As the top nominee at the 37th Annual CMA Awards on Wednesday (Nov. 5), Toby Keith could take home trophies in seven different categories. The unflappable singer-songwriter recently sat down with CMT News to talk about his new album, his songwriting muse, the perfect country bar and what George W. is really like.
CMT NEWS: Your “Beer for My Horses” duet with Willie Nelson is nominated for just about everything but the female vocalist category at this year’s CMA Awards. How do you feel about that song getting so much recognition?
KEITH: I think there’s a place still for Willie and Merle Haggard and George Jones and those guys. Obviously, there’s a great push for people getting to hear Johnny Cash right now, but we shouldn’t wait until they pass on to allow them to do some things — at least allow them to compete. My heart was just glowing knowing that Willie has not been on the radio since the ’80s mainstream, and to know it’s into the 2000s and to hear his voice on there again. That album [Unleashed] was four singles deep, and I was probably just as jaded with the music business as the next artist, but to hear Willie Nelson singing on the radio again made me just jump up and down. He’d had so many hits and been around so long that he didn’t get all giddy about it like I was. Then he started playing it in his show, and he called me one night and he said, “Man this song’s huge!” I said, “I told you and you didn’t pay attention.” He goes, “Man, they love this thing. I had to play it twice on my show, Toby.” I said, “Well, keep playing it, dog.” I’m going after Merle next. We’ve got some stuff written. I’m gonna go get him, too.
CMT NEWS: You’re also competing for entertainer of the year, which you haven’t won at the CMAs. How important is getting that trophy?
KEITH: What you do on the road and record sales and chart and all that has to play into it. That’s what should get you in the entertainer category. I expect to compete for that every year because we work hard, and we do all the things right. We try to deliver. As long as we’re doing that, it’s a great honor to be in there. It’s tough. It’s very political. I’ve never been just completely award-friendly. My fans hang up on that a lot, but they shouldn’t get angry for that. They should take them for what they are and be glad that we’re participating. I try to work the serenity prayer a little bit. That’s been a thing that my dad taught me a long time ago. You know, “Grant me enough serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” I have no control over how the industry votes. You’ve just got to be grateful that you’re getting to play the game everyday and take them as they come.
CMT NEWS: When your time came at the ACM Awards last May, you weren’t there to pick up your entertainer of the year trophy. You had lost a few awards earlier in the night, and everyone wondered why you left. Just for the record, what really happened?
KEITH: You can usually tell if it’s your night. Me and Willie were up for video, and the duet [category] was me and Willie. He checked out on me and went up to the hotel, and I said, “Man, are we going to write that song tonight?” He said, “Yeah, but I’m leaving at 6 a.m. to go back home to Hawaii.” So I waited until about 30 minutes before the show was over and I told my manager, “Man, if we don’t get up there, he’s going to want to get in bed about 11 or midnight because he’s getting up at 6.” I said, “I might regret that I never got to finish this song with him.” He said, “Well, what if you win that award?” I said, “We’re not going to win that award.” So I said, “Let’s hook it. I’d rather write the song.” Then we got up there and he [manager T.K. Kimbrell] got a phone call and he said, “Well, you didn’t win male vocalist of the year.” I said, “Well, we’re safe then.” Bam, got another phone call, and he said, “But you did win entertainer.” If I had thought I had a prayer at winning it, I would have been there to graciously accept it.
CMT NEWS: So, did you and Willie actually finish writing the song?
KEITH: Yes, we did. It’s called “I Can’t Get Over You. So You Get Up and Answer the Phone.” (laughs) You can ask him.
CMT NEWS: You seem to be in a writing frenzy lately. Your last album is just over a year old, but you’re already coming with another one, Shock N’ Y’all. What is fueling that creative writing streak?
KEITH: I’ve always written so much that I’ve always had a backlog of songs. As every album has been completed, I’ve almost always had the next one written. By the time that we finished recording [Unleashed] and the album came out, in that little span I already had six or seven more written. I’m always writing, and I’m very grateful that God gave me that talent because if I had to go find that many songs each time, I wouldn’t be able to do an album every 18 months or two years because I wouldn’t be able to find that many good songs that fit me. By being the writer and knowing who I’m writing for, it allows me to focus all my songwriting energy right at the artist. So when you’re writing for yourself alone, it makes it a lot easier.
