Don’t think that after 20 years of extolling the virtues of carousing and giving no quarter — from Should’ve Been a Cowboy through Red Solo Cup — country music superstar Toby Keith hasn’t thought about the time he’ll have to stop being a hell-raiser.
“We think of that quite a bit,” Keith says. “I learned from some of the guys that went ahead of me that at some point, you have to take it down.”
But for now, Keith is more like the protagonist of his song As Good As I Once Was: still dishing out his bellicose beer songs to a crowd eager to hear them, even from a 52-year-old.
Keith says his audiences wouldn’t have it any other way. With 21 No. 1 country hits from 17 gold or platinum albums, he says he doesn’t have room to fit any other type of song in his concerts.
“The kind of forums we do, I get a couple of hours on stage and I got to play whatever new song is the hit, and then I’ve got 15 songs that are must-plays,” he says, ticking off rowdy tunes such as I Love This Bar, Beer for My Horses and Whiskey Girl.
Add in a few fan favorites such as Weed With Willie and Get Out of My Car, and “you’re squeaking for time. Now all of a sudden you’ve got to figure out where am I going to play the rest?”
“How many ballads can you throw into the middle of a roller-coaster ride,” Keith says. “When you’ve got them standing on each others’ shoulders, are you going to be a buzzkill and sing a big country ballad right there? It just doesn’t fit with what we do all the time.”
Nor, apparently, will it any time soon. Keith says he has just finished a new disc — it’s being mixed and mastered for release Oct. 29 — with the title Drinks After Work.
Keith says alcohol is a recurrent theme in his songs because most of them are written when he’s on the road, and “when we’re doing our big shows and it’s just bikini tops and jeans shorts and drinking and tattoos and painted bodies,” it’s easy to use that for fodder.
Plus, he says, he knows that “after 20 years of writing songs, that’s where most of my bang comes from.”
“When you get to single time, you gotta pick the one your label will say, ‘We really think we could get this played.’ You don’t want to send something out there that’s not going to promote the album, so that’s just what we write most topics about. But it’s kind of our thing. It’s what we do live and it’s what fits our motif very good.”
A lucrative plan
It has certainly worked. Keith is annually among Forbes magazine’s biggest-selling music acts, with earnings around $50 million for several years running.
Deep in his career, that “motif” gave him Red Solo Cup, the 2011 ode to a favorite beer-drinking vessel that went double-platinum and gave him the biggest hit of his career. It crossed over to top 15 on the general music charts.
“Just about the time your younger peers think, ‘Well, that’s about time for him to go away,’ then all of a sudden you throw something out there they can’t deal with,” Keith says with a laugh. “They’re like, ‘… That’s getting played on [the radio show of] Ryan Seacrest.’
“So what you do is you just keep coming and giving it to them every night, and then you just keep building around yourself — know what you’re doing, know what they come to see, know what your fans want.”
Another type of song Keith’s fans apparently want is his patriotic chest-thumpers, such as the No. 1 gold hits Made in America and American Soldier and, of course, the post-9-11 chart-topping, gold smash Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).
He says he knows he takes some heat for the tenor of such songs — most notably a feud with the Dixie Chicks over that last song — but says he couldn’t care less.
“I do shows overseas with troops and I won’t forget the folks who do that,” he says. “I go over there two weeks a year; we do shows in Afghanistan and Iraq. And in some of them we’re down range from small fire. So we get over there in the middle of that and you see these little young faces who our government has asked to go do something for them and you write what you feel at the time.
“It is what it is, and I ain’t never apologized for it. I don’t apologize for feeling like I want my guys to go do their job and come back as quick as possible and be safe and be successful. And anybody that doesn’t feel like that, I don’t care what they think.
“When you got a guy missing a leg comes up and goes, ‘Thank you so much for being one of them who will stand up and not be afraid to say “Go, USA. Go, troops. Go win. Thanks for being one of those guys.”’ … That means more to me than all the headlines.”
When it comes to alcohol, Keith apparently knows what he’s talking about. He now is marketing Wild Shot, his own brand of mezcal — a drink that, like tequila, is made from the green agave cactus but smoked before the juice is extracted.
“I’ve been going to Mexico for 25 years; it’s my favorite destination,” Keith says. “And the locals drink it. … I’ll go to eat dinner at their house or they’ll go to mine and then for an after-dinner drink, they’ll sit around and sip it.
“I said, ‘You know, if I was going to have a house drink in my bar and grills, and we have 20 of them, I’d get that mezcal and make something, but it would be really unique and really good and authentic. … So I put it out, made a premium, and from April of the year we put it out to December, we had already become the No. 1 premium mezcal in the U.S.”
Those restaurants Keith owns give him something special for when he stops being the hell-raiser. (There’s a Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill in Dallas, at 10110 Technology Blvd. E., 214-350-8629; http://countrybartx.com.)
Keith says his focus on hell-raising songs isn’t for lack of trying other topics. He says he has recorded “a monster ballad — strong, well-written country ballad,” but it’s been passed over for his last two albums.
“But I’m sitting here going, ‘If I put it on this album, it’s probably not going to be a single,’ because by the time we put an album out, we already know what the first single is. They’re already itching for that second one to kind of know what it is. So I keep waiting for a soft spot to throw this thing in.”