HOT DISH: Toby Keith Keeps Standing

Dolly Parton Hits the Road, George Strait Adds Another Hit

(CMT Hot Dish is a weekly feature written by former Country Music magazine columnist Hazel Smith. Author of the cookbook, Hazel’s Hot Dish: Cookin’ With Country Stars, she also shares her recipes at CMT.com.)

It doesn’t seem like it’s been a dozen years since the promotion department at Mercury Records came up with a bright idea for the Triple Play tour. The aim was to break three new artists at once — Toby Keith, Shania Twain and John Brannen. When history wrote it, it read: Two out of three ain’t bad.

Toby and Shania became superstars, but it didn’t happen overnight. Take a long, hard look in the rearview mirror at Toby Keith:

Former rodeo hand, oilfield worker and semi-pro football player, the Oklahoma native was just a child when he became interested in the musicians who played in his grandmother’s supper club. When the oil business slumped, Toby turned to music as a career. After playing with garage bands, he eventually played in local clubs with a group. Some of those musicians are still in his Easy Money band.

By 1988, he was recording for indie labels and making visits to Music Town, where a couple of years later he met Harold Shedd, a record producer and label exec who signed him to Mercury. Shedd produced Toby’s self-titled debut album that contained the 1993 chart-topping “Should’ve Been a Cowboy.”

Standing alone? Man, Toby was off and running!

But wait. Amid the pushing, shoving and scuffling among the label powers that be, Shedd launched the spin-off label, Polydor Records, and brought Toby with him as the prize act. Movers and shakers seemed to be in an uphill battle — and losing often — at Polydor. The label’s name changed to A&M before the doors closed in 1996. Toby then went back to Mercury, where they didn’t like his music, didn’t seem to want him and, to tell the truth, where Toby had no desire to stay.

Toby brought an album of songs that Mercury did not dig, so he made an offer and bought the tracks and walked ‘em over to DreamWorks, the label run by his old pal, record producer James Stroud. There’s more to the story than there is room to tell, but the bottom line is that the album Mercury didn’t want contained hits — big hits like “How Do You Like Me Now?!” Seems to me the album ended up selling some unbelievable amount.

Standing alone? Well, sometimes running.

A big unfortunate tiff fueled by the media came down between Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines and Toby over his song, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).” Natalie simply didn’t like the song — and said so. Toby didn’t like what Natalie said — and he said so. It got ugly.

Next came a big offer for Toby to appear on ABC-TV’s Fourth of July television special. Canadian native Peter Jennings decided he didn’t want Toby to perform “The Angry American” on his special. So Toby pretty much told Jennings to kiss the place he’d threatened to put his boot in the “Angry American” song.

These days, accountants around the globe send checks of maximum amounts to Toby for gold, platinum and multi-platinum records. He writes most of his songs and owns the song publishing — hence the checks have lots of “naughts” in the dollar amounts. BMI monies from performances must overflow a wheelbarrow, his sellout concerts generate pickup truckloads of money and, Lordy mercy, sales from tour merchandising must require a semi to haul everything all the way to the bank.

Standing alone. All is well. Well …

Out of the West came an awful rumbling. The owners of DreamWorks put the label on the market. It was purchased by the Universal Music Group, the parent company of MCA, Lost Highway and Toby’s previous label home, Mercury.

Don’t ask me how all of this is working out. All I know is the DreamWorks’ team was told to move into the Mercury-MCA digs on Music Row. How is Toby handling it? Except for Shania, he is the top record seller of the four labels. Through no fault of his own, Toby has been pushed, shoved and left out in the cold. But through it all, he writes and sings hits and sells out concerts.

Checking on Toby, I learned the third generation Ford man drives Ford trucks exclusively. His tour sponsor is Ford Trucks, and he’s spokesperson for the company. He’s developing a chain of I Love This Bar and Grill restaurants with Harrah’s in Las Vegas, Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Mo., and Shreveport, La. He’s working on a couple of independently-owned Bar and Grill eateries as well. Toby enjoys cooking and loves to grill. He truly respects legends like Merle Haggard and Jerry Lee Lewis. And, of course, he loves working with his good friend, Willie Nelson. Toby and Shania Twain have remained friends during these 12 years and have talked about doing a project together.

Toby is happy. He stays happy. For now, he stands alone, and the sky is clear. Maybe for good.

Dolly’s Road Show
About 300 invited guests, family and friends — including Alison Krauss — gathered at a Nashville rehearsal hall to witness the launch of the Hello, I’m Dolly tour starring Dolly Parton. Opening the show, the Grascals, a six-man group, performed a half dozen tunes before blending their musicianship with an additional five musicians to make up Dolly’s traveling band.

With the Smoky Mountains on a jumbo screen at her back, Dolly bolted onstage dressed in an eye-popping one-piece white outfit with snuggly fitting Capri pants that reached up and hugged her tiny waist and ample cups that surely runneth over. Blonde hair cupped her lovely face as her smiling red lips sang hit after hit and told joke after joke. She kept us applauding, laughing and smiling the entire time.

