Originally published in the August 1, 2011 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
It’s two days before Toby Keith’s annual musical trek across America is set to begin and the tall Oklahoman has just wrapped a rehearsal at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. Later on this June evening, Toby will perform in a much different venue than the arenas and amphitheaters in which he’ll spend much of his summer and fall: legendary songwriter haven the Bluebird Cafe.
Tucked well below street level in a dressing room, Toby sits down with a visitor to talk about the tour, his USO trip overseas, his new single and his Bluebird performance.
The Locked & Loaded Tour, Toby says, will be bigger and better than ever. “We’ve got the top screens and the top light show and the top pyro stuff,” he says in describing the show, which will be decidedly up-tempo. “I’ve been doing two or three ballads in the show; I’ll probably back off that.”
In addition to his many hits, Toby is also working in his new single, “Made in America,” and a heavily requested cut from his last album, the tongue-in-cheek “Get Out of My Car.” “With the song list, the pyro and the production changed up, it’s going to be a different show,” says Toby. “We’re probably going to add in another bus song or two this year.” Ah yes, the bus songs. Toby fans know that tunes such as “The Taliban Song” and “Weed With Willie” are jewels that won’t necessarily be found on an album but that can be enjoyed nonetheless at a Toby show.
And just because he has more access to pyro, or more properly “pyrotechnics,” Toby doesn’t feel the need to overdo it. “I just don’t think you blow stuff up on every song,” he says. “We pick the spots in the show where it needs it and then we supply it. It is a concert and it is a live entertainment event so you want people to leave saying, ‘That was fun.’”
Perhaps it’s that attitude that keeps fans coming back, despite recent hard times. “It’s never affected us,” Toby says of the economy, the rise in oil prices and other outside factors that can have an impact on the sale of concert tickets. “You’re talking up or down 4 percent. It doesn’t fluctuate very much.”
This year’s tour will include country-rocker Eric Church and newcomer JT Hodges, who records for Toby’s Show Dog-Universal label. Eric has a reputation for challenging tour headliners to put their best foot forward, but that doesn’t phase Toby. “That’s OK,” says Toby with a slight smile. “That’s the way I was. I felt like you have to prove to me that you’re the headliner and that don’t bother me one bit. When you’re coming up, you gotta believe in yourself first.
“I’ve met him once, but they say he brings a lot of attitude and does his own thing, so he’ll find a good crowd out there,” Toby says of Eric.
Even though he wrote his new single, “Made in America,” last fall, Toby believes the pro-USA song was pushed to the forefront by the death of America’s No. 1 terrorist target. “While I was over on my USO tour they caught Osama bin Laden and when I got back people said, ‘When are you going to write another song about that?’ But I said, ‘I’ve done that.’ I’ve wrote what I’ve got to say about that, but [the new single] is good timing while Americans are feeling really patriotic and the world’s feeling good about America. The Fourth of July was coming up and the tour is on, so I thought it was perfect.”
That the world generally supported the death of bin Laden at the hands of U.S. Navy Seals came as something of a surprise to Toby. “I noticed coming back [from the USO tour] that SkyNews, BBC, all the foreign television that you watch when you come back through Europe, which is usually pretty much anti-American, were all praising the United States for [killing] Osama bin Laden. It was all pro-U.S. and I just thought it would be the opposite.”
Long an admirer and supporter of the U.S. military, Toby says being in their midst when bin Laden was taken was inspiring. “We’d just come off the the USS Enterprise and we’d come back into Kuwait,” he recalls. “The people we were around, the people in our entourage, were excited. They understand that it’s not the end of anything, but it’s what they came there to get. They came to get the person that was responsible and took credit for 9/11 and bring him to justice. Through the years they’ve gotten a lot of people that were involved with that, but to get the king-pin made a statement to the world. It may take us a while and we’ll be as nice about it as we can be, but in the end we take the hat off and show how sharp our horns are.
“Are you kidding me?” Toby continues with pride in his voice. “We went into Pakistan without their permission right next to their West Point academy and took the United States’ most wanted man out of there in a body bag and didn’t lose one guy? How good are we? How many other countries can you do that in? They have nuclear weapons, they have a military academy 500 yards away and we send a couple of squads of SEALs in and just do everything we want to do and they can’t do anything about it.”
