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Keith Graduates With Honors From 'Honkytonk U'
Excerpted from the magazine for Billboard.com.The following interview with Toby Keith is excerpted from a Billboard Stars special feature that appears in the June 18, 2005, issue of the magazine.
The 17-page special section dissects his success, from his chart history, creative success and business achievements. To purchase a copy of the issue, click here.
Call Toby Keith "oil field trash" if you want to; this Oklahoma native considers it a compliment. Fiercely independent, loyal to his inner circle and stubborn in his convictions, Keith makes no apologies for his background or his beliefs.
While he may look pissed off, Keith is actually having a real good time. He is perennially ranked among country's elite touring artists, thanks to a knack for writing hit songs and a slew of platinum albums.
That streak continued with his new DreamWorks album, "Honkytonk University," which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart and at No. 2 on The Billboard 200 as Keith prepared to launch his Big Throwdown II summer tour June 10 in Charlotte, N.C.
A few weeks before the album's arrival, Keith spoke candidly with Billboard by phone from Los Angeles between bites of a fish taco and takes of a video shoot.
If Keith is portrayed -— inaccurately, he says -- as a gun-waving right-winger, largely because of his support for U.S. troops, he can handle it. "It comes with a lot of pain, being that guy, but it's nothing like serving over there," he says. "That's real pain."
How autobiographical is the title cut of your new album, "Honkytonk University"?
Dead on. 100%.
Including the part about your grandma's honky-tonk?
Yeah, she had one down on the Arkansas-Oklahoma line, in Fort Smith, Ark., right across the river from Oklahoma. That's the first place I was ever exposed to a band when I was a child.
I bet that was a rowdy place, getting those Arkansans and Oklahomans together.
She was like Miss Kitty; she ran a pretty tight place. It was the last of a dying breed of what you called supper clubs, where the front end was a tavern --longnecks, jukebox and pool -- and then you went into the back for fine dining and a nice band that played swing music and current country and a little bit of old rock'n'roll.
That was a pretty good musical education, wasn't it?
Absolutely. I told that high-school teacher I'd never need any f***in' calculus.
I guess football and music were your two main interests, then, growing up.
By the time I was in high school I'd already been into football for seven or eight years. It was starting to jade me a little bit. I could see a future from my dad in the oil fields. I've always been a survivor and a very resourceful person, so that's what I did: I started gravitating toward my strengths, writing songs and singing and playing music. I knew football wasn't going to get me anywhere, but I had to go play some semi-pro just to get it out of my system.
When was the first time you got paid to play a guitar and sing?
First time I ever got paid for it was at a wedding, right out of high school. We played a wedding and somebody gave us $1,000, and that's where the band came up with the name "Easy Money."
After we went to the taverns, it was $35 a man a night, plus your beer. I never did go to college -- went straight out of high school to work with my dad in the oil fields. I went to Honky Tonk U.
How did you end up in Nashville?
I never did really go there, they sort of came to me. I went [to Nashville] one time for a meeting with [then Capitol Nashville president] Jimmy Bowen. He's pretty legendary in that town. I came in with a bunch of songs, and I found out later he was on the golf course and didn't have time to take a meeting. He put one of his flunkies on me, and the guy kind of spanked me and sent me home.
Harold Shedd [the producer of Alabama and others] heard a tape of me and flew into Oklahoma and heard me play live and signed me to Mercury. I still tease Bowen and say, "You had your chance 25 million records ago."
So basically you got signed off the noise you were making in Oklahoma?
It was regional. We were doing real well in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, Arkansas, that little circuit there. There were seven or eight bands that rotated through there, including a band called Canyon that was really hot, out of Texas. A band called Stallion, a band called Lariat that turned into Ricochet. Little Texas was in that loop, Ricky Lynn Gregg's band was in that loop. Jim Collins, the writer, he had a band that was hot. Part of the Lonestar boys were mixtures, I think, of Southern Wind and Canyon.
It was a great training ground. I don't even think they have that quality of circuit anymore.
I've heard you say you've accomplished your goals in music. Have you sacrificed a lot to do that?
Nothing is accomplished or gained in this world without sacrifice. We're well-provided for, I'm living my dream, I'm getting to help a lot of people that are close to me and dear to me in hundreds of ways, people that deserve it. There are a lot of people I can do things for and fix a lot of problems in my world. It's the best night job in the world.
Let's do a little word association, tell me what comes to mind.
Class act and an American icon.
Do you feel like the perception of you is accurate, or do you care?
Oh, it's inaccurate, and you do care. But there ain't nothing you can do about it, and I'm mature enough to know that you don't sit around and fret over things you can't control.
I showed somebody my 1992 voter's card with "Democrat" on it, they found out me and my dad were lifetime Democrats and it pissed off the liberals in Nashville, because they wanted me to be that right-wing Ted Nugent.
You and Ted did a USO tour together. You're a pretty formidable combination.
If you were to ask Ted about me, he would say my head and heart are in the right place, but I'm so left of him it's not even funny.
Let's talk more about the new album.
I've been putting out an album every year trying to keep DreamWorks afloat before they're sold to Universal. I was kind of considered a cash cow. Then we did a greatest-hits [set], and I ended up having a little time this time to really work on the album, which is the way it ought to be.
I live and die by what I write, so whatever [songs] I wrote last year is what [went] on this album. If three or four of them are single quality and three or four of them aren't, that's what I live with.
I don't go sit in publishing houses like most of the guys and girls do and try to cherry-pick songwriters' songs. I just write 15 or 20 songs and take what I think are the best 10 or 12 and go in and record 'em, throw an album out and live with it. Until that quits working, that's gonna be my plan.
This new album is pretty country.
Yeah, I think this is the most stone-country album I've ever done. I take a lot of pride in knowing that I've accomplished everything I've accomplished. I'm still looked upon in the music circles in our business as kind of an outsider. I think I'm one and 37 at the [Country Music Assn. Awards]. Nobody in the history of the CMAs has a worse record than me. The Bellamy Brothers don't have a worse record than I do.
My point is, I never crossed over. I've been true to what I do, I've never had a pop song or any pop connections. I've strictly done it by living in my little pond.
There have been a few great ones -- [George] Strait, Kenny Rogers, Conway Twitty, Randy Travis, Tim [McGraw] -- that came along as stylists who just sang other people's songs and were good enough to make them their own.
But the people that were songwriters that made impact, listen to some of these names I'm gonna lay on you: Loretta Lynn, look how she's thought of today. Dolly. Willie. Merle. Waylon. Cash. Those big-time songwriters, they all ended up being movie stars, icons, being around for 40 years and they never went away.
And I think that's because songwriting lets your personality bleed through in your music.
Today, if you get past me, Shania and Alan [Jackson]... It's more of, "Get a pretty face, give it a pretty song and let's go see if we can sell some records."