Toby Keith Wants to Talk About His Career

One of America’s most outspoken artists appeared in Nashville at last week’s Country Radio Seminar during a session titled A Decade of Hits: An Intimate Chat With Toby Keith. In the first of a two-part series, Keith tells radio programmers his thoughts on politics, fast food and the lack of personality in today’s country music.

After a lengthy discourse about his hit “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” Toby Keith was finally asked in an interview at Country Radio Seminar about his opinion of a possible war.

“I’m as anti-war as the next guy,” Keith replied. “I don’t think we should ever fight. I mean, I’m for peace and I wish that my kids never had to ever go fight. But when you do fight, I think the longer you wait and draw it out, it gives your enemy a better chance to prepare for you, and it puts our boys and girls in more danger.”

Keith answered numerous questions — both silly and serious — during the 90-minute interview with radio host Blair Garner on Friday (Feb. 21) in Nashville. The Oklahoma-born star reflected on his decade-long career to an audience of country radio personnel.

In a refreshingly candid manner, Keith declared that he quit making fun of former President Clinton’s sexual scandals in concert after an eye-opening visit to the White House about a month before the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Keith was struck by the busy schedule and intense pressure the President faces — no matter which party he’s affiliated with.

“I was raised Democrat, but I vote for the best person for the position,” Keith said. “I’m grateful that Bush is in there now. I’m grateful that we don’t have Clinton or Gore or somebody at this time in our life.”

Asked about his father H.K. Covel’s death, Keith recalled that he got the difficult call before taking the stage at a casino in Wisconsin in March 2001. Covel was killed in a hit-and-run traffic accident in Norman, Okla., after riding home from a hometown barbecue.

“He would come out and ride the bus, and he was like everybody’s hero. The good thing for me, I think, is that it broke everybody down so much that somebody had to be strong. And it gave me the power to step in and say, ’Hey man, we can’t do anything for him right now. He wouldn’t want us to miss this show.’ Everybody sucked it up,” Keith said. “God has a way of making it work for everybody. I don’t think He ever puts anything on you that you can’t take.”

He blames the tabloids on influencing the judge’s verdict to impose little more than community service on Jeannie Sparlin who was driving the car that collided with Covel’s. It remains unclear which driver crossed the median, initiating the crash.

“She (Sparlin) was the mother of a 7-year-old, and she’s got a good job,” Keith said. “None of my family wanted to crucify her or send her to prison. We wanted to know the truth, and they never told us the truth. That’s all I wanted. We got small-town railroaded by a sorry-ass judge and we left.”

Keith added, “[The judge] said, ’She’s been through enough over this tabloid stuff,’ and I said, ’Hey, if you kill somebody and you run. …’ The guy she killed, he taught his kids to stop, get out and do the right thing. You deserve to be on the front of the tabloids when you break the law.”

Taking a tangent away from legal talk, Keith off-handedly revealed he’s not too fond of fast food either. Complaining about parents suing McDonald’s “because Big Macs made their kids overweight,” Keith confided, “You shouldn’t even feed that s— to your kids.”

When the applause from the audience died down, Keith added, “I can only endorse something I believe in. Jack Daniel’s? Bring it on.”

Garner used the brief moment of levity to ask Keith about his recent rise to superstardom. Keith said he attributes the boost to his bold personality.

“If you went back and looked in my old cassette boxes, which I’ve tried to keep as many as I can, it was Charlie Daniels , it was Merle Haggard , it was Willie Nelson and a Dolly Parton album or two. It was Earl Thomas Conley , Waylon Jennings , Bob Seger, the Eagles. The common thread that runs through all that music is that they were personalities. They all wrote their own music and expressed that [personality] through their music.

“Obviously, all of these people I just named pretty much went on to be TV stars, went on to be personalities as well as singers. Very few of the people who don’t write very much, like Kenny Rogers , ever step to that level. But the other side — the Willies, the Waylons, Johnny Cash , Dolly Parton — they can have it all if they want it, because that’s what people grasp on to. There’s as much to what’s behind the music as there is to the music.

“This town has a lot of music and obviously most of it doesn’t work. They throw 200 artists out there a year and only one or two stick. It’s set up for failure and only a few break through. I look at what we have today, and I don’t think there’s enough of that personality-driven singer-songwriter in the mix anymore. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel with me. I really feel comfortable and confident when I go into a project because I feel like I’ve cut me out a niche that nobody else brings to the table. It’s a piece of cake for me.”

After talking about Keith’s involvement with the upcoming artist Scott Emerick, Garner asked, “Change is not something you’re afraid of, is it?”

“Oh no, no,” Keith answered. “Let it change. You know, I’m one of the only big record sellers in our industry that doesn’t get crossover airplay. … Back in the late ’90s, we tried to remix some things and get that to work, but to me, it waters the song down.”

Garner noted, “As soon as you open your mouth, you are a country boy.”

“I’m comfortable with that,” Keith replied. “It’s hard to answer through your position in the album sales world if somebody goes, ’So-and-so sold more albums than you.’ Well, it’s hard to say, ’Here’s my window. I work in this one country window, and you work in the same country window that I work in, but you also work in the AC window, in the pop window.’ If you index everything somehow, I’m very proud that I’m just country radio. I think we’ve been allowed to stretch out and reach the G. Gordon Liddys and the Wolf Blitzers, and banged Peter Jennings around a little bit. I think that has brought people to country music.”

Keith is reluctant to equate crossover success with selling out, however.

“If that’s what you want, then go get that,” Keith says. “There’s nothing more that I would love [than] for ’Who’s Your Daddy?’ to get played across the street [in other radio formats], but it’s not going to happen for me and I just have to live with that. I’m not going to sell out myself musically, or water my music down, to go over there. I could never do that. That’s my opinion of me. Country is always what I’m going to do, and that’s what I’m always going to be, and that’s what I’ve got to deal with.”

Read the second part of this two-part series, Toby Keith Praises Merle, Buck and Snoop.

Craig Shelburne has been writing for since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.