An Evening With Toby Keith, The Happy American

You know your first live TV special is going well when Merle Haggard calls in to request a song and your producer asks you to do an extra 30 minutes. These were but two of the “bouquets” tossed to Toby Keith during the broadcast Sunday (July 21) of CMT’s Live, Uncut & Unleashed. The show re-airs Friday (July 26) at 8 p.m. ET and Saturday (July 27) at 1 p.m. ET.

Staged in-the-round at a studio in Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House, the show featured Keith and his three-man band performing on-the-spot requests that were e-mailed, phoned in or made directly from the studio audience.

Keith came on stage to a standing ovation about three minutes before the show went on the air. He wore his characteristic white hat, gray pants and a gray shirt with the tail out. “Hi, y’all,” he said amiably. “We’re sittin’ on go. We’re anticipating this.” Flanking him on stage were guitarists Rich Eckhardt and Scott Emerick and drummer Dave McAfee. The music was strictly acoustic.

An e-mail request for “I’m Just Talkin’ About Tonight” from a male fan got the show underway. “[This song] says what most men feel but never speak,” wrote the e-mailer. “Too bad they’re not as honest as you.” The crowd clapped happily along to the beat, while Keith’s manager, T. K. Kimbrell, stood in the aisle shouting and whistling.

Host Katie Cook told the audience that Keith’s new album, Unleashed, was shipping platinum — meaning that a million copies would be sent to record stores — and asked the singer what it was like when he first tried to break into the music business. He replied that he came to Nashville with demos of six songs he had written. “They kind of kicked my teeth in and told me I couldn’t write,” he recalled. The bright side? Four of those songs eventually became No. 1 country hits, he said, and the other two wound up as album cuts. Speaking of his early encounters with record executives, Keith said, “I had trouble convincing whoever was in charge that I was big daddy.”

This last remark served as a natural segue into “Who’s Your Daddy,” Keith’s second single from the new album in stores July 23.

“Hi, Toby,” cooed a female caller from Alabama. “Hi, baby,” said the suave Mr.Keith. The caller asked for the ultra-romantic “You Leave Me Weak,” and as Keith sang it, a handful of couples climbed down from the bleachers and began slow dancing around the edge of the stage.

Cook inquired where Keith’s family stood in the scheme of things. He began his answer by wishing his wife a happy birthday and then spoke about his 16-year-old daughter, Krystal, who wants to be a recording artist — in spite of Daddy’s own formidable reservations. Keith said his family grounds him in reality, even as he enjoys touring. “Blood is thicker than water,” he observed, “but my brotherhood on the road is important too.”

A fan from the audience asked Keith what it was like to record with Willie Nelson , as he did on one cut in the new album. Keith told how he had approached Nelson during a jam session to ask if he would consider doing a duet. “Send me the lyrics,” Nelson said. Then he asked, “What’s the name of the song?” “’Beer for My Horses,’” Keith responded. “I’ll do it,” said Nelson. “Here’s to you, Willie,” Keith shouted as he launched into the song.

The next request was for “How Do You Like Me Now?!,” and when he sang, the crowd confirmed that it liked him a whole lot, stomping, whistling and singing along through the chorus. “You da man,” shouted one fan. “You rock, Toby,” screamed another. By this time, the show seemed as loose as a sound check. “Woof! Woof! Woof!” chorused a contingent from the balcony, waving frantically to get Keith’s attention.

During the segment originally intended to end the show, Cook led up to Keith’s performance of “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue” by asking about the song’s origin and how it had plunged Keith into controversy. (ABC-TV had asked Keith to sing the song for its Fourth of July special, but Jennings nixed his performance, ostensibly because the song was “too angry.”)

Keith said he wrote the song following the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks more as a tribute to his father, a World War II veteran, than as a commercial venture. “I didn’t teach it to my band,” he explained, “[I thought] I’ll just do it for the military people.” At the mention of “military people,” the crowd stood and gave a prolonged cheer. Ultimately Keith decided that the song had wider appeal.

Referring politely to his nemesis as “Mr. Jennings,” Keith concluded, “The bottom line is I really don’t care what he thinks about [the song].” An e-mailing fan reassured the singer, “We were angry, and we had the right to feel that way.”

Keith spoke of how his travels to military bases in other countries had convinced him of America’s uniqueness and the need to preserve it. “We’ve got it so good over here,” he mused, “that it’s almost like Disneyland.”

Live, Uncut & Unleashed was scheduled to run for 60 minutes. As the first hour of the show neared its end, a soldier from nearby Fort Campbell, Ky., stood and asked Keith to sing “Courtesy.” This request again brought the crowd to its feet and culminated with the chanting of “USA, USA” after the song was over. Cook asked if he could stay on — and the crowd, which by this time was in full party mode, roared its approval.

During the final half-hour, a fan e-mailed a request for Keith to remove his hat “so we can see your hair.” He complied. A caller from Colorado then asked for “You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This.” Dancers crowded the floor for this one.

Then came the Big Call. “My name is Hag,” said the familiar but disembodied voice. “I just wondered why you ain’t done ‘The Fightin’ Side of Me.’ They say you know all my songs.” Grinning broadly, Keith seemed both surprised and delighted by Haggard’s call. He had earlier told Cook that his musical idols were Nelson, Haggard and Roger Miller. “Merle is the original rebel patriot,” Keith proclaimed to the audience just before he and his band rendered a letter-perfect cover of Haggard’s 1970 diatribe against protestors of the Vietnam War. “I want to say that Merle Haggard’s song was the original angry-American song,” Keith remarked.

Cook led into the final song, “It’s All Good,” by asking Keith what he would advise others who are trying to start careers in music. “All those little jaded things you hear turn out to be true,” Keith admitted. He said the best advice he had gotten and could give was, “Stay true to yourself.”

Set List:

“I’m Just Talkin’ About Tonight”
“I Wanna Talk About Me”
“Who’s Your Daddy”
“You Leave Me Weak”
“Beer for My Horses”
“How Do You Like Me Now?!”
“Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)”
“You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This”
“The Fightin’ Side of Me”
“It’s All Good”

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