Talk Talk: Toby Keith Unplugged

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Toby Keith Covel knows from hits: The country star's new album, "That Don't Make Me a Bad Guy," yields his 14th No. 1 single of the new millennium in "She Never Cried in Front of Me."

To non-country fans, of course, the 47-year-old artist is best known for a single song: "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," the post-9/11 anthem that touched off a a war of words with the Dixie Chicks, whose singer, Natalie Maines, called the song "ignorant."

Not that Keith isn't outspoken himself.

Calling from his home in Oklahoma, the singer/singer/label owner/armpit-shaver/actor ("Beer for My Horses" is his latest film) talked about presidential politics, lyrics about lynching, his image, balladeering, global warming, the Dixie Chicks and more.

The interview is inside.

On the title track of your new album you sing, "I'm only as good as I gotta be/That don't make me a bad guy." Autobiographical?
I would say so, yeah. But it's tongue in cheek. It's just a bunch of little things -- like drinking cheap whiskey in a paper cup, feeling clean in a dirty shirt, being dangerous, cantankerous -- that might be controversial but don't make me a bad guy.

Does the perception of who you are match the reality?
It depends on who you ask, I guess. Down in Hollywood, I'd be a war monger; among the military, I'd be a hero. I speak my mind and stand by it. I'm a person who can't be bought, you know what I mean? But you don't know what people are going to perceive. We live in such an ADD-headline world; there's so much of this stuff going on.

Prime example: I went to Iraq, which I do every year, and I talked to Gen. Petraeus and five other generals. In May, I already knew the war was turning the corner. But the media was saying, "We're losing the war, time to get the troops out." I already knew it was turning around. They'd given Mosul back and the 4th Infantry Division was marching through Sadr City. All this to turn Iraq into a place where you could buy Red Bull and flat-screens.

In my pre-interview with Fox, I said that soon things would be turning the corner in Iraq and we'd need to focus on turning around Afghanistan. But the feed wasn't working. I could hear them but they couldn't hear me. Before the break, a headline pops up on Fox: "Is Toby Keith singing a different tune about the Iraq war?" If you're a soldier being deployed for a third time and you're walking through an airport and you see that headline, what are you going to think?

Six years ago, I had that song with Willie [Nelson], "Beer for My Horses," about guys riding horses, getting a guy from the saloon, bringing him out and killing him. "Grandpappy told my pappy: 'Back in my day, son/A man had to answer for the wicked that he done.'" Well, I go and do the movie. I go on TV singing that song to promote the movie. And all of the sudden, one of the liberal web sites -- which I'm not going to name, because I don't want to give them any more attention -- it pops up saying I've got a new song about lynching blacks and Jews. And they put me up there along with a picture of a black guy hanging and a Jew hanging. You can't defend yourself against everything in this media-driven world.

But I basically have all these bloggers at my fingertips, doing my work for me. I didn't do but one conservative show when I put out my movie. I did Stephen Colbert, who is a great guy and a friend. But it's a spoof of Bill O'Reilly, so the liberals tune in to watch him hammer conservatives. I went on with Alan Colmes. I did all these liberal shows knowing that I could create controversy to promote my movie. Instead of us spending $5 million promoting it, I talked about the lynching controversy. It went so far in the news and had all these people blogging about it that Ford, who I've had an endorsement with for six years, asks, "Is everything okay?" I told them, "Yeah, I'm just promoting this movie."

The media reports that you were supporting Barack Obama weren't accurate, were they?
No. I said he had a chance to win as the party's best candidate since Clinton. I'm a lifetime Democrat, but I just jumped ship on the Democratic Party. I went down and registered as an independent. I'm not saying that Obama isn't qualified and can't do a great job; I think both candidates are the best choices we've had in years. I'm just embarrassed that the Democrats are embracing the assault on Sarah Palin instead of denouncing it. It makes me pull for her because I've seen them attack me. But it doesn't bother me when they do it to me because it makes me more money and makes me more famous.

