Toby Keith: A Honkytonk University Honors Grad (First of Two Parts)

Superstar Talks About His New Album, Duet With Haggard

Toby Keith celebrated this week’s release of his latest album, Honkytonk University, with a series of free concerts for some of his biggest fans — U.S. troops serving in Iraq. A few days before embarking on the USO tour taking him to other military installations in the Persian Gulf, Germany, Belgium and Cuba, the Oklahoma-born superstar sat down with CMT.com to talk about his new album.

Running Saturday (May 22), the second part of the interview centers on Keith’s future plans, including the launch of his own record label.

The single, “Honkytonk U,” is about your days playing in clubs. Can you remember the first time you heard a bar band playing one of your songs?

It would have been out on that Triple Play tour we did. Me, Shania and a guy named John Brannen came out on a promotion tour in early ’93. … I heard my song on the radio for the first time going through Bowling Green, Ky., on our way to the first show. Obviously, we were playing bars every night, so by the end of that six or eight-week run, we were seeing these bar bands every night that would open or come on back onstage after we were done playing. At one of those venues, it was probably on the East Coast — Charlotte or somewhere — there was a band that got back after us to finish the night out. By then, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” was close to the Top 20 and becoming a big hit, so that was probably the first time I heard a bar band play one of my songs.

Was that a weird position to be in?

It was actually pretty neat because it was all surreal. It was happening so fast. You’re a complete no-name in the industry. Nobody has any clue who you are except your label. And then they start saying, “This song may be a hit. This album’s good. We’re going to proceed with putting you out there and seeing whether you stick or not.” And then you pull out of town, and they say, “We released it Monday.” And you pull out of town the next Monday and you’re driving through Kentucky on your first big tour bus … sitting back in the back, you flip the stereo on and, boom, you come on. Then you get to the bar and hear a band play it — and you’ve been in a band for so many years and played other people’s songs — it was all pretty surreal.

But it was an indication that things might work out for you.

Well, we knew we had an out-of-the-box hit. And that’s probably half of winning the battle early on. You have to have that song.

Your albums are usually a combination of songs that could be convincingly sung by a bar band or another artist. But there are other songs that are hard to imagine anybody besides you doing. Is it safe to say the new album tends to steer away from those in-your-face songs?

I don’t know. “As Good As I Once Was” and a couple of those “leavin’” songs — “You Ain’t Leavin (Thank God Are Ya)” and “She Left Me” — are pretty in-your-face. But you know what? There’s no mad science project that goes on. There’s no hidden room or lab tests that go on. This is literally the way it happens: I write 10 or 15 songs a year. I call my producer up and say, “Where are we gonna record this year?” So if he says, “We’re going to record in the Bahamas,” we rent the studio, rent a hotel and let’s go. We fly down everybody we want to play on the original tracks. We get there. “What’s the first song?” I pull a guitar out of the case, I strum it and I say, “We might as well start right here.” It could be alphabetical. It could be slows first, fasts second. It could be up-tempo early, we’ll do the ballads later. No particular order. We may do a ballad and an up-tempo today. Whatever comes to mind, I do the 12 or 13 songs, and we’re done with recording those. We very seldom ever go back and re-cut something because we didn’t get it [in the studio]. We’ve done that a couple of times, but 95 percent of the time, we leave it just the way it is. … Mix them down, sing a vocal on them, bring the harmony singers in, throw it out and it’s done. It’s that simple.

It seems like a very cohesive album this time around, though.

With the invention of the iPod, I probably have listened to more classic country in the last couple of years than I ever have. When I’m on my jet, I don’t have anything else to do but just sit there, so I flip my music on and get it in my ears. Some of that probably bled through as far as tones and structure, but the lyric is pretty much me all the way through and through. The album ended up being core country, and “Honkytonk U” really sets the pace as the title cut.

At this point, you’ve hung with Haggard and Willie enough to be comfortable around them. But do you ever get nervous when you’re about to play them a new song you’ve written?

I’ve played Willie lots of songs. We sit and pass songs back and forth a lot. I don’t get to spend as much time with Hag. But the neat thing is that the two I picked out to take them, they both listened and they both were willing to record them with me. I felt that “Beer for My Horses” would be a hit for Willie, and I felt like “She Ain’t Hooked on Me No More” would be something that Haggard would be interested in. Willie’s had so many hits, but one of the neat stories to come out of that is that I was in Minnesota … playing a concert, about the time that thing broke onto the charts that summer. He’s had so many hits, but it had been years since he’d had a big No. 1 hit. … So this thing’s blowing up the charts, and they call and tell me it’s only been out eight days and we’re in the 20s or something [on the chart], and it’s rockin’. It’s blowing up everywhere. So I call him and tell him, and he goes, “Well, you know, Johnny Cash always said that there’s nothing wrong with any of us that a hit song won’t cure.” And that’s about all he said about it. Eight or nine weeks later, the thing is No. 1 and sits there for six weeks. So I call him and say, “How about our little record?” just to mess with him a little bit. He was still just, “Yeah, yeah. It’s a good deal.” So then I heard later that he was having to play it twice in his show every night. (laughs) So that was neat to know that the fans had appreciated what we’d done. … Hopefully, before it’s over, this Merle Haggard thing will be the same way because I miss hearing those guys on the radio.

Will the duet with Haggard definitely be released as a single?

I don’t know that. That’s too far down the road to look. “Beer for My Horses” was the third or fourth single off the album, so I’m still in the first single [of Honkytonk University], trying to get the second one released off this thing. Something will float to the top as the third single.

The studio musicians playing on the new album are pretty much the usual suspects, but the track Johnny Hiland plays on really jumps out. He’s played guitar around Nashville for years in bar bands, but had you heard him play before the session for “She Left Me”?

Me and Sammy Hagar reciprocate. … He played my Super Bowl party, I went and played his Cabo Wabo [nightclub]. If I’m in Mexico, I swing back to his bar. When he’s around, he comes by my places. … Sammy had held a show up in Tahoe at his Tahoe Wabo, and he said, “I’ve got to introduce you to this guy.” There were a lot of guitar players there. Ted Nugent, Alice in Chains, some of the Chili Peppers were there. He had a lot of players there to help him open that thing. The Grateful Dead — some of those boys were there. We got to a point in the show where he said, “You’ve got to meet this guy.” And out walks Johnny Hiland, and he just smoked everything he played. Backstage, he came up and said what a big fan he was. I said, “Man, why don’t you come in and play on something?” I thought and thought and thought. I wanted to get him on this album. I promised him I would. So I thought back. Ten years ago, I wrote this thing called “We’d Still Be Together But She Left Me” with this really smokin’ up-tempo. I thought, “I don’t write many of them at this tempo. I want to give him something he can really fly on.” We called him in, and he played on it. He’s an incredible talent. People are going to know who he is in the years to come.”

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.