Toby Keith Praises Merle, Buck and Snoop

During a Q&A session with radio personality Blair Garner during the recent Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, Toby Keith answered questions about his career in music –and one about his short-lived career as a semi-professional athlete. Here’s the second part of a two-part feature on Keith who joins Pamela Anderson to co-host the CMT Flameworthy 2003 Video Music Awards on April 7 in Nashville.

Toby Keith , then known as Toby Keith Covel (his real name), worked in the oil fields after high school graduation. Three years later, the oil boom crashed. “We were all without work,” he recalled. “I was picking up construction jobs, stuff like that.”

So the 6-foot-5 singer joined the semi-pro football team known as the Oklahoma City Drillers and stayed for two seasons.

“They had scouts come by every day to check out the 300 guys in camp,” he said. “They carried a 45-man traveling squad. I made the 45-man traveling team, starting on defensive end, and I was the only guy on the whole team that didn’t have previous college experience.” Keith laughed, adding, “I went to Honky-Tonk U.”

Keith also toured the Southwest in a country band Easy Money from 1984 to 1988. A promising five-song demo led to his solo debut on Mercury Records in 1993. His first hit, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” reached No. 1, paving the way for a dozen more Top 10 hits on the label. Still, it was a love-hate relationship punctuated by label shake-ups and disagreements over his image. After releasing a greatest hits album, Keith parted with Mercury in 1999.

In the midst of turning in platinum albums and filming several striking videos for the label, Keith points to one of his songs that got away.

“‘Tired’ is probably my favorite song I’ve ever written,” said Keith, now 41. The tune appeared on his 1997 album Dream Walkin’. “It’s the kind of song that if you’re in a songwriting circle with Paul McCartney, Billy Joel or somebody like that, and they passed you the guitar … if Paul just sang ‘Let It Be,’ I’d sing ‘Tired.’ I feel that strongly about it. It just may have been too artsy-fartsy for mainstream.”

Keith promptly added, “The other one I missed on, that I thought was going to be huge, was ‘We Were In Love.’ It was a big No. 1 song but it was pretty much just a big radio hit. [Editor’s note: On Billboard, it peaked for two weeks at No. 2 in 1997.] It didn’t sell a five-gallon bucket of CDs. It was a three- or four-octave vocal performance, and it was the biggest vocal performance I ever did. The guys who wrote it had pitched it all over town and, believe it or not, everybody said they couldn’t sing it. It took every note in my repertoire to even hit it. It’s a big bad boy, and you don’t want to sing it with a cold.”

Asked how the record industry has changed in the last 10 years, Keith said, “I think in the old days, artists got more of an opportunity to do their own thing and just be what they are, and live with it. Because you can live with failure, if you give it your best effort, easier than you can by compromising and having so-so success. Because that’s the only thing that ever happens in those compromised situations. I think the industry has its thumb on the artists too much.”

Keith was to quick to add, “But not me. I have the best of everything at DreamWorks. James Stroud is my [record label] president and my producer. He watched me struggle through my problems at Mercury as a producer. Now he’s my president, so he knows not to put those handcuffs on me that we were frustrated with back then. … And when I finally did things my way and busted out, he was there to enjoy that, too. It’s taken a lot of handcuffs off all his artists. He lets his artists be what they are.”

Like most parents of teenagers, Keith is aware of what’s playing on rock radio. But perhaps unlike most parents, he appreciates what he hears, taking a moment to praise the rap artists Snoop Dogg and Eminem.

“A poet is a poet,” Keith says. “There’s a lot of trash over on that side, and all the cop-killing [lyrics]. Sometimes they don’t think much of our music, and we don’t talk highly of most of theirs. … You’ll get Snoop’s lyrics and read them for what they are. He’s as fine a poet, a rhymer of words, as there is on the planet. He’s that good. He’s humorous, he’s witty, he’s very clever. And lyrically, it’s no different than reading Shakespeare or anything else you would read, as long as you take it for what it is. Eminem’s another guy out there who’s misunderstood on a lot of things he does, but he’s really good in his work with what he does. I think for the people that need that, he’s really good at that.”

Keith also says he’s respected by non-country artists as well, noting, “I go to the all-genre awards shows — I don’t win ‘em but I show up — and there’s always P.O.D. or Nickelback coming up to get their picture taken.”

Nevertheless, Keith holds the country legends — Willie Nelson , Merle Haggard and Buck Owens — dearest to his heart. He perked up when telling the audience about meeting Merle Haggard for the first time, only a few days earlier.

“I came home from my Boise show … and looked up and Merle Haggard was playing the Oklahoma Center in my hometown,” Keith explained. “I just went down there and had about an hour with him before the show. He was everything I wanted him to be. I was thinking, ‘Don’t let me down, because I want to love ya.’ And I went in there, sat down there with him, and he was great.”

Keith continued, “He got on stage and I was blown away at how good his voice was. It was just like going back to 1975 as a kid. He sang his butt off and those kind of people — you’ve got to be that age to do what they’ve done to be in that position — but they don’t exist anymore. He wrote me a nice letter before the CMAs last year and it said, ‘Keep knockin’ em dead. You boys are rough on ‘em. Keep doing it your way. That’s the way we like it. Hag.’”

The Nashville audience was also treated to colorful (and long) anecdotes about hanging out on Willie Nelson’s bus — as well as the enticing story behind the song Keith wrote called “I’ll Never Smoke Weed With Willie Again.” He also revealed that Nelson is cutting several of his songs, including “Tired,” for his own upcoming album and that the 69-year-old Texan was an incredibly good sport during two days of filming the music video “Beer for My Horses,” which Keith described as a “mini-movie.”

“When you get Willie Nelson’s approval and he wants to do projects with you … and I get about two phone calls and a personal hug about two or three times a year from Buck Owens, telling me who’s come out to see him, who he wouldn’t let into his house. Then he gave me one of those red, white and blue guitars,” Keith said. “And I’ve got Merle Haggard sitting there writing me a letter, saying ‘You’re doing it your way.’ I got those three [artists] in my corner, and I could give a damn what anybody says about me in this business.”

Read the first part of this two-part series, Toby Keith Wants to Talk About His Career.

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