The two-hour show has many highlights, including a puppet segment that had Kenny Rogers seated on Dolly’s knees having a conversation with her before the two of them sang “Islands in the Stream.” An Elvis impersonator sang to Dolly, and a Rod Stewart inpersonator sang with Dolly. She did Janis Joplin and Kris Kristofferson proud with her version of “Me and Bobby McGee” and performed a moving rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” in her finest little girl-like whispering voice.

The show included (the best I remember by not writing it down):

“Hello Dolly”
“Two Doors Down”
“9 to 5″
“Jolene”
“Why’d You Come in Here Looking Like That”
“Here You Come Again”
“The Grass Is Blue”
“Baby It’s Cold Outside”
“PMS Blues”
“I Dream a Lot About Elvis”
“Blue Smoke”
“Me and Bobby McGee”
“Imagine”
“Viva Las Vegas”
“Islands in the Stream”
“Go to Hell”
“Thank God, I’m a Country Girl”
“Tennessee Mountain Home”
“Coat of Many Colors”
“Appalachian Memories”
“I Will Always Love You”
“Hello God”

The 40-city tour, which ends Dec. 19, takes Dolly clear across the country. They will be at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Vegas on Dec. 7 for the National Finals Rodeo when a lot of country music hits the Strip. There’s nobody more entertaining than Dolly Parton. If you get a chance, see Hello, I’m Dolly.

The Cowboy Didn’t Mean to Mislead Us
I started raving about George Strait’s new CD, 50 Number Ones, the minute I got it. Listen, George Strait has never recorded a bad song, so I upped that CD player loud and clear and locked the doors. Just me and George, and he’s singing to me. “Hot damn,” as the Strait-man would say.

This past week, I realized the cowboy had misled us. See, his album’s bonus track, “I Hate Everything,” hit No. 1 on the Billboard country singles chart around the same time 50 Number Ones went to No. 1 on both the pop and country albums charts. So the one singer we can always trust claims the album includes 50 No. 1′s when it really contains 51.

The cowboy didn’t mean to mislead us. He had no way of knowing 343,000 of his fans would give him the highest debut sales of his 22-year career.

Back pats to Strait, Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Rascal Flatts and Tim McGraw, too, who have held the No. 1 spot on the pop albums charts for five out of seven weeks.

More Tim McGraw Smashes
Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors wrapped a 59-city tour, closing with might nigh $50 million and nearly 800,000 fans in attendance. His Swampstock benefit near his hometown of Start, La., takes place Oct. 30, and he has plans for a charity concert in Tallahassee, Fla., on Nov. 18 to benefit Florida State University and the Tug McGraw Scholarship Fund. That just about winds it down for Tim for 2004. It has been a real good year.

Praise continues to pour in for Tim’s acting prowess in the movie Friday Night Lights. The movie opened at a very respectable No. 2 for the week, raking in $20.6 million.

This ‘n’ That
Didja see the “world’s biggest baby shower” at Fort Campbell, Ky., on the Oprah show? Were you as proud of Kenny and Martina as I was? Martina’s singing “In My Daughter’s Eyes” and those pregnant women bawling. … By the time I got my eyes dry, Kenny’s singing “There Goes My Life,” and crying women are grabbing their big bellies, and I thought, “Lordy, they’re going into labor — and Kenny will faint.” But it turned out to be wonderful.

Nothing but great Keith Urban reviews have crossed my desk during his current headlining excursion. I’m not surprised that 80 percent of Keith’s audience is female. Women know he’s a hottie when they see Keith. An international superstar in the making.

A Nashville radio station has a promotion going for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation to fund cancer research. The promotion is called Bras Across the Cumberland. Me and Dolly Parton did not oblige with a bra, but Lila McCann donated hers.

Big & Rich were in Los Angeles last week filming a video for “Holy Water.” Why do I find it hard to believe that someone would film something holy in L.A.?

Hitting stores Oct. 26 is the new CD, Blake Shelton’s Barn & Grill.

Emmylou Harris will be presented the Founders Award at ASCAP’s Country Music Awards on Nov. 8 at the Opryland Hotel.

Added to the list of performers at the CMA Awards: new mom Sara Evans, Alison Krauss and Brad Paisley, Reba McEntire, Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban.

For the fourth year, big-hearted music publisher Norman DeVasure reminded Music Row of the annual coat drive. Coats collected are given to the Nashville Mission and Room at the Inn to be distributed free to homeless men, women and children.

Lo and behold, I got an e-mail from New York regarding a Broadway play titled Revival (An American Rural Musical Celebration) planned for a November 2005 opening. They’re thinking O Brother, Where Art Thou?, so I answered with questions. As I learned, they plan auditions, mainly focusing on artists dropped from major labels. There are some good ones who are in that category. Anytime a non-country music person tries to do a movie or a show involving music and preaching, it scares me. All fiddle players are not alcoholics, most banjo players have more than three teeth, and very few Southern preachers bear a resemblance to Elmer Gantry. Hope you catch my drift!

See the new Hot Dish recipe of the week: Pumpkin Bread.