I know it's not right to profile Muslim people in the United States, but I know that people are going to. You can't tell me that if a guy in Muslim dress gets on a plane that people aren't going to look harder at him than they usually do. I understand that profiling is bad and wrong. It upsets me. I wish leaders of their mosques would get up on TV all the time and say: "We denounce extreme terrorism. We're Americans who practice the Muslim faith, but we're completely against this radical view of killing Christians and Jews." But they don't do that.

Well, I see the same thing in a different form in with Sarah Palin. Everybody has slammed her, from "Saturday Night Live" to the newspapers to CNN. That kind of irresponsibility slams on me. You can't turn on a TV show where somebody's not running a spoof on her. Total disrespect. She has children, one of whom is pregnant. Big deal? Everybody in my neighborhood is that way.

I don't like extremes on either side. I long for the days of John F. Kennedy. I voted for Clinton two times. I didn't care for Gore or Kerry, so I voted for Bush twice. I wasn't a fan going in, but I liked his dad. We probably do need some change right now, but it could be McCain. I want somebody to get rid of all of this corruption in welfare and medicare. McCain's not my favorite candidate ever, and I really want Obama to be all that he can be.

But the thing that bothers me the most about Obama, to tell you the truth -- it ain't the Ayers thing, because I don't know enough about it, and it ain't his preacher. It's the fact that he doesn't vote across his ticket. That's too political for me. You've gotta vote right wrong on some of the issues. With a Senate and Congress made up of a majority of Democrats, and a president who never votes across his ticket, what are we going to get? I'm sure the Bush-haters will like that, but not the soldiers.

But don't listen to what I say. Don't listen to what Oprah or anybody else says. Go make your own decision.

You grew up in a family of hardcore Southern Democrats. What would your late father and grandfather say if they knew you'd voted for Republicans?
That the apple didn't fall too far from the tree. I think my dad would vote McCain. I think my granddad would be a lot harder to convince. But you've got to admit that the Democratic Party doesn't resemble the party of John Kennedy. I held on and held on. My brother is a Baptist preacher in Florida, and he bailed out 10 years ago and went straight Republican. I'm not that extreme. I disagree with the Republican Party, too. We need a third party, the American Party.

Your dad used to say, "We don't have enough money to be Republicans." Guess that changed, eh? Forbes says you earned $48 million between June 2007 and June 2008, more than anybody else in country music.
My dad said: "Son, we never was rich enough." When you're in the South and growing up and everybody around you is poor and the government will come in and rescue you, it's a lot easier to feel that way - especially if you served in the military, like he did, and those benefits were there. But it's a different time now. That Democratic Party had some good conservatives in it. They're still there; my friends here in Oklahoma are all Democrats. We helped get Brad Henry elected [as governor]. All of my Democratic friends hunt, carry guns and fish. That's my dad. That's the old-school Democrat.

The Country Music Association awards are coming up, and you're out in the cold yet again. Zero nominations. Did you insult somebody's mother or something?
It started way back. When I first came to town, in 1992, I shook all the hands, did all the necessary political stuff. I had a No. 1 song with "Should've Been a Cowboy," a No. 5 with "He Ain't Worth Missing." "Wish I Didn't Know Now" and "A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action" were hits. I sold over a million albums, right out of the box. How many people had bigger breakouts than that in 1993-1994? The easiest award to win at the CMAs should've been the Horizon Award, because it's just for newcomers. There's five people in the category. How many nominations did I get? None. How do you do that? I'd done a major tour with Brooks & Dunn, just finished a tour with Shania Twain, and I'm not in the top five newcomers of the year?

And I didn't get anything through the '90s. Then, 2000 rolls around, "How Do You Like Me Now?!" hits and I finally win an award. One. [Male vocalist of the year, 2001.] The next three years, I sell 20 million albums, I'm nominated for a bunch of CMAs every single year. And how many did I win? None. [Actually, one, in 2005, for video of the year, a minor award.]

