friends and have come close to working on a couple of projects,” Keith said to CMT Insider. “I don’t have to defend myself on this. This is 100 percent fiction. And I’d bet a million dollars on a lie detector test that this didn’t happen.”

“You know, when I call somebody out, I say their name. So, you can talk to Kris and you can talk to Willie. … They’ll all laugh and say it didn’t happen. … Somebody’s trying to get fiction in whatever magazine to make themselves a story. But if anybody does have anything to take this any further, I’m available. … They can find out the truth.”

Keith Denies the Argument, But Kristofferson’s Wife Remembers Differently

Toby Keith not only denied the accusation but doubled down on Hawke’s article calling it a “lie.” A journalist asked Keith at the Academy of Country Music Awards about the Kris Kristofferson fight. Keith took the opportunity and let Hawke have it. He also directed some choice words to the journalist as well.

“I don’t know Ethan Hawke. Ethan Hawke wanted to do some kind of superficial Rolling Stone article. And he did everything he could to make his story the greatest story ever in Rolling Stone,” Keith said. “And it was a fictitious (expletive) lie. O.K?”

“He didn’t even call me by my name. … He called Norah Jones, Ray Charles, everybody else by name. Willie (Nelson), Kris (Kristofferson). Why didn’t he call my name? Why didn’t he say Toby Keith walked through and said this (expletive)? Right? You know why. You know as good as anybody why. He didn’t want to (expletive) deal with the aftermath.”

In addition, Keith incorrectly claimed that Kris Kristofferson also denied their legendary argument. In fact, Kristofferson only said, “I have no memory of talking so tough to anyone at Willie’s birthday party….” This is likely true, but doesn’t prove Keith’s version of events since Kristofferson has suffered from memory loss for years.

To make matters worse for Keith, a seemingly harmless Star Tribune article may have proven that the famous story is indeed true. The newspaper ran a preview of Kristofferson’s April 14, 2009 concert in Minneapolis. During a segment of their interview with the icon, they brought up the recent Rolling Stone article.

“Actually, I like Toby Keith, but I don’t agree with his politics,” said Kristofferson. “There are a lot of things in artistry that transcend politics.”

Kristofferson then told the Star Tribune that he “doesn’t even remember the exchange with Keith, but his wife does.”

“That’s something that happened six years ago,” he said. “I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast.”

Kristofferson’s wife, Lisa Meyers, has never spoken out further on the two country singers’ legendary argument. We may never truly know what happened backstage at Nelson’s 70th birthday, but Keith’s defensive manner and Kristofferson’s comment in the Star Tribune leave us with even more questions.