Keith Gladly Brings Kids to Country Music

In this exclusive interview, Toby Keith candidly talks about his attitude, his old songs and his young audience. He also confronts the so-called “feud” with the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, reveals what Alan Jackson whispered to him at the CMA Awards and his touring plans for the future.

CMT: Since we’re doing this for CMT, I wanted to talk about your video, “Who’s Your Daddy?” What do you remember the most about making that video?

TK: The truck is what I remember most. That Ford truck, that big Tonka truck. That’s like a $3 or $4 million project. They put together and built that thing, molded every single piece by hand. It wasn’t like they took a truck and remodeled it. It’s got 28 or 29-inch wheels on it. It’s a fabulous truck, just an unbelievable vehicle.

CMT: What happened to it, do you know?

TK: They use it to show at car shows and stuff.

CMT: I was listening to your album today, and it still strikes me that it’s not as ’in your face’ as your image might lead some people to believe. Are you worried that people who haven’t heard songs like “It’s All Good” or “Losing My Touch,” that people might think of you only as this hell-raiser or a ’say it like it is’ kind of guy.

TK: If you go from “Whiskey for My Men, Beer for My Horses,” “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” and “Go Down to Mexico and Get Drunk,” I think you get enough attitude there, but I also write good reality songs, too. As long as everything is honest. What Unleashed is about is being unleashed from all the record label stops that I’ve had throughout my career. I’m over at a place now where I can make exactly the music I want without any change. That’s what Unleashed means.

CMT: The last couple of hits that you have like “How Do You Like Me Now?!” and “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” and “I Wanna Talk About Me” — are you ever concerned that you’re alienating some of those people that like those past records like “Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine on You” or “Dream Walking”?

TK: You know, the funny thing is, I don’t get any requests for that stuff. The audience rolls over, to some extent, to a great degree, every eight or 10 years. I’ve made eight or nine albums now, and I’ve been in this for 10 years, and your audience rolls over every seven or eight years. Your young people, especially, change. Young people are more apt to not be as loyal to one artist. They grow up and change their minds more about what kind of music they like to listen to. For the most part, the people that were listening in ’93, ’94 and ’95 have gotten older and don’t attend as many concerts and don’t buy as many CDs, so you have to reinvent your audience and appeal to them. Most of the people that come to my shows don’t remember “Who’s That Man” and some of those.

CMT: Are you surprised by the number of young people in your crowd?

TK: Absolutely.

CMT: It seems like you’re one of the few that really draws them in. A friend of mine at the office had a kid that got Unleashed for his seventh birthday present, and he was just tickled to death — he was so excited. Does it strike you as odd that you’ve got kids listening to country music like that?

TK: No, I think it’s what needed to happen. I’m glad to be a part of that, but I think that’s what broke me through. I wasn’t having any luck, country music wasn’t having any kids listening to it. I wasn’t having any success. Part of the reason that I’m having success now is that we’re getting some kids to cross over and listen to what we’re doing. With kids today, everything is so on the edge and in your face on television, radio and the other media that you have to be in their face to get their attention. That’s where I’ve always liked to go musically, and it made a nice connection. I think we’re a big part of why there’s some youth over here making country music flame up.

CMT: You said something I wanted to follow up on. You said you weren’t having any success until recently, but how would you define success? You had a couple of platinum records and some really good No. 1 hits and great videos.

TK: Well, I was never able to headline, I was never able to. … You know, it would take four or five singles. There’s a difference between selling gold and platinum over the course of four singles and coming out and selling 2 or 3 million in five or six months and selling out all your coliseums and your arenas. I wasn’t in a position to have that kind of success. We’re having as much success as anybody right now, but we struggled along, though we had No. 1 records. It’s definitely not due to industry awards because no matter how much success I have, I can’t win those. But I win the fan-voted awards.

CMT: A lot of the superstars have been releasing albums lately, like Tim, Shania and Faith. What do you think of the records? Have you heard the records?

