Toby Keith: CMT Insider Interview

He Talks About His Early Years, His Prayer Circle and His Secret Identity

Editor’s note: CMT Insider’s interview with Toby Keith airs Saturday (Aug. 27) at 1:30 p.m. ET/PT.

One of country music’s true road warriors, Toby Keith pulled his tour buses into Los Angeles this summer and chatted with CMT Insider before his concert.

In this backstage interview, he tells CMT Insider reporter Tim Hardiman about his early years of touring, his preshow prayer circle and his secret identity as the Incognito Bandito.

CMT: You’ve been touring at this level for a long time. What keeps it challenging for you?

Keith: The production is not too hands on, as far as the lights and the lasers and the pyro. We have a production manager who’s been with me a long time and set designers and carpenters that create a vision. We look at it and say, “This is the direction we’ll go this year.” And they build it. It’s always grand. I don’t do the day-to-day on it, though. The set list, I do that.

Is that a challenge when you have the catalog of hits that you have?

It used to be, but anymore it’s like, “What did people pay to come see?” Just because it’s one of my favorite songs or it was No. 1 doesn’t necessarily mean it makes the list. … In the years that I’ve seen concerts, when I’ve paid to see somebody I want to see, there would be a certain amount of songs I’d want to hear. So whether it’s stuff I want to play every night or not — or stuff I’ve been playing for years or stuff you get tired of playing — you have to play what people pay for and make it fair for them. I think they want to sing along, and there’s a reason they paid their ticket to come to the show.

Walk me through the final minutes before you walk onstage. What’s it like before the spotlight hits?

It’s about the same as it is right now. (laughs) There’s no intensity. We have a little group prayer before we go on every night — a bunch of good spiritual boys out here who were raised in the South. We have a couple of shots of something to get you ready enough to go on. Then we have our little prayer team, go bless the show, and then we try to step on their heads and pull their tails, you know?

In the beginning of your career, what’s the worst gig you can remember.

What would be my worst gig? Man, there’s been so many coming up through the ranks that it would be hard to pick what the worst one was. Getting stuck in Mississippi. … The first year I was out, we were hired by a private promoter to play a gig for like five grand. We drove to Mississippi, and it was at somebody’s house with a big acreage, and they said, “We’ve set the stage up down there.” We started out across there and took our bus across that field. It had rained, and we were in three feet of mud — that quick. They brought two wreckers in and drug us down to that stage. Twenty-five people showed up. We played in the rain, and then they hooked on to our buses and they drug us out of there. I mean, there’s 50 of those kind of things when you’re starting out. You’ll play anywhere when you’re trying to pay your bills.

“Made in America” is rocketing up the charts even though a percentage of people think this country is going in the wrong direction. I’m wondering if people gravitate to it because it reminds them of what’s good about this country.

When we wrote it a year ago, we really weren’t tying it into anything that was going on in the country. … I think we’ve lost some value, you know what I mean? I knew the second that we put this song out, that I’d get picked on in every little way. I play a Takamine guitar [built overseas], so I’m gonna get picked on. But the truth behind that is that Fender [a U.S.-based company] owns Takamine, and the other truth is, when we were poor, playing bars and splitting up $800 for six of us and trying to get by, I couldn’t afford strings for my guitar. Dave over at Takamine said, “I think you’re going to be successful some day, and Takamine wants to make sure you have strings for your guitars.” So I’m loyal back to him.

We try to buy as much American-made shirts as we can and stuff to sell. It’s very difficult to cover every base as much as our country has been saturated with foreign products. Me and Trace Adkins made a pact last year, even to the point of me opening a factory that’s been closed down — to reopen it to make American-made stuff. However, when you try to retail that stuff, stores can’t put it in there because of what it costs to make in America. They can’t make any money off of it. … At the same time, I drive Ford, you wear Levi’s — stuff like that. You do as much as you can. But the song, I think, goes back and tells everybody to be reminded that we could all do better.

Do you find people typically bait you for political questions because of your songs?

I think they all do. Everybody’s got an agenda. Not everybody does, but there are people that are there just to bait you. I’m prepared. I don’t have anything to hide on that stuff.

What can you tell us about the Incognito Bandito tracks on the deluxe version of your upcoming album?

There’s a band of studio session — hot players — that play on my albums. … They’re an eclectic bunch of misfits that I’ve worked with for years and years. They rarely get out and get to go play. So I got this idea to create a band called the Incognito Bandito, and we’d go do roadhouse cover songs. So it’s country and blues, old standards. We’ll go to the Fillmore in New York City or somewhere and just set up, list ourselves as Incognito Bandito, let the Internet do all the advertising and the hype for it. Fans will catch on.

We sell this thing out and then we play Waylon and Johnnie Taylor and Ray Charles and “Shambala” by Three Dog Night, Gordon Lightfoot. Just a wild mix of bluesy songs. And we record it live. Then on my album, when you buy the deluxe version, you get the studio album and you get three or four cuts from these Bandito recordings. So you get four songs that you probably haven’t heard in a while, but you forgot how good they were, played with session guys live to an audience in a barroom atmosphere.

Does that kind of take you back to your roots a little bit?

It does. It makes you feel like you’re playing that weekend gig once you got out of high school. Except the band’s a lot better.