Toby Keith Takes Fans on a Wild ‘Ride’
Say what you will about Toby Keith, he's a big dog daddy with a healthy chip on his shoulder. The 48-year-old entertainer has been chewed up and spit out in the press from time to time, but he doesn't mind. Toby lets his talent (not to mention his incredible body of work) speak for itself.
A force in the music scene since 1993, Toby shot straight to superstardom with a song he wrote, 'Should've Been a Cowboy,' which not only proved to be his first No. 1 hit, it was the most played country song of the 1990s. The multi-platinum artist -- whose current single 'American Ride' (from the album of the same name) recently skyrocketed to No. 1 on the charts – was just named Songwriter/Artist of the Decade (2000-2009) by the Nashville Songwriters Association International. Pretty impressive for a guy who didn't get his first break until he was 32.
One thing's for sure when you have a conversation with the outspoken singer, he'll tell you just what's on his mind. Toby sat down with The Boot to talk about his new album, the so-called "cancer" he's dodged, the last time he cried and his laughter at a request to duet with the Dixie Chicks.
'American Ride,' your first single from the new album, is a powerful song dealing with illegal immigration, frivolous lawsuits, the decline in the importance of religion ... It's very much a Toby Keith song, yet you didn't write it. You almost never cut other people's songs, so what drove you to cut this one?
'American Ride' is one of five singles that I did not write in my life. I had it on my iPod, and I just kept playing it and thinking, 'Man, is this something that I'm going to want to sing five years from now?' I just sat on it and sat on it, and I got in the studio, turned my iPod on and went,' I'm cutting this thing. I just can't resist it. It's so me.' And everybody I talk to says, 'You wrote the crap out of this,' because it sounds like I wrote the song. There are certain songs that are just made for people. The songwriter in me wants the artist in me to cut everything I write, so you've got to put your ego aside and say, you know what – the artist in me is going to miss out on a great opportunity here if you don't just do it.
'American Ride' is a song like 'How Do You Like Me Now?!,' 'Get Drunk and Be Somebody,' 'Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue' -- songs that must be pretty invigorating to sing live.
When we hit the stage at night, I've got 15 ballads I could play, but I'm not a balladeer. We're [here] to entertain. My shows are geared for these outdoor amphitheaters. People tailgate; they're already buzzing when they get in here. They drink a lot of beer! I get raw with them and go right into their world. I don't stay sterile. So I've got a rock mentality with a country background, and I go in there and as we say, 'Step on their necks and try to pull their tails up.' I want them to have so much fun, they hurt when they leave.
How do you feel about people bringing kids to your concerts?
There's been a couple people over the last three or four years complain: "I took my kids to that, and that wasn't a kid's show." You know what? These amphitheater shows, unless it's a gospel thing [laughs], there's enough stuff going on on the hill and in the crowd that you shouldn't bring your kids. We've had people having sex, people throwing up, people urinating, people fighting, nudity ... So when you're in that environment, you ought to check your own card first and say, 'What were you thinking if you're concerned about me saying 's---' on the microphone?' There's a lot worse going on than me saying 's---.'
You do show a softer side on this new album, especially on 'Are You Feelin' Me' and 'Tender as I Wanna Be.' Are you a sentimental guy in real life, or is it pretty much Tough Toby all the time?
As I get older, that stuff comes out more. It started when I wrote 'You Shouldn't Kiss Me Like This.' That's a three-and-a-half minute song about a five-second kiss. If you want to talk about that five seconds as good as you can talk about it, it's going to take three-and-a-half minutes to tell it ... I try to think of those little thoughts in 'Tender as I Wanna Be' – this guy's pretty bold, he doesn't give in very easy and he's saying, 'I know you need me to be that way, I'm just not. But, when we're doing what we're supposed to be doing, then that's plenty tender enough for me. I don't know if it is for you, but by God, it is for me.' The secret recipe for learning how to write those kind of songs is to put down a bunch of stuff in the lyric that you would never actually say to the female. So, there's no way a guy like me in real life is going to be that tender. You wish you could be but there is a wall there.
Since you're the head of your own record label, does anyone but you have a say in what goes on your albums -- or in what goes on with your career, for that matter?
I am the Mac-Daddy! I don't answer to a soul. I don't have industry cancer, I'm not a member of the CMA, so don't feel sorry for me when they don't vote for me. It's not their fault anymore. It's mine. I'm not a member. I'm artist [songwriter] of the decade. I'm at 63 million spins as a songwriter, I got my own record label, I don't live in Nashville and I don't answer to a son of a b----.
You seemed to be blessed with self confidence. Was there ever a time in your life that you were insecure?
Just for the sake of not saying no, never ... Maybe dating in junior high, learning how to talk to girls and stuff.
Who would you like to ask, "How do you like me now?!"
I said it. I don't just say it in words. My actions speak. I honestly have fought to get myself out on an island. The only downside to my island is that I'm not in the loop. I don't have any networking. It can be a plus [laughs] -- you don't get all the phone calls and stuff, but I don't live in Nashville so I don't have any social celebrity life as far as that goes. I don't have a lot of friends – and it's not because they're enemies -- I just don't know a lot of people in this business because I am on an island. I have told everybody that needed to be told to f--- off. Anybody that ever needed it, got told that. I don't have any demons with them. If you've been told to f--- off by me, [it's] done. I wake up every day knowing that I don't have to take a phone call and argue about my music. I don't have to argue with a label about what's going to go on my album or what the next single is or whether I should wear a sleeveless shirt in a video. It's nobody's business what I do until I do it.