And while it’s been a long and brutal war in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Toby says the troops he’s met with on his tours, pardon the pun, are soldiering on. “I don’t see a bunch of sad faces or low morale,” he reports. “They’re really good at what they do and they know that they’ve signed on to that job and the last person that they’re going to listen to bitch is themselves. Through the nine years, and after 180 shows, I can honestly say that the morale of the American fighting men and women always feels up, at least when I’m around them.”
While he is still putting the finishing touches on his upcoming album, due this fall, he says fans can expect Toby with a twist. “Most of the vibes are different than what you’ve heard on other albums,” Toby, who is producing the album, says. “It’s a little more organic.”
“Clancy’s Tavern,” a song about his grandmother’s nightclub, is a “story-song-Irish-waltz-beer-mug-swinging kind of thing,” he says. “It will put you in the mind of Gordon Lightfoot doing ‘Edmund Fitzgerald’ or Billy Joel doing ‘Piano Man’ or Harry Chapin. It’s along those lines.”
Another tune, “I Need to Hear a Country Song,” was written with hit tunesmiths Rivers Rutherford and Bob DiPiero. “As simple as the title is, the song is really, really strong,” says Toby. “It’s probably my favorite on the album.”
As the interview draws to a close, Toby gets ready to head over to the Bluebird, where he’ll perform at an intimate benefit for the club with frequent songwriting pals Scotty Emerick and Bobby Pinson. “I never went in and played the Bluebird, per se,” says Toby. “I’ve been in there a lot and have been called up to do things with songwriters. I always enjoyed goin’ in there and sittin’ and listenin’. That’s my favorite thing to do. And the Songwriter Association has been good to me. I’ve been songwriter of the year, songwriter of the decade, so I’ve got to give back to people that support me.” CW
SIDEBAR: World Traveler
Toby Keith’s nine USO tours mean as much to him as they do to the soldiers he performs for, maybe more. “First of all, not only do you get to meet a bunch of heroes and shake a lot of hands and thank a lot of people for spending a big part of their life over there making sure we stay free and can sleep at night, but it’s an incredible geography lesson and an incredible history lesson,” says Toby. “You learn things about this world you could never get in a classroom. It’s amazing to me to see Alexander the Great’s castle [in Afghanistan], to see the ruins of Babylon. I know more about Genghis Khan than I ever thought I’d know.”
His trips provide political and social lessons as well. “You get to understand why the world is what it is,” says Toby, controlling his voice but clearly dismayed, “and it really frustrates you when people voice their opinions and they don’t have ground to stand on. Why don’t you go learn something first and then come back? Because if you’ll watch the history of the presidents that have gone into office, everything changes once they get in office about foreign policy when it comes to war. The current one is a great example.
“Once you’re not a senator no more and once you’re in there you learn stuff that even the vice president doesn’t look at,” says Toby. “You can have a great idea about how the country needs to be run and you can present that to the people and they can vote for you, but the second you get in there and open the big book up and go lookin,’ then you understand what the last guy had to deal with and what the guy before him had to deal with. [People will say] ‘You said you weren’t going to do this and you’re doing it.’ Well, there’s a reason, and a lot of those reasons you learn when you’re over there.”
SIDEBAR: Toby’s Tour
Toby Keith’s Locked & Loaded Tour kicked off in late June and will continue until mid-October in the U.S. (with one stop in Camrose, Alberta, Canada) before heading to Europe later that month. Here’s where you can catch his show:
Mountain View, Calif.
Red Rock Casino
Chula Vista, Calif.
Airway Heights, Wash.
Northern Quest Resort and Casino
St. Paul, Minn.
Minnesota State Fair
PNC Bank Arts Center
First Niagara Pavilion
Darien Lake Performing Arts Center
Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Saratoga Performing Arts Center
Susquehanna Bank Center
Jiffy Lube Live
Toyota Pavilion at
Maryland Heights, Mo.
Tinley Park, Ill.
First Midwest Bank
Riverbend Music Center
DTE Energy Music Theatre
West Palm Beach, Fla.