I get to thinking: "This is impossible." How can you be the No. 1 ticket-seller, No. 1 album-seller, Academy of Country Music's entertainer of the year with more CMT nominations than anybody, BMI songwriter of the year, American Music Awards winner, Billboard -- all of them -- and not win? And then they blackballed me. These last two-three years, I haven't been nominated. Two years ago, I had BMI's most-played song of the year, "As Good as I Once Was." Was it nominated for a CMA? No.

Ironically, when it comes to the CMAs, you're in the same boat now as the Dixie Chicks.
Yeah, but for different reasons.

You and the Chicks were supposed to appear together in a TV commercial about global warming, but you couldn't get the scheduling straight and the spot was canceled.
Al Gore called me about it. He heard what I said, that it's ridiculous for the left and the right to be so agenda-driven. If we think there's evidence that the planet is warming and it's something we're doing, don't just sweep it under the rug. Don't say Al Gore's a dumbass for doing this, and don't say he's smart for doing it just because it fits your agenda. Go out and see if there's enough evidence that polar bears are dying and the polar caps are melting because of emissions from cars.

Now, I'm not promoting it; I have to educate myself. Al Gore said, "Would you do a commercial? I'd like you to do it with the Chicks." I didn't have anything against that. The Chicks [had] attacked me, and after a week of that, and I finally reared up and said, "[Expletive] you guys." I'm a big-time songwriter. If Willie Nelson wants to tell me a song I write is stupid and ignorant, that's one thing. But you have to be able to write a song first to critique one of mine. If somebody who can't write a song does it? Barry Bonds doesn't worry about a softball player critiquing his swing. They kept firing, and I kept firing back, and it blew up in my face. When I reared up, I became the bad guy. But in the long run, I didn't get harmed nearly as bad as they did. And it's no big deal. I never even think about it. And the Al Gore thing never came to be because of scheduling.

Had you actually done it, what do you think you would've said to them at the beginning of the shoot? Were you ready to officially bury the hatchet?
I was just gonna take it as it came. But I've always got my dukes up. If I walk into a room, I don't need to say anything. If anybody has the courage to come talk to me, they'll get what they get. If they're nice, they'll get the nicest guy. But if you wanna come and be a [expletive] and you want to spout off and disrespect me, you'll be standing back in a few seconds, going: "What the hell did I do that for?" It won't be a pleasant conversation.

Are you the toughest dude in country music?
I'm in my 40s, so I ain't as good as I once was. But I could hold my own. I never thought that anybody who went around and talked about it was really tough, anyway. You don't have to whip everybody's ass to be tough. You just have to be ready.

Do you feel like the country establishment in general has a problem with you? You're still scoring hits, including yet another No. 1 with "She Never Cried in Front of Me" from the new album. But there was a time, from about 2000 to 2004, when every single you released was a threat to reach No. 1, with 11 out of 13 songs topping Billboard's country chart.
For 52 weeks of the first five years of this decade, I was sitting at No. 1. But I didn't win any CMAs! [Laughs.] I'm sure there's some people who have agendas. That's why my friend Rodney Carrington won't say anything political in his shows. He says, "I don't want anybody to hate me." You can't tell me there's radio programmers out there who aren't liberal and make me earn my stripes on each record. But then you've gotta say there are some guys who do support me and give me breaks. So it's a perfect balance.

I may have lost a million fans over "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue," but I may have gained 10 million. It never did effect my record sales and my career, and I would do it again tomorrow. I was so angry. The part I could never get the Chicks and the people who support them to understand is, the terrorists wanted them dead too. They want me dead, they want them dead, they want Israel to disappear. Don't flatter yourself by thinking they only want me dead for writing that song. They want everybody in this culture dead. It was a song pushing everything in, saying, "Here we go."