TK: I haven’t yet, but I’m not around Nashville to get an advance copy. I live out here on the ranch in Oklahoma, and I’ve been out of the country for a little bit, so I haven’t heard any of the latest, greatest, but my kids get all that, and I’ll get to hear it.

CMT: I know that fame can be hard to deal with. I was wondering if you could give any insight about how fame can mess with your head, or how it can affect you?

TK: It’s what you make of it. If you put people around you at ease, then they’ll be that way most of the time. You just can’t avoid trouble sometimes, but most times, if you put people at ease around you, and act like your feet are on the ground, and let them know that you’re pretty squarely grounded, then they’ll treat you decent. But if you act like a jackass, they’re going to treat you like one.

CMT: Earlier this year, Natalie Maines said in an interview that she hated your song “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.” Our message boards went crazy after that. Do you think comments like that can get blown out of proportion?

TK: I think the only thing that got blown out of proportion is that they said there was a feud. I barely even commented on the situation. I think she — I’ve been told that she went in some major publications and made four or five [comments] like we were lobbing the ball back and forth. But it’s America. She can think what she wants to about me; I don’t care.

If she makes it a big war, I’ll bury her. She can think about my song what she wants to. If she wants to get personal about it, then I’ll be her Huckleberry. She said what she said, and hey. The greatest thing that I find in it that’s funny is that usually when somebody says something about this song — they open their blowhole and something flies out — they realize real quick, in just a few days, that they probably bit off more than they could chew. Because they start feeling the heat from the military, from families who have sons and daughters preparing to go to Iraq and who are in Afghanistan already and all the conflicts that we’re in.

That’s where I underestimated this song when I wrote it. It was just feelings that I felt, but I didn’t realize that it was an anthem for the military people and how much it’s meant to them. You step on their ground, they starting fighting back at you. So when somebody steps up and throws something out there at random just out of their blowhole that’s really unnecessary, the next time you hear a statement out of them, it’s a little lighter and then it’s retracted a little lighter, and a little lighter. Then Country Weekly comes out that we’ve got a feud. We don’t have no feud. I haven’t made it a feud yet.

It’s a great way to sell magazines, but there’s no truth in it. Somebody asked me one time what I thought about it. I said, ’Look, you’re asking Barry Bonds, a super hit-maker songwriter. That’s what I do, I write songs. I’ve had a string of number ones that I don’t think anybody can take away from me, no matter who you are. I have been BMI songwriter of the year. I am a big-time songwriter, and first and foremost songwriter, so I’m in the big league of that. By you asking me my opinion on what I think of what she said about me, that’s like asking Barry Bonds what he thought about what a softball player said about his swing. You don’t do that. She’s not a songwriter, so we can’t discuss the mechanics of the song. Why don’t you just go down on Second Avenue and pick one of those homeless guys and ask him what he thinks about it? To me it’s the same. And that’s all I’ve commented on. I haven’t said anything about her song “Goodbye Earl” or any of that stuff.

CMT: Is there anything that you would want to say? You’ve got a platform now.

TK: I’m not in to making it a war. I said all I’m gonna say about it. I repeated exactly what I told the Atlanta Constitution when they asked me. I said, ’Man, you’re asking me to respond to something below the radar.’ I’m a songwriter, she’s not, and so she can say my song is ignorant, but it’s ignorant for her to say that because she’s not a songwriter. She said anybody could write ’boots in your ass,’ but she didn’t. She has never written anything that’s been a hit, so it’s ridiculous for me to have to respond to that. Now if Hank Cochran or Merle Haggard or somebody responds, then we’ll sit down and discuss what I could have done better on that song. But I’m not going to get into a catfight with somebody who can’t write a song.

CMT: That song was a No. 1 hit in July, and you’ve been touring for months and months after that. Are you still getting the same reaction you did this summer?

TK: I dare anybody with a big mouth to show up at my show and just stand out there — I’ll give them the stage. I tell you what, I’ll go out and sing “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” and anybody that wants to call it ignorant can walk right out on my stage and I’ll give them the mike, and they can address the audience. I dare them. Bring it on, buddy.

CMT: I don’t think they would live to tell the story.