CMT NEWS: Where does the inspiration come from? What sparks your ideas?
KEITH: Any writer that writes a lot of songs and has success at it will tell you that just about anything that is said can be a song. You just keep your antennas out as much as you can. When something is said that is just right, you take it and you run with it. And 90 percent of them you never do right. Ninety percent of them don’t work out to be songs. But if you’re always doing that all the time and somebody says something that’s clever and you’ve got your antennas out, you’ll run with an idea for a little while and then all of the sudden, you’ll hit one and it’ll be magical. And I can tell about three or four lines in what I’ve got. I can see the future on it pretty quick.
CMT NEWS: Is your current single “I Love This Bar” an ode to a particular bar?
KEITH: Bars take a beating for being so abusive and evil and all that. My grandmother’s one of the sweetest ladies on planet earth. She’s got a heart as big as Texas, and she ran one of the nicest supper clubs when I was growing up. I’d go stay with her in the summertime. I would see that when somebody would get down –have a kid get sick or something– they would raise money and do charity things and rallies or host a pool tournament or something to raise money. And so much goodness goes on, it’s almost like a church in there sometimes, how they become brotherhood and take care of each other.
So, I told some people the other day that I didn’t know whether to write “I Love This Bar” or “I Love My Church” because it’s the same kind of thing. It represents every great bar that you’ve ever watched a game in, or had a beer in or had a burger or whatever. They all have those characters. So, we just sat down and started rapping them off. It was very easy. It was one of those songs where you go, “Man, I can’t believe nobody ever wrote that.”
CMT NEWS: The album also includes another song for the troops called “American Soldier,” which has a unique twist to it. Why did you approach it that way?
KEITH: Chuck Cannon and I were writing one night. He had flown to my house and spent two or three days there, and we were writing a working-man kind of song. We got to the end, and it was almost kind of simultaneously, we kind of went, “You know, this is the four verses of a working-man’s song, but this tells you exactly what an American soldier does.” That’s what they do everyday. They get up. They go to work. They take care of their kids. It’s their job. I don’t think we as citizens realize that they are just working people. Our soldiers take a lot of the blame when we have to go in and our government’s wrong or right or whatever. They’re just doing their job. They’re just working people like me and you. They get up, put their boots on and then they’re told, “Hey, here’s your orders. You’ve got to go here.” They’re just doing their job. They’re not in there killing to be killing. They’d rather be back with their families, too. I wanted to show that side. I’ve met so many thousands of great soldiers, male and female. They’ve shared their stories with me and [said] how my music has touched them. So, you know, it’s a gift that I give to them.
CMT NEWS: You’ve performed for President Bush twice this year. You’re one of the few citizens who got to talk directly to him while the war with Iraq was underway. What did you talk about?
KEITH: He’s always been very gracious and nice with his time with me, and I’ve never asked for nothing. They ask me all the time — somebody at the Pentagon or somebody at the White House asks me to come perform all the time, but with the touring schedule and everything, I just can’t make it all the time. But I did the one at Miramar before President Bush spoke. Then, after the war started, he had his first public address in front of a military crowd at CentCom [Central Command], and I went in there and sang for him. He’s always been very gracious with his time and always been very cordial. He’s a very down-to-earth guy. I’m from Oklahoma, and he’s from Texas, and he’s what you would expect your neighbors to be like. He really is. He’s always answered any questions I’ve had and always discussed openly any topics you felt like.
CMT NEWS: Switching to a lighter note, you recorded some of your infamous “bus songs” for this album. Why did you finally decide to put them down?
KEITH: Everybody who goes up and down the road writes goofy songs that they just kind of play for each other. We got crazy one night on stage and just started doing them. Just had fun with a couple of acoustic guitars, and the response was overwhelming. I decided on this one, I said, “Let’s record them live and just stick them on the end of the album and let them be what they are.” There’s a certain side of me that’s strictly here to just entertain, and the bus songs allow me to do that.
CMT NEWS: What does Willie think of the bus song “Weed With Willie”?
KEITH: Willie’s sang it with us a couple of times. The reason I wrote “Weed With Willie” is you’ve never seen anyone come off Willie’s bus that isn’t shaking their head. They’ll say something along the lines of, “Man, I ain’t smoking weed with Willie no more.” It’s just so automatic. It just makes you go, “It’s too easy not to write that.”