It’s Toby Keith’s Kind Of Place
By Dan MacIntosh
“Funny you should ask,” Toby Keith replies, when summoned to comment on the rumor fellow country singer Brad Paisley was recently invited to join American Idol as a judge. “They just asked about 14 days ago if I’d be interested in replacing Steven Tyler, and we passed. “
Keith declined this noteworthy opportunity to help America choose reality-show singing stars because he already has more than enough productive activity to keep him busy. For one thing, he’s in the middle of his Live in Overdrive Tour, which winds up in Boston in late September and includes a local stop at San Manuel Amphitheatre in Highland on Aug.10. Keith is also quite the entrepreneur, having created the successful restaurant chain I Love this Bar & Grill, including an outlet in Rancho Cucamonga where patrons can sample the artist’s own brand of mezcal, Wild Shot. Oh yes, there’s also Keith’s distinctively manly music, with a catalogue that includes the performer’s latest album, the bar-related Clancy’s Tavern and it’s equally drinking-friendly hit singles, “Beers Ago” and “I Like Girls That Drink Beer.”
“I Don’t Watch Enough Television, But When I Do . . .”
“I don’t really have the time on my plate,” says busy Keith, stating the obvious, “and I haven’t watched American Idol enough to know what I’d be getting into.” Besides, Keith, who played defensive end with the semi-pro Oklahoma Drillers before his music skyrocketed, prefers to watch professional athletes on the tube, rather than sit through amateur singers. “I don’t watch enough television, and when I do, it’s usually a baseball or football game.”
Now with 14 studio albums under his belt, not to mention Christmas projects and hit collections, and over 50 charting country singles to his credit, you might say Keith’s career is well into overdrive right about now and it just doesn’t make sense to drastically change direction suddenly. The TV world came calling before; Keith stood firm with his resistance then, just as he’s doing now.
“Maybe 10 years ago I might have considered it,” he reflects. “I know whenever television’s involved, there’s a lot of TV taping. All the networks at one time have come at me for my own sitcom and by the time we get to the table, it came down to a five year commitment of 22 weeks of shooting and I just don’t have the time, man. I write too much and enjoy life too much to be tied up like that, but more power to Brad [Paisley].”
Keith keeps his priorities in order. “I only do about 60 shows a year, and I like to play golf and hunt and fish, and when I’m not doing interviews, like I’m doing today, that’s all I want to do. I just want to relax,” he explains. And with all his amassed productivity, he deserves to take it easy.
Guys like Keith don’t reach such pinnacles of success without also having a firm grip on what they do best. To that end, Keith is simply not sure he would excel at judging American Idol contestants the same way he’s hit the jackpot in so many other vocational pursuits. “The last thing I want is to be committed to something big like that,” he summarizes, referring to American Idol. “I might be in there and not like it and have to bail out or stand my ground and stay in there, so I’ve learned through the years that it’s just not my bag.”
Kicking Butt First, Asking Questions Later
In his own unique way, Toby Keith is nevertheless an American idol of sorts. To the men in his audience, he’s the tough, patriotic Paul Bunyan they either think they are, or wish they could be, while for the women, he’s quite possibly the man the men in their lives are not.
Keith’s first single, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” about says it all. He’s a rugged John Wayne in a wimpy Robert Pattison world. He’s the muscle-bound kind that kicks butt first, and asks questions later. When he queried, “Who’s Your Daddy?” with his 2002 single of the same name, thousands of women swooned in submission, as though they were volunteering for some sort of surreal, late life adoption. That same year, when he released “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” countless patriotic men and women saluted their newfound Uncle Sam in a cowboy hat.
You see, on one end of the musical spectrum, the other end, there are cuddly little artists like Justin Bieber; audience playthings, akin to teddy bears and security blanket accessories. Such cuties are okay for kids, one supposes, but at the end of the day, this is just kid’s stuff. In stark contrast, there are the real life tough guys, like Toby Keith. Keith is certainly no child’s toy. Rather, he’s much more like an actual bear, or at the very least, a real man’s man. Appropriately enough, Keith titled his 2009 tour, with the equally manly Trace Adkins, America’s Toughest tour. “We’re old guys,” Keith explains. “We’ve been around. We’re tough as leather guys.”
Warm and cuddly, Keith definitely is not, and not everybody warms up to his gruff exterior or melts in his very presence the way teen girls dissolve at the very thought of Bieber. Nevertheless, you always respect the bear. So while Keith is not always considered beloved and cuddle-ready, he’s more than earned bear-like admiration. Keith blazes his own trail, like a pied piper with the last full beer keg on Earth, which makes him an inspiration to fellow country performers.
