CMT Insider Interview: Toby Keith (Part One of Two)

Singer-Songwriter Talks About International Tours and Media Manipulation

Although the winter is usually a quiet time for the music business, Toby Keith has made two surprise announcements in the past few weeks. In December, he merged his own label, Show Dog Records, with the Universal South imprint. And on Wednesday (Jan. 13), he surprised many people in the business by signing Trace Adkins, who had been releasing hit singles on Capitol Records since 1996. And in the midst of the business deals, Keith traveled to Europe for several shows, including a performance at the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in Norway. Nice work, if you can get it.

“It ain’t a job to me,” Keith tells CMT Insider host Katie Cook. “It’s a job that I go do, but it is a labor of love. I go out there every night because I want to go out there every night. It’s not work to me. Anybody who complains about making their money in music is a spoiled rotten brat because this is the best job on the planet.”

In the first half of this two-part interview, Keith discusses his long-awaited international tour, the anger that stemmed from his controversial Nobel appearance and his well-planned media manipulation.

Katie Cook: You did your first European tour. How did that go?

Toby Keith: I did. We’ve been trying to go over there for six or seven years, and every time we would call the promoters over there, they would go, “If you get a song on BBC2 that’s played over here — we don’t have country — then maybe we would consider it.” And I was coming back from a USO tour a couple years ago and I met a Norwegian gentleman in Germany or somewhere and he said, “Are you Toby Keith?” and I said, “Yeah.” He said, “You’re huge in Norway.” So I came back and asked my manager and he said, “Yeah, you had a platinum album in Norway last year.” I said, “Why don’t we go play in Norway?” So we called the promoters up, out of the blue, and they said “Yeah, where ya been? We’ve been waiting on you to come forever.” So I don’t know where the connection didn’t happen, but it was wonderful. We played nine shows in six different countries and sold them out. And it was phenomenal.

Did you feel like the audiences were very different than U.S. fans?

No, I expected them to be a lot different. The only way they were different was some of the singles that you have here that are hits are not necessarily hits there. But, to make up for that, they play album cuts too. I played two or three songs in my set over there that I have never played onstage and they sang along with every word, like they had been on the radio. “White Rose Fillin’ Station,” “Cabo St. Lucas,” songs like that, that weren’t singles here in the States that were hits over there. That was neat for me, but nothing really changed. You adjust your list, so obviously “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” and “American Soldier” aren’t going to affect them like the other songs would. They’ve never played them. But I had a lot of requests from people holding signs up.

You wouldn’t leave those out because you think that could offend somebody.

No, I have probably 12 or 15 No. 1′s that I don’t play in my show ever. So when you go over there … “White Rose Fillin’ Station” was a huge song in London. I had to add that to the show, so I always had to take one out. So the stuff that they never played over there, we didn’t play. “Wish I Didn’t Know Now” was a song I don’t do onstage, and it was a hit here, but it also still gets a lot of airplay there, so they wanted that. I went back and did some of those old songs. The stuff I did in interviews by asking questions, what they wanted regionally that they listen to of mine, is what I played. Obviously, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” and “American Soldier” and things like that, weren’t songs that ever get played on their radio. So I tried to play stuff that they recognized me for.

Any particular place you want to take the family to?

They went with me. It was a chance to take your family and go do that now. It wasn’t much of a vacation, but my son had to keep a journal to get out of school. He had to use it for education purposes. We visited a lot of museums. I told him to. He saw the whole museum of Pablo Picasso paintings, he saw The Thinker statue, he saw the Madonna, he saw The Scream painting, he saw Vincent Van Gogh’s self portrait. So he got to write his journal about a bunch of cool stuff, but there’s definitely country music in Scotland, Norway, Ireland, England, Sweden, all through there.

You knew country music was big over there, but were you surprised at how much they knew you and your music? Like you said, they were singing along.

Yeah, “I Love This Bar” was like an anthem over there. The one thing that they prepared me for is, they said audiences are more listeners over there and you’ll have to get used to them sitting and listening. But they were up like normal. I didn’t see any difference, they were up rocking. And the guy who runs the Apollo told us at the end of the show that they never stand. So I think that is a result of them seeing my videos and seeing me perform and how the crowd reacts there, and they did the same thing, as opposed to what they normally do at every show. But they reacted and responded. Probably 80 percent of the places responded exactly like they do here in the States.

OK, so the crowds were very similar. What about the press? How did you feel you were treated?

They were OK. Obviously there is some anti-America feel to some of those countries and stuff. That goes without saying. Probably any American would get that, me specifically. But other than that, it was few and far between. It wasn’t discussed very much, and I did tons of press for it. They just don’t have an agenda to commit you politically like they do here.

You are such an American artist. Do you think maybe that was part of the curiosity for some of the European crowds?

It was obvious that in Norway they absolutely love Americans. Now, I went back and played two weeks after my tour was over at the [Nobel] Peace Prize [ceremony] at Norway, again at the same building. Different vibe that time because it was more about politics, more about the President of the United States being there. And whether it was inappropriate for me to be there or not, that was a different take on it. I didn’t get that when I went through as an artist.

Did that make you angry?

Yeah, it always makes me angry when there’s 12 artists up there and everybody’s getting asked about getting the opportunity of a lifetime to perform at something that a gazillion people are gonna be watching worldwide, and the question that you have to answer to the press is about whether it’s appropriate for you to even be there or not. Yeah, but I’m a big boy.

Do you ever feel because you’re such an outspoken guy that you are opening yourself up to the media to attack you?

That’s how I make my money. I open myself up to the media, and if I need to ring somebody’s bell and get a little press for something, I can say a couple of choice, cued, preconceived words and dance them like puppets and they’ll go right to work for me, for free. So, as ridiculous as that sounds, you have to embrace that and take that approach because you can’t fight them all. You can’t fight the system like that, so you have to learn to push it in a positive way for you. I know when to call my shots and when to get them riled up. And I’ve done it very good. I’m very good at it.

Read part two of the Toby Keith interview on Monday (Jan. 18).