TIMOTHY FINN

How do you like him now? Toby Keith stays true to himself

Updated: 2013-09-12T00:55:40Z

By TIMOTHY FINN

The Kansas City Star

Drinks After Work” is the first single and the title track off Toby Keith’s upcoming album. It’s not so much a drinking song as it is a working-class song about breaking the midweek grind with a happy hour escape.

Keith has recorded plenty of drinking songs, but this one is notable for a few reasons: Keith didn’t write or co-write it, which is rare for him.

“Over the past 20 years, I’ve written all but five or six of my singles,” he told The Star. “This song is different from what we do, but I thought it would fit with what we do live.”

The breezy, midtempo “Drinks After Work” feels of another era, closer to Ronnie Milsap’s “Any Day Now” than so much of what is on country radio these days: songs about dirt roads, pickup trucks, fishing holes and small-town values, set to arrangements that are more Southern rock than traditional country.

The world of country music is changing, as it always does and has, Keith acknowledged, but he’s not about to change with it just for the sake of trying to keep up.

“I remember when I came up in the ’90s, some of the older guys who had been around for a couple decades griped about how it was changing,” he said. “Yeah, it always changes. I told myself then I wouldn’t be one of those guys.

“I don’t listen to modern radio much at all. I have satellite radio. Whether I’m boating or trucking or motorcycling or flying, I keep it on Channel 56, Willie’s Roadhouse: nothing but classic country from 1950 to the mid-1970s.

“So unless it’s someone who has opened for me, like Eric Church, Kipp Moore or Blake Shelton, I don’t really know who or what is on the charts. And nothing is going to make me lean toward writing a certain way just to fit something. That’s not how I write.”

“Drinks” was going to be one of the album’s singles, Keith said, but not necessarily its first. He was finishing and fine-tuning the album in late May when tornadoes roared through Oklahoma. One of them, an F5 tornado, destroyed much of Moore, where Keith was raised.

“I had to quit recording,” he said. “My sister got hit, my sister-in-law got hit, friends and relatives got hit. Then we organized that big benefit concert. That all took about a month.”

The relief concert was at the University of Oklahoma stadium in Norman in early July. Several of Keith’s fellow Oklahomans also performed: Garth Brooks, Ronnie Dunn and, via satellite from Nashville, Carrie Underwood. The event raised more than $2 million for the Central Oklahoma Tornado Relief Fund. About 10 days before the concert, he released the single.

“I got way behind on the record.” Keith said. “I only had four songs completely done at that point and (‘Drinks’) was one of them. The promotional staff at the label liked it, so I said, ‘All right, put it out.’”

“Drinks” made a splash on Billboard’s hot country songs chart, but not a big one. It peaked at No. 30; on the country airplay chart it peaked at No. 23. But these days, numbers like that don’t mean too much to someone committed to one purpose: making his own music the way he wants to make it.

“I release an album every fall,” he said. “I start to record around March and have it ready by the end of June. I’ve always been consistent that way.

“Now, if you’re going to put an album out every year, you have to write every year. You can’t take three years off. I’m a songwriter. I write songs. Then I cut them and record them and I live with them. If it’s not as good as the guy who went through town and cherry-picked the 10 best songs from the best songwriters and I get beat up on the charts and beat up on ticket sales, well, I’m still riding my horses.

“A lot of people in (Nashville) make a good living playing both stations, country and pop. Except for ‘Red Solo Cup,’ I’ve never had a song on pop radio. I rock out sometimes, but I’ve stayed about 80 percent traditional country.”

“Red Solo Cup” was one of those other singles written by someone else. It’s a tribute to the plastic cups widely used at parties. It appeared on Keith’s album “Clancy’s Tavern,” released in October 2011. It was covered an episode of “Glee” that season.

“Solo” is his best-selling single ever (more than 2 million) and his highest-charting single on the Billboard Hot 100: It peaked at No. 15. It is also his most-played song on Spotify, having already cracked the 5 million mark. On YouTube, the song’s unedited video has been viewed more than 21 million times and received a wide array of comments, positive and critical.

Like previous Keith videos, such as “I Love This Bar,” in which patrons throw beer bottles at him and his band, and “As Good As I Once Was,” where he gets punched out in a bar fight, the video to “Solo” gets a comedic treatment that puts Keith in a light that is either funny or sophomoric: He is at what looks like a wild frat kegger, inebriated and mingling with people half his age, young adults fighting for their right to party.

Keith said videos like that are about showing a side of himself that only his close friends typically see — the part that doesn’t take himself seriously.

“You can’t be afraid to laugh at yourself,” he said. “When you do, it gives you more window to laugh at others. And part of being an entertainer is having a personality you can bite into.

“But, you know, there will always be haters no matter what, whether you’re a singer, a movie star, a baseball player or the mayor of a small city. People will hate because you’re successful. So you can’t try to please everybody.”

He has been dealing with that issue at least since 2003, back when he got embroiled in a below-the-belt sparring match with the Dixie Chicks as the Iraq war was unfolding. In 2001, he’d recorded “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” in response to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and the death of his father, a military veteran, earlier that year. His perspective on that now?

“You get into a situation where your father was a veteran of the military and you’re raised to respect veterans and your government tells its people they have to fight this war so the military has to get in gear and go,” he said. “Then you hear some of the talking heads talking about how bad it is for us to go, so you get angry and write a song about it.

“You’re a lifelong Democrat and after one song, you’re branded, getting all the check-marks on the right-hand side. You’re Sean Hannity and Ted Nugent.

“If our government sends our troops somewhere, I’m going to pull for them to win and thank them for all they do for us and feel blessed to be born in this county.

“I really don’t fit into any agenda. I stand on my own beliefs. I left the Democratic Party about seven years ago. No one in my family has ever been Republican, but I’m the first sire of my pedigree to not be a Democrat. I’m registered as an independent.

“But things are so divided now that there really is no middle. Fox News finds as much wrong in what I do as CNN and MSNBC but for different reasons. I don’t fit completely into either agenda.

They’re like, ‘Whoa, he’s pulling for the troops, but he doesn’t care about gay marriage?’ So one story is running on Fox saying I support gay marriage, which I never said. I said I don’t care who someone marries. It’s a live-and-let-live deal for me.

“So I get that on one side and on the other a story about me wanting us to go back to war again.

“If you asked Sammy Hagar or Willie Nelson, two of my good buddies, they’d say I was a conservative guy. Ted Nugent would tell you I’m a hippie. I’m somewhere in the middle.”

His friendship with Nelson, a staunch supporter of the political left, goes back a ways. The song “I’ll Never Smoke Weed With Willie Again” has been a permanent part of Keith’s live repertoire and evidence, he said, that he isn’t rooted in any political agenda.

“We do two military songs at my shows,” Keith said. “And the rest is about drinking and a song about smoking weed. You can leave after an hour and 45 minutes and not hear a military song.”

Spoken like someone who knows the difference between freedom and independence and has learned to appreciate both.

Saturday

Toby Keith performs Saturday night at the three-day Flatlands Country Music Festival at Sporting Park. Miranda Lambert and Kellie Pickler are also on the Saturday night bill.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/phinnagain. Read more from him at our music blog, Back to Rockville, at KansasCity.com.

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