You sing a lot of macho songs -- and, of course, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" is the one tune that people who don't know jack about your music would be able to identify. But for my money, you're one of the best balladeers in contemporary country. Would you please do a little more sensitive-guy crooning?
You know, I did a thing a few years ago when I was just white hot, when I couldn't do wrong. I put a song out called "Rock You Baby" that was one of those big power-ballad crooning things. And we struggled with it. Radio shoots for 30-to-55 year-old old females. You'd think any love ballad sung by somebody they support on every other song would be a no-brainer. But that didn't work.

"Love Me If You Can" -- well-written song, well-sung song, sounds good on the radio, and it went to No. 1. But it didn't sell any units. Then I come back with something as simple and easy to write as "She's a Hottie," it only goes to 13, but the downloads are through the roof. It's a combination of figuring out what's going to work and what isn't. "Love Me If You Can" is a big song, but when I do it in my show, it's kind of where everybody gets up to get a beer and take a leak.

When I saw you performing at Nissan Pavilion, I just about spit out my beer when you raised your arms and revealed a pair of clean-shaven pits. Manscape much?
On those summer tours, you get so hot and sweaty. When I come off the stage, I have to dump water out of my boots. You just want to shave your head and get down like a swimmer, you know what I mean? I think it's funny that you noticed that. You don't have a man-crush, do you? You want to know if I shave anything else?

Not necessarily. But since you offered...
Gotta keep the pipes clean! [Laughs.]

By J. Freedom du Lac |  October 31, 2008; 6:51 AM ET Awards , Interviews , Politics , Screeds
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Comments

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Ya know, that's pretty much what I always thought about Toby Keith, pugnaciously independent dude, and probably a fun person to have a few beers with. I certainly have my disagreements with him, but he doesn't strike me as someone who's going to throw a snit fit if you disagree with him.

Though I will also say I don't think the Dixe Chicks have been harmed at all by everything that has happened. They've changed the audience a bit, but they certainly not hurting for money.

Posted by: EricS2 | October 31, 2008 11:21 AM

Who can anybody NOT like a guy who describes one of his songs as the one where everybody gets up and takes a leak? That's hysterical. The Dixie Chicks could learn a little about self-deprecating humor from ol' Toby.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | November 1, 2008 9:35 AM

Toby Keith is a consummate performer. Having had the honor of attending multiple concerts I can offer only praise. His “agenda” is to support his country and its troops. He does not use it as a political or career promotion; Toby is Toby! Several years ago, I attended his performance at Nissan Pavilion. I had taken the case containing my husband’s casket flag and his Vietnam medals. I wanted to hold it up when Toby sang “American Soldier”. Toby supports ALL troops; not those just actively protecting our country today. He HONORS them. When the case was held up, he took it and held it above his head. I always loved and respected him and his message but from that moment on I KNEW he was exactly as I imagined; someone who respects and honors ALL those who “do what they do” to keep us free. Forget the CMA (it’s their loss!); forget the Dixie Chicks (another story altogether), forget Toby’s armpits (he’s man enough to answer this comment factually, not worrying about “political correctness”); just buy a ticket and watch a Toby Keith performance; you’ll leave proud to live in this country knowing we have performers not afraid to say exactly what they believe in; Toby is the most HONEST and UPFRONT one could ever have the HONOR to support. Keep up the support, Toby!

Posted by: annetp | November 1, 2008 1:09 PM

Totally aside from the fact that Toby Keith has far less talent than he thinks he does, he is far from an expert on politics, war, or anything else. I'd be more impressed if he'd just shut up and sing--but no more inclined to listen.

Posted by: ktartiste | November 2, 2008 10:39 AM

He's pretty funny but he's walking a fine line between pointing out a legitimate problem with the CMAs and being the Kanye West of country music with all that talk about not winning any awards.

And is he trying to say the Dixie Chicks can't write songs? They have the most beautiful music ever, their last two CDs were full of amazing songs from end to end.

Posted by: websterwalter | November 6, 2008 4:06 PM

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