Toby Keith Talks Candidly About His Career

A Serene Superstar Says, "It's Not Sour Grapes, and I'm Not Mad"

“My mom taught us the serenity prayer at a young age,” Toby Keith told a crowd of country radio broadcasters in Nashville. “And that is: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.’ And if you live by that in those situations, you’ll end up spending your energy in the right places.”

For Keith, those situations extend to his career and his attitude toward the entertainment business in general. He made the comments Thursday (March 3) during an onstage interview that served as the keynote event of the 36th annual Country Radio Seminar in Nashville.

As previously reported, Keith announced he’s planning to launch his own record company when his contract with DreamWorks Nashville expires. Once his new album, Honkytonk University is released May 17, Keith will owe just one more album to the Universal Music Group, which gained control of DreamWorks last year.

Keith later told reporters he plans to deliver his final DreamWorks album around September but doubts it will be released by December 2005.

“As soon as that album’s turned in, I can really start screwing down where we’re going to hang our sign, who’s going to be the key players,” he told the reporters of the timetable for starting his label. “I’ve got a lot of private talks going on with a lot of very, very important people. … I’ve even got other artists. I’ve got three or four really mainstream double-platinum kind of artists that are kind of late in their deals, too, that have contacted us. … They trust in the fact that I’m willing to stand up and fight for the rights of songwriters and artists.”

When Universal purchased DreamWorks, Keith was reunited with many of the same executives he’d been at odds with when he asked to be released from his contract with Mercury Records. The album Mercury rejected — 1999′s How Do You Like Me Now?! — became the major breakthrough for Keith and DreamWorks Nashville. Universal now owns four country labels — Mercury Nashville, MCA Nashville, Lost Highway and DreamWorks Nashville.

“When I came to DreamWorks, I was in bad trouble,” he said. “They were in bad trouble. They were millions of dollars in the hole and a few days from closing their doors. I was on my last leg. … I think the last studio album we just put out [2003's Shock'n Y'all] scanned 600,000 or 700,000 the first week. When we put How Do You Like Me Now?! on the street, I think we did 6,000 units in a week. We debuted at, like, 19 on the country album charts. That’s how low it had gotten. It was the worst debut for me.”

Keith referred to his early days at DreamWorks as “the little engine that could.”

“We turned what is virtually a glorified independent label … into one of the powerhouse labels in the town,” he said. “We turned it into the No. 1 or 2 label, depending on what poll you took at any given time.” He added, “Then when corporate people come in and buy the thing out, it [took] away its identity and merged back into corporate bullshit again. I told them the other day, ‘I had my first A&R meeting in 20 million albums.’ You’d think they get it by now. … I thought we were doing things right.”

Keith has high praise for James Stroud, the former DreamWorks Nashville chief who became co-chairman of the UMG Nashville after the merger. Keith calls Stroud his “buffer” from much of the corporate bureaucracy. However, Keith was outspoken expressing his overall displeasure with his current situation.

“Across the board, it’s back to that same old, same old again,” he said. “It’s that dark cloud, the glass half empty on everything you do. It just becomes too much for me. So I unplugged myself. Me and my manager said, ‘We’re just gonna kick back and make this music and do what we do best and … put our energy more into what we do.

“You’re gonna see over the next couple of years that I’m going to move out of some places in this industry where I’ve been focusing and move into some new areas. So you’re going to see some adjustments made where my energy is going to be better used.”

In refocusing his energies, Keith said he would no longer be concerned with award shows that fail to emphasize country music.

“For years and years, the Grammys are supposed to be such a big deal,” he said. “I’ve always said I can’t tell sometimes that people even have an album out until I see them nominated for a Grammy. I think country gets dumped on across the board by the Grammys.”

He added, “It shouldn’t even be vitally important to our industry. The whole industry should just say, ‘You know what? If you’re not going to treat us any better than that, we’re not going to play. You shouldn’t find us a spot. Go let it be what it is.’”

Keith cited his experience after scoring a hit with “Beer for My Horses,” a track from his 2002 album, Unleashed.

“Of all the singles I’ve had and all the singles Willie Nelson has had, our biggest charted record was ‘Beer for my Horses,’” Keith explained. “It was a six-week No. 1. Willie is Grammy-friendly, like Sting is Grammy-friendly. There are just certain people that get the nod no matter what they do.”

Because of Nelson’s involvement, Keith said numerous people in the music industry assured him it was a sure shot that “Beer for My Horses” would get a Grammy nomination. The single from Keith’s album was not nominated.

“Then I go do his [Nelson's] TV show in L.A. and we sing the thing live,” Keith continued. “He puts an album out from the whole show. ‘Beer for My Horses’ off the Willie album, all of a sudden, is nominated. So Willie gets the nod, right? So then they call and say, ‘Will you guys do the show?’”

For Keith and Nelson, the offer was limited to sitting in the audience. They would not be allowed to perform or even present an award.

“It was so ridiculous,” Keith said. “Instead of wasting four or five days of my life talking about the Grammys or talking about those kind of things at this point, it’s useless. It’s never helped me one time. So I’ve told everybody to stop concentrating our energy on it and just act like it doesn’t exist for us. Let’s just go on and quit having any discussions about it. My deal will always be one solo performance — nominated or not. Not some thrown together rock tribute.”

And while Keith will have a presence at the upcoming CMT Music Awards and Academy of Country Music Awards shows, he doesn’t plan to attend the CMA Awards show when it takes place in New York City in November.

“I don’t really know what to think about it,” Keith said when asked about his reaction to the CMA show being moved to New York. “It doesn’t affect me one way or the other. I probably won’t be there. That’s more of that refocusing my energy. I’ve got a little boy in Little League football at that time of year.”

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.