Toby Keith and Trace Adkins recently completed their America’s Toughest tour together and recalled the days before they had the clout to headline at some of the nation’s largest concert venues. However, both agree about importance of having paid their dues in the nightclubs of Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas.
Before they became famous, Keith and Adkins were playing some of the same clubs on the regional circuit, although their paths never crossed.
“We knew of each other, but we never really did run into each other,” Adkins told CMT Insider.
“It’s hard to run into each other when you’re working as much as we did,” Keith added. “The cool thing that linked us [is that] we both worked in the oil field, so we had that work ethic. My band worked 51 weeks a year, took off for Christmas, and we were in a bar somewhere five or six nights a week. But when you’re working that hard, you’re not seeing other bands play.”
During the America’s Toughest tour, the two were able to compare notes about their early experiences on the road.
“We know all those same folks and the same bartenders — the same everything — in that same market that we played down there, so it’s been cool to talk about that,” Adkins said.
Keith got much of his training as a performer at those small bars.
“I was telling somebody the other day that I feel sorry for the acts today not having that kind of a training ground,” he said. “There’s not a circuit of honky-tonks like there used to be. You could play 30 different ones if you really wanted to and not hit the same one twice. It would be tough to do that now.”
Both also remember the challenges of playing music for people who didn’t really care who was standing on the stage.
“You had nights where you didn’t have anybody in there,” Keith recalled.
“Yeah, the bartender and a couple of old drunks,” Adkins said. “And you still had to get up and do your set … because you had to. And we were traveling around in an old beat-up van that was barely running, pulling a trailer full of beat-up gear. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t.”
“And if something broke down, nobody got paid that week,” Keith said.
“Yeah, nobody got paid,” Adkins added.
Compared to the early years in his career, Adkins says touring these days is “easy street.” And Keith’s past experiences have helped put everything into perspective for him.
“I see guys whining all the time,” Keith said. “Some of my best friends in the business can’t believe how many years I have gone without taking off. All the agents say, ‘Man you don’t want to take off? You shouldn’t want to work that much.” I’m like, ‘This isn’t work. Get on the business end of a shovel and see if that’s work. This ain’t work.”
Keith’s new album, American Ride, will be released Oct. 6. Following a series of media appearances, he’ll return to the road in early November to perform two nights in Connecticut before heading overseas for concerts in Scotland, England, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway.