When fans stop packing his concerts, Toby Keith figures he’ll walk away, a content man.
“I’m not one of those guys who has to keep playing until he’s doing all the little fairs,” the country superstar says. “If they tell me it’s over, I’ll be fine. I’ve made mine.”
With his latest CD, "The Bus Songs," selling briskly, that day doesn’t seem likely to come anytime soon. More important? Keith has a huge outdoor fan base that keeps him going throughout the summer.
“I don’t do anything to speak of from Halloween to May. I may do something if it’s historic but, mostly, we work our 50 or 60 shows on two- or three-day weekends.” The rest of the week (and the other seven months) he’s at his home in Norman, Oklahoma.
A private jet gets him wherever he needs to go; a bus offers the luxuries of home when he’s traveling between those weekend dates.
“I’ll get five hours of sleep on the bus, two or three more when we pull up to the venue. I’ll get off, play a little golf and do my show.”
The job is about as easy as it gets, Keith admits. “I put in the grind building my career.”
During those early years, “I never quit dreaming. I kept striving, no matter what, and no one ever outworked me.”
Prayer, Keith says, played a big part. “I said, ‘Hey, if I don’t make it before I’m 30, I’m going to go change direction and take care of my family.’ I set myself a date and said I was just going to work my hardest until then.” He signed his first record deal at 29 and hasn’t looked backed.
Now, the 56-year-old is determined not to grouse about a new generation of country stars or the limited airplay veteran acts get on radio.
“When I was coming up, the older guys bashed us and we thought, ‘You had your run.’ Well, we learned from them and realized everything goes in cycles.”
Keith says he could see someone like Chris Stapleton hitting big as the “bro” country movement was peaking. In the 1980s, “Urban Cowboy” was the rage and Travis Tritt turned up. “Then we got the band explosion and a little more R & B influence. Then the little girl (LeAnn Rimes) showed up and recalled Patsy Cline. When it gets too far away, something big lands that’s traditional. You can feel it.”
Keith, meanwhile, stays in his own lane.
A song about golfing, for example, contains words that, um, wouldn’t fly on radio. A cut about “Wacky Tobaccy” goes where others wouldn’t. Social media, he says, gives them the life radio won’t.
The trick to connecting is in the writing.
“God blessed me with the ability,” Keith says. “It came easy once I learned how. The first bunch of songs weren’t very good and then I wrote a good one.” As he figured out what worked, “the window started closing. It’s like anything else. You learn how to improve.”
Now, Keith is constantly recording bits and pieces in his phone. “Whether I’m doing it consciously or not, my song radar is always on. I’m constantly absorbing life. And when I do sit down and write, I start punching these things in."
Because he's so prolific, Keith could easily keep a dozen acts going.
“Willie’s got one of my songs, Chris LeDoux recorded one, too. When you’ve got a few artists cutting them, you’d think others would want them. But my publisher said, ‘People know if it's good, you’d cut it yourself.’ So they’re my vehicle to come out on the road.”
During those concerts, it’s not always possible to hit all the high points. With more than 60 songs on the charts, more than 20 No. 1 hits and sales over 40 million, it’s easy to see the dilemma he faces.
Still, Keith enjoys the ride and isn’t likely to mess with the game plan.
“I haven’t written anything down in 30 years,” he says. When inspiration strikes, he just knows what to do.
That song about bad golfers? It was prompted by an encounter at his golf club. A scratch golfer was whining about the results in a tournament. “Are you a good golfer?” Keith asked.
“I am,” the man replied.
“Are you on TV?” Keith followed.
“No, I’ve never been on TV,” the man responded.
“Then you’re a (expletive) golfer just like me,” Keith said.
The conversation was so good he knew he had to turn it into a song. “All I had to do was round up the lingo.”
Now, the “Golfer” song is Keith’s latest notch on his hitmaking belt.
A concerted effort? Nope, just more of that "absorbing life."