The Crazy, And Possibly Made Up, Story Of Kris Kristofferson & Toby Keith’s Altercation At Willie Nelson’s 70th Birthday

Kris Toby Keith country music willie nelson
Frank Mullen/ Getty Images

There is no shortage of great stories in country music.

And no, I’m not talking about the songwriting, but it makes sense that a genre built on great storytelling would have a knack for creating some of its own wild stories.

From Willie Nelson’s gunfight with his son-in-law, David Allan Coe saving boats after a fire broke out at a marina, Merle Haggard spending five days naked on his houseboat and doing hella drugs alongside an unnamed female country star, Waylon Jennings walking out on the CMAs, and so many more, it’s easy to see that they simply don’t make ’em like they used to.

With that being said, I came across this wild story from another all-time great country songwriter, Kris Kristofferson, involving Toby Keith early on in his career, and while the veracity of the story has been widely debated, and downright disputed… it seems like they were about to throw hands.

In 2009, actor Ethan Hawke wrote a guest story for Rolling Stone about this wild verbal altercation that went down at Willie Nelson’s 70th birthday concert back in 2003.

Hawke was a guest at the party, as were a number of other celebrities including Elvis Costello, Wyclef Jean, Norah Jones, Shelby Lynne, and Paul Simon.

Keith was bursting onto the scene with songs like “Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue,” and “Beer For My Horses,” featuring Willie Nelson himself.

Of course, Keith falls about as far right on the political spectrum as you can get these days, but back in 2004, he actually referred to himself as a conservative democrat. Kristofferson on the other hand, who’d been best friends with Willie for years, was… not hyper conservative.

So, the night of the concert, Keith (who Hawke actually didn’t name in the article, but referred to as a “star who had a monster radio hit about bombing America’s enemies back into the Stone Age”) walked past Willie and Kris who were standing together, and told Willie “Happy birthday.”

But he then made a snarky remark to Kris, saying:

“None of that lefty shit out there tonight, Kris.”

Needless to say, Kris didn’t take to kindly to Keith’s remarks, and responded:

“What the f*ck did you just say to me?”

Willie knew Keith had just struck a nerve, saying:

“Oh, no. Don’t get Kris all riled up.”

Keith proceeded to say:

“You heard me.”

And began to walk away.

Kris responded:

“Don’t turn your back to me, boy.”


“I don’t want any problems, Kris… I just want you to tone it down.”

Kris, a former Army Ranger and helicopter pilot, said:

“You ever worn your country’s uniform?

Don’t ‘What?’ me, boy! You heard the question. You just don’t like the answer. ‘Have you ever served your country?’ The answer is, no, you have not. Have you ever killed another man? 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*ck up… you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

Kris then told those nearby:

“You know what Waylon Jennings said about guys like him? They’re doin’ to country music what pantyhose did to finger-fuckin.'”

But here’s the thing… both Toby and Kris (for the most part) both denied that it ever happened.

At the ACM Awards that year, Keith blasted Hawke for writing the article, calling it completely false, as well as calling out Hawke for refusing to name him:

“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. And it was a fictitious f*cking lie. Ok?

He didn’t even call me by my name… He called Norah Jones, Ray Charles, everybody else by name. Willie, Kris… why didn’t he call my name? Why didn’t he say Toby Keith walked through and said this sh*t? Right?

You know why. You know why. You know as good as anybody why. He didn’t want to f*cking deal with the aftermath.”

And when Kris was asked about it, he dismissed the incident as well:

“I would like to state for the record that I am friends with Ethan Hawke, Toby Keith and Tennessean reporter Peter Cooper. Although I do not remember the events at Willie’s birthday party as reported in Rolling Stone, what does it matter?

That was six years ago. 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.”

However, in a conversation with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Kris more or less admitted that his wife remembered the incident, although he says he doesn’t.

“Actually, I like Toby Keith, but I don’t agree with his politics. There are a lot things in artistry that transcend politics. That’s something that happened six years ago, I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast.”

If Kris says his wife remembered it, did it happen after all?

It’s hard to say…

Maybe some kind of conversation was had, but it wasn’t quite as heated as Hawke made it out to be? Maybe Hawke took some creative liberties with his storytelling? Maybe it happened as Hawke described and Kristofferson is just covering for Toby? Maybe he doesn’t remember it at all and maybe Toby Keith doesn’t remember it either.

We’ll never really know for sure…

But Kris and Toby were spotted smiling together at the BMI Awards a few months later (the cover photo of this article) so it’s looks like whatever happened that night (if anything) wasn’t enough to keep them from being friends.

Here’s the full celebration concert from that night featuring Willie himself, Steve Tyler, Toby, Kris, Ethan Hawke and more.

A beer bottle on a dock



A beer bottle on a dock