On September 15, 2001, Merle Haggard (pictured) played "Fightin' Side of Me," whipping a patriotically charged Ameristar casino crowd into a "U-S-A"-chanting frenzy. In interviews over the past few years, Haggard had distanced himself from the song's jingoistic sentiments, but he knew what a grieving nation wanted to hear and responded in kind without adding any additional fuel to the fire. More recently, Toby Keith fumed, 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 on his latest release, Unleashed. The song's crude threats, which make Haggard's fist-shaking youthful indiscretions seem subtle, have landed the pop-country barker in the doghouse with peers such as Dixie Chick Natalie Maines, who deemed it "ignorant." The artists' latest recordings show just how wide the gap between traditional country and its radio-friendly shadow have become: Haggard's 2000 effort If Only I Could Fly contains blunt self-analysis and timeless melodies; Keith's work contains impulsive reactionary rhetoric, pop-culture catch-phrase pandering and overpolished backdrops for his brutal barroom-brawler bellow. These days, Keith gets the bigger venues and all the airplay -- he performs on Saturday, August 24, at Verizon Amphitheater -- but the Okie from Muskogee's set the next night at the Beaumont Club should blow away the upstart's.