Toby Keith Pours a Shot of Sentimentality in ‘Tavern’
Toby Keith has previously paid tribute to his grandmother, Hilda Marie ‘Clancy’ Martin, in tunes like ‘Honky Tonk U’ and ‘I Love This Bar.’ The title track of his latest album, ‘Clancy’s Tavern,’ released this week on Toby’s Show Dog-Universal label, recalls a day in the life of the establishment which his grandmother purchased while a single mom in rural Arkansas.
The Oklahoma-born superstar is coming off his fastest-rising career single, ‘Made in America,’ his tour dates have been selling out, and his signature Wild Shot liquor has been named the top-selling mezcal in the U.S. What else can the 50-year-old do to top that? Plenty! His ‘Red Solo Cup’ video, which is both fun and bizarre at the same time, went viral two weeks ago and has now logged over one million views. The song, a tribute to the ubiquitous party cup, was penned by brothers Brett and Brad Warren, along with another pair of brothers, Brett and Jim Beavers.
Toby sat down to talk with The Boot about the songs on the new CD, where his confidence comes from and the country-music hero he invited on the road to write songs. The notoriously outspoken superstar also tells an eyebrow-raising story about how life imitated art with one of his classic hits, ‘How Do You Like Me Now?’.
How did your grandmother come to be known as Clancy?
She got the name Clancy from my grandfather. She married right before I was born, and he named her Clancy because she ran the tavern. Her first husband died leaving her with three kids, all under the age of four. Her parents lived on Cactus Ridge in Booneville, Ark., and they raised my mom and her two brothers while she moved to Ft. Smith to be the plant manager at the Dixie Cup factory there. That was in the 1940s and early 1950s. She was the first woman plant manager there. She worked at this nightclub, Billy Garner’s Supper Club, in the evenings, taking the cover charge from the folks who came in. When she had the opportunity to buy the place, she did. I would go stay with her and that was where I was bitten by the entertainment bug. The characters in the song are real. There was a black dude named Elmo who cooked in the kitchen, and her best friend, Lillie, took over her job of taking the cover charge. She was also a widow woman. It was closer to church than a bar because it was self-policed; there were no bouncers, and you would see the same faces in there every night. The song is true, down to her taking her pistol and money to the bank.
The timing of the album’s first single, ‘Made in America,’ which recently hit No. 1, seems perfect.
The problem is when I do a song like this, people say, “Oh, that’s another song about your dad.” Well it’s not really about my dad, it’s about that generation. People come up to me and say, “That song is about my my old man”‘ So it’s about that old man. My father had a lot of traits that were along this line, but it’s about that generation, a better generation than we are. That generation lived in a less complicated world, where you could work on your vehicle with a wrench and WD-40 and bailing wire. You could see spark plugs sticking out of the block, and you could see the carburetor. Now you’ve got to have a tool to get to the spark plugs and you have to plug your car into a machine to see if it’s sick. It’s just a more complicated world.
What kind of things are you hearing your fans say about the state of our country?
I’m hearing people say it’s time to start taking care of us first. We help everybody in the world, we police the world, we die for everyone in the world … We are leaders of this planet, and we take care of everybody else first. Sometimes it’s like the guy who’s the dentist and his kids’ teeth are bad because he’s so busy taking care of everyone else’s kids. Sometimes you neglect the ones closest to you, trying to conquer your goals and accomplish things.
People are extremely worried about the deficit and the economy. I think the terror fear is under control, because our intel is unbelievably good, which is why we haven’t been hit again. We’re listening and watching everything that everybody does. The number one worry is now we’ve funded all these wars and other countries and we’re in hock up to our elbows and our credit is rating bad. Any government will spend and spend — it doesn’t matter what political party you are — if you’re not controlled and have budgets that you’re held to. I don’t know how to fix it, but I know we need to take care of ourselves first.
Your latest single, ‘Red Solo Cup,’ is one you didn’t write, which is extremely rare for you. What was there about the song that made you say, “I’ve got to record that!”?
It’s the only song I didn’t write on the album. It is so stupid that it’s good. We could play it in here, then play five other songs, give it an hour, walk out and you’d hear the receptionist going (singing), “Red solo cup!” It’s like a nursery rhyme. When I went to record this time, I didn’t have a bus song like ‘Weed With Willie’ or ‘Get Out of Your Clothes or Get Out of My Car.’ So I cut it, and it’s getting so much attention. Now here’s the problem: I’m afraid since it says ‘testicles,’ radio won’t play it, but the video is all over the internet [and] has a bunch of celebrities in it. But radio wouldn’t play ‘Weed With Willie’ and this is even more extreme. I had some radio guys tell me they’d play it, but I don’t know.
You wrote a few songs with Eddy Raven on this album. Have you always been a fan of his?
He was my hero. I wrote a song a couple albums back with him called ‘Cabo San Lucas.’ He was one of the most under-appreciated guys in the ’80s in country music. He wrote hit after hit. He wrote ‘Thank God for Kids’ for the Oak Ridge Boys. When I saw what he was doing it was like, “That’s what I want to do.” Sure enough, I got here and I had trouble getting appreciation for what I was doing.
Because he was one of my heroes, I’d talk about him in interviews and I guess he heard about that. One day, he came up and introduced himself. I said, “I’m a huge fan of yours, I played all your stuff when I was in high school and in the bars.” He goes, “I’ve read that. I want to write a song with you.” So I invited him to come out on the road with me. He packed a bag and came out and we wrote several times together. It’s a true joy to get to sit across from one of your idols and get to do that.