Before you went on your own, you made headlines for some of those feuds to which you're alluding. When you get angry at someone -- say the Dixie Chicks -- do you say your peace and let it go, or do you hold a grudge?
It depends on what they want to do with it. [pauses]
Are you through talking about that saga with the Chicks?
I was done talking about it two weeks in. Usually I fire back quicker. I didn't even fire back on that thing until about day three. It came out, and I went, 'So what? I don't care what they think.' And then they got a lot of press for talking about me, which people do try to get their 15 minutes of fame off me. I go on and my Q-factor gets higher, and these guys get their 15 minutes. But I didn't know those girls. So I go on about my business. And then somebody calls me up and says, 'Man, there's a big thing about them blasting you on this...' I said,' So what, there's people going to blast it, but I'm supporting my guys.' Then the next day they took it another step, then the next day they took it another step, and then I fired back and basically told them to go f--- themselves. And then all of the left supporters came out of the closet and started saying, 'What are you doing picking on the Dixie Chicks?' Like I started that s---! But how am I supposed to fight that? How am I supposed to convince every son of a b---- that I didn't start that? I didn't throw the first three punches. When the whole thing was over, I was like, 'Man this is way too much press for anybody to get over this stupidity.' I had a problem with it for about two weeks and then I just said, 'I'm done, they can keep rockin' if they want to.' And at some point one of the big award shows called and said, 'You know how cool it would be if you guys would do a song together? Are you in?' I figured if I said, 'No f---ing way, I'm out,' that they would go, 'Toby Keith said there's no way,' and it would start it all up again. So I'll put it this way: 'Go try to get them to do it and good luck, buddy!' He called me back the next day, and he said, 'What kind of production do you want on your song?' And I was like, 'I guess the Dixie Chicks are out of the question, huh?' [laughs] He said, 'Yeah, I didn't get anywhere with that.'
It's great that you can laugh about it now. So the next question is, when was the last time you cried?
At Wayman Tisdale's funeral. [Toby dedicated his new song, 'Cryin' for Me (Wayman's Song),' to the jazz and basketball legend.] He became a dear friend of mine. He lost his leg to cancer and got a prosthetic. Two months later [he] was diagnosed with Leukemia, fought it hard, went all the way through all these treatments ... finally got a scan that was free and said he was going to be OK. He called me in May on a Wednesday night and asked if he could lease a couple of my buses to make a little jazz run. He left me a message. I called him back the next morning, and I didn't get him. Friday morning, he passed away -- not from cancer but due to his treatment. He had an esophagus collapse due to all the chemo he was getting. I reeled around there for two days in a stupor. He was a great guy with a charismatic smile, and the closest thing to Jesus I've ever met. There's a line in the song that says, "You showed me how to live." He was a perfect, perfect human. I got up Sunday morning, realized I was just going to have to face it all -- couldn't believe that he was gone. We had gotten really, really close. I was the first one he would call when he would come out of surgery. He passed away on May 15. Anyway, I got up Sunday morning, called his cell phone to hear his voice one more time, I grabbed my guitar and sat down and wrote this song, and went in and put it on the album.
Let's end our chat by going back to the beginning ... You were 32 before you got a record deal, which was somewhat thanks to a flight attendant who gave your CD to a Mercury Records executive. Fast forward all these years later, and you are one of the highest paid entertainers in the world. So what's that flight attendant doing now?
Her maiden name was Lori Hardin, but it's Lori Payne now, she married Todd Payne. [They] own a Christian record label. I see her once in a while. She was a huge fan and had every song that I played from the stage. She probably got 'Should've Been a Cowboy' live from the stage before I got a record deal. So Harold Shedd, who was a vice president at Mercury, came on her flight, and he invited her and her friend to some kind of industry thing on a boat. They said, 'Sure.' He had been on her flight several times. So she went out there to this party. The only thing they had for music was a CD player. She looked in her purse -- she had a bunch of my CDs, so she plugged them in, and after the end of the party, he said, 'Who is this?' And she said, 'He's a friend of mine from Oklahoma.' He goes, 'How do I meet this guy?' Boom, he flew into Oklahoma City to find me.
And you quickly went from playing shows in your home state to playing all over the world, in what is a jam-packed touring schedule. You sing in your new song,'Gypsy Driftin,' "It's hard as hell out on this highway/But I'm still addicted to the show." Are you addicted to playing live?
I just want to pay tribute to the people that we couldn't do without -- that group of angel faces in the audience, that sea of music lovers. There's no reason for me to exist out here [without them]. I look at this as a reward for hard work. This is a privilege to get to come do this every day. I wouldn't trade places with a soul. So what makes the small negative things go away is when you step on that stage and you see that crowd that is just anticipating your every move and your every lyric and your every note. All your worries just go away. For two hours out there you're just one with the audience.