TK: No, just bring it on. It’s an emotionally moving … . It disturbs me every night how important and emotional people get over that song, and I think it’s just real serious when you respond in a negative way to this song — unless you’re just trying to get a little heat off the hot man.

CMT: That song has been a big story for you, but what’s been the toughest part of this last year, would you say?

TK: I’ve had everything my way. Answering questions about the award shows gets old because they mean more to the fans and more to the people that work behind the scenes. Those are their rewards for their hard work, and when you don’t get them and you know why you don’t get any … . Alan Jackson was a very, very gracious winner. He paid me a huge compliment on the way up to one of his awards. He stopped and paid me a huge compliment.

CMT: What did he say?

TK: He said, “You deserve this award.” Entertainer of the Year.

CMT: Wow, what does that mean, when he says that? How does that make you feel?

TK: It’s just him being a very gracious winner, man. He recognized that I work hard, and I recognize he works hard. I don’t know who I look pissed because I told everybody going in — if you look at the interviews prior to the show — I said I doubt we get out of here with anything. Because there’s a huge powerhouse in Nashville that energizes that, operates that system, and I don’t have no control over that. Just say your serenity prayer and move on. You can’t change anything about that.

CMT: What’s it gonna take for you to win that award?

TK: I don’t think I’ll ever win it, but it means more to the people around it than it does me. I promise you — and I mean this with 100 percent of my heart — if I’m selling out shows and I’m in either the top or one of the top grossing concert tours of the year … . The numbers are still coming in, but I think we had one of the top grossing tours if not the top grossing tour. If you put me there, give me my albums sales I’m having, and go on with my career and I get to write my own songs and sing them … . I don’t ever have to go back except just for the face of maybe my label or my manager or whoever would think we need to be there. You have to understand that, and unfortunately the fans don’t.

CMT: So what can we expect from you touring next year — any big surprises or big news next year for your tour?

TK: No, we’re gonna do more of the same. I’m not gonna load my tour up with a whole bunch of acts trying to sell tickets. I think if the headliner goes in thinking he needs to sign a bunch of acts to sell tickets to make his tour go, then he probably needs to rethink his headline situation. I think you have to be confident enough that when you show up, people are going to want to come see you. I took one act out last year. I took a friend of mine on the acoustic guitar, Paul Thorn, and he did 20 or 30 minutes, and Rascal Flatts came on … . It helped launch their careers some more, and we put some numbers up in some places that had never been put up. I wouldn’t trade that for anything, and you can capitalize every letter on ANYTHING.

CMT: Is there anybody that you would open for?

TK: No. I don’t have to open for anybody anymore. I do my own thing, and I’ve worked real hard to get it that way. If it gets to where I have to start opening for somebody again, I’ll rethink my position and hang it up.

CMT: Even outside of the country world? Is there anybody that you would think your audience and maybe a rock performer’s audience would fit?

TK: I don’t know about that. I’ve got one huge offer to constantly go do movies for one of the largest agencies in Hollywood. Then I have two or three other companies offering up to do sitcoms, and they’re all major ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX kind of stuff. That’s another hill I may want to go climb someday, but right now I’m telling them no, because music is too important to me, and it always will be. But at some point … I have a daughter that’s going to want to pursue a music career, and I could stop and help her with that and retire, at least from the music business. I may still make a couple of albums, but as soon as people quit wanting to see me and hear my music, I’m not gonna beat a dead horse. I’m going to move on.

CMT: So are you going to make a big retirement announcement like Garth did, or are you just going to step aside?

TK: I’ll just step aside. I can’t say that I’ll ever retire. I don’t know. I’m just saying when it gets to where you go out and you don’t sell tickets and you have to start piecing stuff together to make it work, or you quit selling albums and all that, I may just … . If somebody wants to cut a record on me out there, I may bring my top 10 songs in and do the album, but I won’t do much touring or any promotion work to promote it. As long as there is an album and a place, a market which I hope there is, I’ll always being doing this.

CMT: Any New Year’s resolutions this year?

TK: No man, just more of the same. Give me back more of the same — let’s go.