As “Stays in Mexico” proves, Toby Keith is no stranger to cheating songs, having come up through the club scene in Oklahoma in the 1980s. With his Greatest Hits 2 CD released just last week, the so-called “Angry American” sat down with CMT.com in a Nashville studio to talk about the music he heard in his grandmother’s supper club, the harmonies of his early band Easy Money and why he wouldn’t want his daughter to chart the same course he did as a club act.
CMT: Live music has been a part of your life since you were a kid. What are your memories of your grandmother’s supper club?
Toby Keith: It had an old-fashioned beer joint tavern up front. You would walk in and it didn’t cost anything to get in there. The kitchen was behind it, and off to the side was a great big ballroom bandstand. It had one little door that you could get in. You could sit out front in the beer joint listening to the band for free. You couldn’t see them. You couldn’t dance with anybody. You could eat burgers and stuff, but you couldn’t eat the fine dining. It was a supper club. But if you wanted to go back in there and dance and enjoy yourself, you paid the cover and went into the back, and the dancing was back in there.
Did she have country bands in there?
A little bit of everything. They had horns in the band. It was kind of like me. They had drums, bass, piano, guitar … and they had saxophone, trumpet and things like that. A baby grand, so they played everything. … I remember them playing “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” That would have been about as rocking as they got. They would play “In the Mood,” and then they would play old country classics, like Ray Price and Bob Wills and things like that.
How old were you?
I would have been 11 or 12.
What was the name of it, and where was it?
Billie’s Supper Club in Fort Smith, Ark.
When you were touring with the Easy Money band in the 1980s, what did you guys sound like? Was it similar to country music in the 1980s?
Yeah, they would have been real harmony-driven, so we would have been really into Alabama and some of those things. We were digging what they were doing. We were digging the fact that Alabama was writing their own songs and singing them and doing the harmonies. We were all over the Eagles and things like that. … It was more band-oriented. I was writing tons of songs and was probably the most successful songwriter in the band, but everybody was participating in the early writing experiences. But I was driven as a songwriter to continue on and be the best that I could be at it. I was really driven. As we moved on through the years, it ended up being more of my songs and me being the lead singer, and it started focusing more on me. One by one, the band guys lost their dream. We all started out with the same dream, and it looked impossible to attain. One by one, they fell by the side.
When it came time for me to get my record together, there really weren’t any originals left in the band. It had evolved into what it was. The guy who signed me, Harold Shedd, said, “Man, we’re really looking for a singer-songwriter. You can bring your band on the road with you, but we’re not really looking to sign a band.” But the band supported me. They said, “Man, you need to do it, anyway.” They’re still with me.
What do you remember about playing those clubs back then?
Just anticipating the night. It was such a big deal to move up through the club ranks. You’re your own fish in your own pond. … You know, it’s obviously nothing like standing on stage at the Delta Center in Salt Lake playing for a sold-out house, but each time you move to a little bit better club, you move on up or down the road to Dallas or Tulsa and expand. I remember those new experiences. It’s like your first car and things. You remember the first time you got to play the “A” club.
What kind of clubs did you play on the way up?
Complete dumps. … Little, old, puke, whiskey-stained carpets. … Just dumps. I may be wrong, but I’m pretty close. I think we got $25 a night and some beer, per man. We would play weekends, so we would get like 50 bucks and a six-pack each of cold beer. You’d just get up there and you’d jam. We played everything. We played Seger, Creedence, the Eagles, Hank, Merle, Willie, just everything, Alabama obviously. … Just get up there and jam, drink cold beer, and people in the audience would buy you shots once in a while. No bouncer in the house, just a big ol’ full bunch of rednecks. If a fight broke out, you were just on your own.
This was all over the Southeast?
This is all over Oklahoma. We grew into the better clubs, and we went regional. Then we started playing the area between Arkansas to Arizona, Colorado and Kansas, down to the Gulf and Texas, so that was kind of our area. We had our hub out of Oklahoma City. For about three or four years, we traveled 51 weeks a year, played four or five nights a week and just got it on.
Your daughter Krystal sings with you on the Greatest Hits album. If she decides to pursue a career in music, would you want her paying her dues in clubs?
No, no, absolutely not. She doesn’t have to, and I wouldn’t ask that of anybody. As good of memories as I have there — and I wouldn’t change anything for me– I’m a guy and to put your kid through that, I wouldn’t ask her to. She doesn’t have to. If you don’t have any connections and you don’t have anything going for you other than your music, then you have to fight for what you believe in, and I have. I wouldn’t ask her to go through that. I’m asking her to go on to college and finish and get her business degree before she starts her recording deal. That’s enough to ask of her. She can go to college and jam with all those bands around there. She won’t be trying to make a living out of it. I raised her on the money I pulled out of those beer joints, so I know how tough it is.
Were there any females that had bands on the club circuit back then?
There were a few. It was mostly guys. The road’s hard on girls. Guys can just fall into a van like a big locker room and do guy stuff, but to have a girl on the road with you, that changes it. Cramps everybody’s style. Some girls are just tough enough to do it. But it’s a lot easier for a bunch of guys. I guess a bunch of girls could go down the road. If you’ve got an all-girl band, it would probably be about the same. But for everybody to be piled into a Ford van pulling a trailer down the road, it makes it tough on a girl.
Did you ever have a girl in the band?
Would you ever consider it?
We’ve got one now, a vocalist that can play keyboards. I wouldn’t have a problem with it.