At what point in your career do you think you really found yourself as an artist?
That’s easy. That was the day I was sitting in [Mercury Records president] Luke Lewis’ office and asked him to let me out of my contract. I had just turned in a project that I thought was the best I’d ever done and they hated it. So I said to him, just drop me, throw me out to the street and let me fight for myself. He told me to call him in two days, thinking I’d have time to think about it and change my mind. I told him, “No, let’s go while the fire is hot. I don’t want to stay here now and I won’t in 48 hours.” Then I said, “I have one more question. What about my album?” He said I couldn’t take it because there was too much money tied up in it, so I asked if I could buy it. He asked, “You believe in it that much?” and I said yes. He said he had to see if he could do that, and two hours later he called and told me I could buy it. I got a check from the accountant and took it to him and walked out with the master to the album that had ‘How Do You Like Me Now?!’ and all those songs on it. Luke didn’t want to release ‘How Do You Like Me Now?!’ because he said the women fans wouldn’t like it.
Once you were out of that contract, did things get any easier?
I took the album to James Stroud [at Dreamworks], and he told me what he could offer. Then I shopped it to the other labels in town and they were polite but they didn’t listen to the album. So I signed with James, and then he didn’t want to release it as the first single. We went with something else because he said it was too dangerous to go with that song first. So he went with a song called ‘Love Fades,’ and it did nothing. I went in and said, “Now what?” and he said, “Put out that song ‘How Do You Like Me Now?!” It saved the project, and I went on to sell 25 million albums with James.
But even down the road, we went through all those hits like ‘Who’s Your Daddy,’ ‘I Wanna Talk About Me’ and ‘Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,’ and still I got resistance from the promo teams. They would tell me radio wouldn’t play ‘As Good as I Once Was’ because it talked about a menage a trois at the beginning of the song. It was six weeks at No. 1, and I was named BMI’s Songwriter of the Year.
I finally opened the window a little bit and then drove the truck through. That’s how you make it 18 years … I certainly wasn’t gonna make it being Elvis [Presley] or Vince [Gill]. They wanted me to be Vince Gill. I heard it 50 times between 1993 and 1995 … you need to be our Vince Gill. I was like, “I’m not Vince Gill. I love Vince, he’s from Oklahoma, but I’m not that guy. This is me over here.” Looking back on those pictures, those green suits, it makes me laugh and then makes me want to throw up. I can’t believe they did me like that. Once I started dressing out of my closet, cutting my own songs, doing my own thing, all the lock combinations fell together and it popped open.
Now that you’ve had your own successful record label for almost seven years, do you feel like shouting, “How do you like me now?” to the major labels?
In 2004, I was at a point in my career where I was trying to decide — did I want to renegotiate my contract or did I want to go out and do my own thing. People asked me, “What makes you think you can do that?” I told them, “Because I’ve seen the people who run the labels and I’d put a bullet in my mug if I couldn’t do as good a job as they do.” And here we are still kicking and rocking. I take a lot of pride knowing my camp hasn’t rolled over; these same people who ride for my brand are all still pushing and synergizing. We’ve got ten or 11 of the biggest bar and grills in the country. We’ve got the number one liquor in the nation in our category, which is mezcal. Everything we’ve tried to do has outworked the other guy. If I don’t get television over here, I’ll get a Ford deal, and I’ve been ten years with Ford now. If I can’t get on award shows and be one of those chosen few, then I’ll go over here and be in the movies or do some television shows. I know what we’ve accomplished back here behind the curtain. There’s not that many balls in the air, but the ones there are important and they are big. You have to focus and take it to this extreme level.
Where does your tireless determination and self confidence come from?
My dad was born on a broom corn farm in Lindsey, Okla. They raised broom corn, that’s what they made brooms out of. And my dad went to the military as quick as he could, because he wanted out to have a better way of life. The way he chose cost him his right eye. Because of that one eye, when he came back out of the service, he was limited to what he could do. He worked in the oil fields for 35 years, and become a regional manager for the mid-USA. He didn’t go the old college route, he blue-collared and boot-strapped it up and I saw us evolve from living in an old rent house and him and mom working to climbing the ladder and becoming successful. I think that’s ingrained in me.
What is your proudest accomplishment in the music business?
The thing I’m most proud of in all that I’ve done is the number of spins I’ve had as a songwriter at BMI. I’ve had 75 million spins, and those are like goofy numbers. That also means I’m getting old. [laughs]
What is the best thing you do with your money?
The money I made affords me the means to be able to — in my spare time — work my charity events, and affords me to take off and go overseas two months and play 180 shows for the troops. It allows me to take care of my family. There are personal friends of mine I’ve been able to help because I had the money to do so. I’m proud to be able to affect the lives I’ve affected, most in the private sector, and with charities like St. Jude, Ally’s House, the USO and OK Kids Korral.
What has given you the longevity you have had in your career? Do you see yourself as someone younger artists look up to these days?
To tell you the truth, it’s hard to be humble but hard to speak the truth here. I’ve heard this in the last seven years from some of the younger singers: “he’s a frickin’ legend.” I don’t see myself as that. I see myself as [former NFL quarterback] Vinny Testaverde. I don’t feel like we made it this far because we were better than everybody, but because we filled a void. I think we got enough credibility through the music we put out, and developed enough credibility at radio, that I could get away with pushing the envelope a little bit further than anyone else. Because I proved it would work.