Did the Toby Keith vs. Kris Kristofferson Altercation Really Happen? Why Did Ethan Hawke End up Facing the Heat for It, Explained

The story of the great 2003/2009 Ethan Hawke/Kris Kristofferson/Toby Keith debacle is one with a catalog of possible moral takeaways.

Whatever your political leanings, it could arguably be a parable on the sensitivities of those in the opposite camp. Maybe it’s a real-world fable on the fallibility of human memory. Whatever your take, one pertinent truth can be easily scoped out by any casual observer on either side of the aisle: That is, whether we’re talking about the guy from Training Day, the king of post-911 America-strong country music, or the man who taught Blade how to shotgun-prune the undead, performers are all a bunch of gossipy little girls.

Toby Keith, Kris Kristofferson, and the reliability of Ethan Hawke’s memory

Our story begins in the April 16, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone. It was there that Ethan Hawke, on the cusp of true greatness with the release of that Total Recall remake that he got cut from just around the corner, published a piercing, throbbing, sweaty tribute, billed on the cover as “The Last Outlaw: Kris Kristofferson’s American Journey.” There were still a lot of other outlaws at the time. Bin Laden was still alive, and Wesley Snipes hadn’t reported to prison yet. Still, the headline stood, wedged between a piece simply titled “Prince” and a cover story called “Lil Wayne Goes Rock.” 

In it, Hawke recounted a series of events that occurred backstage at a celebration concert for Willie Nelson’s 70th birthday, which, somehow, was only 21 years ago in 2003. It was a different time. V-neck t-shirts were just starting to come into fashion, and, more importantly, the United States’ response to the Sept. 11 terror attacks was causing people in cowboy hats to shout passionately in frequencies that wouldn’t be seen again until Bud Light hired a trans person to say “I like Bud Light.”

Hawke described a moment when Kristofferson was confronted by an unnamed-but-strangely-specific country music star, who was riding a wave of success after releasing a ditty “about bombing America’s enemies back into the stone age.” According to Hawke, this mysterious singer – whose description sure makes them sound like they’re “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)” singer Toby Keith – told Kristofferson “None of that lefty [redacted] out there tonight, Kris.” This (again, according to Hawke) caused Kristofferson to go off, telling the unnamed, Toby Keith-shaped mystery man that he doesn’t know “what the hell you’re talking about” and shouting “Have you ever taken another man’s life and then cashed the check your country gave you for doing it?”

So that’s Hawke’s side of the story, as immortalized in the pages of one of the most popular magazines in America, back when America still had magazines. 

“Bad gas,” we’re told, “travels fast in a small town,” and show business is just a small town with great dermatologists. Word got back to Keith that someone fitting his description had, according to the star of Reality Bites, tried to give direction to Kris Kristofferson, and been summarily pwned by the libs as a result. Keith, for his part, was not amused. 

CBS News reported at the time that Keith addressed the story backstage at the 2009 Academy of Country Music Awards. He called it… well, he called it a lot of things, using a lot of words that you’re not old enough to hear yet. “It was,” to quote Keith, “a fictitious [redacted] lie.” He especially made sure to point out that Hawke, while name-dropping plenty of other celebrities in his piece, only barely omitted Keith’s name because “He didn’t want to [redacted] deal with the aftermath.”

Finally, there was Kristofferson, who dealt with the whole situation in a manner befitting a gentleman Highwayman. In a written statement, he first pointed out that he counted Ethan Hawke and Toby Keith among his friends, then stated plainly that he didn’t remember what happened at Willie Nelson’s birthday party.

Kris Kristofferson and Toby Keith
Photo by R. Diamond/WireImage

In fairness, it would be weird if anyone did remember what happened at one of Willie Nelson’s birthday parties. “That was six years ago,” Kristofferson concluded. “I spoke to Ethan before I put out my statement and thanked him for the beautiful story he wrote for Rolling Stone and I also told him I did not recall the incident at Willie’s birthday party. This is the last statement I will put out about this nonsense.”

It’s been 15 years since the “story” of Kris Kristofferson and Toby Keith made waves. Kristofferson, now 87, has retired from performing. Toby Keith passed away in 2024 after battling stomach cancer. Ethan Hawke remains, Schrodinger’s Hollywood truth teller. Maybe he stood up and spoke truth to power in the dying days of the United States’ years-long, post-9/11 cultural celebration of Truck Month, and held a country singer accountable for his behavior. Alternatively, maybe he made the whole thing up, and we can all stop feeling bad about the fact that he had to make Daybreakers.

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