Toby Keith Speaks of New Album, Old Feuds, Other Prospects

In a press conference called to introduce his upcoming album, Unleashed,, Toby Keith spoke candidly on a wide range of topics including his lingering quarrel with ABC-TV newscaster Peter Jennings, his discontent with his former record labels and the prospect of having his own television series. The conference was held Thursday (July 11) at Nashville’s Ocean Way Recording Studio.

Before he took reporters’ questions, Keith and his frequent co-writer, Scott Emerick, sang three selections from the new album, which is due out July 23. The two opened with Keith’s next single, “Who’s Your Daddy,” a wry, cynical ditty sung from the perspective of a “sugar daddy.” Next up was “Beer for My Horses,” which Keith described as a “justice” song and which features Willie Nelson on the album version. The third sampling was “It’s All Good,” a relatively sunny assessment of life in America.

Keith will preview cuts from Unleashed — as well as take viewer requests for his hits — on CMT’s Uncut & Unleashed, Sunday, July 21 at 9 p. m. Eastern time.

Keith and Emerick closed their set with “The Taliban,” a breezy and wickedly whimsical taunt at the recently displaced rulers of Afghanistan. The song — which is not on the upcoming album, Keith stressed — imagines an Afghani husband and wife watching in delight as the religious zealots are routed. Keith said he sometimes performs the song in his stage shows.

Getting Nelson to sing on his album was a career high point, Keith noted, adding that his next goal is to record with Merle Haggard . Keith told reporters that when he first proposed the duet, Nelson asked him the name of the song. Upon hearing it was “Beer for My Horses,” Keith recalled that Nelson’s response was “Oh, s–t. I don’t need to hear [the lyrics]. I’ll do it.” Keith explained that the title comes from the “old rodeo” saying, “Whiskey for my men, beer for my horses,” and is uttered when a tough job has been completed. The song’s hang-‘em-high theme is reminiscent of Charlie Daniels ’ 1989 vigilante rant, “Simple Man.”

Keith pointed out that Unleashed is the first album for which he wrote or co-wrote every song. “I wanted to show I could write an entire album,” he said. Most of these songs, he continued, were written before his current album, Pull My Chain, was released. “I’ve not got one song now for the next album,” he admitted, although he did say that he had recorded two of his songs that were not used in the new album. Keith speculated that his next album would be two or three years distant unless there’s an intervening greatest hits collection.

“Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” was a last-minute addition to the album, according to Keith. He reiterated that he had written this patriotic tribute to his father “more as a statement than a song” but that encouragement from his fans and his record label, DreamWorks, ultimately convinced him to record it. It was this song — which now stands at No. 1 on the country charts — that sparked the feud with Jennings. Keith said he was originally scheduled to sing the song on the ABC-TV Fourth of July special which Jennings was hosting but that Jennings objected to the song’s “angry” tone and vetoed Keith’s appearance.

It was not the cancellation that distressed him, Keith maintained, but rather the network’s official spin that he had never actually been scheduled. While Keith sounds truculent when he sings “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” he discussed its composition and progress calmly and without apparent rancor. He said he used the “boot in your ass” phrase because “if you make it any softer than that, then you’re not as angry as you say you are.” He took issue with radio stations which said the song came out “seven months too late.” “It’s never too late to be angry over what happened,” he insisted.

Joking about the ABC-TV special’s low ratings — it ranked 66th for the week — Keith said, “I got more press out of not doing it than doing it and moving it up to 65th.”

Keith refused to be lured into additional controversy by a reporter who asked him what message he wanted his music to convey. “I’m day to day on what I think about stuff,” he said. He said, for example, that while he might be outraged at people who protest by burning the American flag, “that’s their American right.”

For years, Keith was the perennial also-ran in country music award circles. That changed in 2001 when the Academy of Country Music honored him with its top male vocalist and album of the year trophies. He then went on to win the Country Music Association’s male vocalist of the year title. Keith said the awards that meant the most to him were the album of the year nod and BMI’s proclaiming him its artist-songwriter of the year.

Until he signed to DreamWorks Records in 1999, Keith spent his recording life on Mercury Records and its affiliated labels. He told reporters that he and Mercury never did “see eye to eye.” Now known for his sassy, devil-may-care attitude, Keith contended “the attitude was always there” but that the label had never enabled him to show it sufficiently. “You wouldn’t believe the number of times I heard the name ‘Vince Gill ,’” he said. “They tried to make me into the next Vince Gill.’”

Eventually, Keith said, he became so frustrated with the way Mercury was handling his recordings that he decided to move to DreamWorks, the label headed by his co-producer, James Stroud. “I wrote a six-figure check for those [final] recording sessions,” he asserted, “so I could take them over and sell them to James.”

Stroud, who attended the press conference, said DreamWorks will ship a million copies of Unleashed to record stores, the most the label has ever ventured for one of its country artists. Keith admitted that he would like to have seen more singles released from Pull My Chain. “I can say that about every album I ever did,” he noted. However, he said that he was willing to release the new album because DreamWorks has its own bottom line to take care of and needs new titles to sell.

Keith revealed that he’s had several offers to act in television series. “I can leave tomorrow and go into production on a sitcom,” he said. ‘They told me ‘When you’re ready to do heavier drugs, come and see us.’” (Keith was quick to imply that the drug reference was metaphorical rather than literal and later volunteered that “You could put all the drugs I’ve ever done in a thimble.”) As to the kind of sitcom that interests him, the singer said, “I’d love the idea of [playing] a songwriter … something that shows how inspiration works.” His own favorite sitcom, he said, is Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, primarily because it relies on improvisation rather than scripting.

Keith and Stroud vigorously condemned the Internet piracy of records. Keith said he most objected to its impact on songwriters, who lose mechanical royalties every time an album is copied rather than purchased. He said he had many streams of income — from concerts to merchandise — but that “a songwriter has one paycheck [and] suffers more than anybody.”

“It’s really killing us,” Stroud added, speaking on behalf of record labels. He said that stealing albums via the Internet has a ripple effect — that fewer sales means fewer albums will be recorded, which then results in fewer sessions for musicians. “Our kids have the mentality now,” he lamented, “that music is free.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.