Booze and Twang
“I’ve had a lot of artists tell me they’d heard ‘Red Solo Cup’ long before I released it,” Keith says, “and they just said, ‘Man, it’s not something we thought we could get away with.’ I’d kind of laid the groundwork for years. “
“Red Solo Cup,” in case you’ve homesteaded under a rock somehow evaded the singer’s relatively recent viral single, is one of Keith’s biggest hits to date, and one that even crossed over to the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, if you take the time to consider its lyric, the song’s words are actually about common plastic keg party cups. In other words, it’s a drinking song, right there in the age-old country tradition of booze and twang. Keith’s aforementioned recent singles are also about drinking (“Beers Ago” and “I like Girls That Drink Beer)” off the Clancy’s Tavern album, an alcohol-related title. Celebrating inebriation is hardly politically correct behavior these days. But then again, who would foolish tell a bear to be politically correct.
Keith writes drinking songs because drinking is both a huge part of the country culture and a big topic in country music timeline.
“Over the history of country music, I doubt that on any week you could look at the charts and not see songs about the subject of drinking,” Keith says. “You know, when there’s so many country bars and there’s so many country jukeboxes throughout the years and a lot of people that listen to country music love to spend their time over a cold beer, then it makes sense to write about the world around you. It’s our world, so it makes sense to write about it.”
“Hmm, I Love This Bar”
The man doesn’t merely write and sing about adult beverages; he also runs a successful bar and grill chain named after one of his big hit songs, called Toby Keith’s I Love this Bar & Grill.
“We’ve got about fifteen of ’em now,” Keith says with pride. When visiting Toby Keith’s I Love this Bar & Grill, you can even sample Keith’s new personalized drink, Wild Shot. “If you have 15 bars and looking at 40 in the future, man, you might as well have your own beer or liquor or something and have your own house drink,” Keith quite rightly explains. Nevertheless, Keith needed to be talked into entering the liquor business.
“I have a friend of mine out of New York that’s a spirits guy,” Keith recounts, “and he approached me several years ago and started talking to me about a whiskey. And I said, ‘Well, I’d be all about it, except I’d heard there’s no whiskey left. It’s gotta be aged and in barrels and it’s pretty much all spoken for.’ And he said, ‘If I can get you one, I’d like to take it and put it in your bars.’ You know, there’s a lot of synergy to be had with it.”
From there, Keith drew upon his life experiences to guide him into this new adult beverage venture.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico down at the beach, and I noticed the locals down there, many of whom have become friends—especially the old nationalists—that would drink mezcal. And when I would ask, ‘I thought tequila was your drink,’ they would say, ‘No, we sell you [American] guys the tequila, we drink the mezcal.’ I guess it’s kind of like a Tennessean drinking moonshine, you know?”
Cabo Wabo and Wild Shot
This proud man takes great personal interest in his drink line, too. “We spend a lot more time on Wild Shot,” he says. “It’s smoky. The cactus has been smoked like a ham, whereas the regular tequila is just squeezed out of the cactus. Scotch drinkers are probably gonna call bullshit on this, but it’s clear, so it’s hard to get your mind around what you’re drinking. It’s got a smoky barrel taste, which makes it almost like you’re drinking a scotch or a whisky.” Distributors soon tasted and saw that what Keith had discovered, was good indeed.
“So they started putting it into tequila bars because we don’t have much mezcal up here in the States and it was a wide open market and my friend says, ‘Why don’t you introduce mezcal and you’ll be in on the ground floor?’ There [aren’t] very many brands on the market. We put it out in April a year ago, and by Christmas last year we were number one in the U.S. in premium mezcal. And I’ve got big chains of warehouse liquor stores that have bought it and carry only that. If you get mezcal in big chains, that’s the brand you get because they’ve all tried it out at the dissertation events and they all agree that this is the premium mezcal. We’ve done pretty well with it for the first year and a half.”
Keith was also inspired by rocker Sammy Hagar’s similar personalized liquor business. Hagar may not be the fan favorite Van Halen lead vocalist, but you cannot argue with the success of his premium tequila line, Cabo Wabo.
“My buddy Sammy Hagar has done so well with his tequila over the last 25 years,” he says. “But you don’t want to go against your buddy.” Therefore, Keith concentrated on the mezcal, with great success. With that said, however, Keith is far from done expanding his liquor line. “We’re also experimenting with different kinds of mezcal liquors, like chocolate flavored, coffee flavored, vanilla flavored. They’re really delicious. Our signature drink is called a Blue Mezcalita and it’s a frozen drink and they serve it at my concerts and they can’t hardly keep ’em in stock. They sell out about as quick as they go on sale. It’s a blue frozen drink that’s similar to a margarita.”
While Hagar comes from a hard rock background, whereas Keith is about as diehard country as they come, these two musician/businessmen have also made music together, believe it or not.
“We’ve played several times together,” says Keith. “I played at his 60th birthday party with Ted Nugent, [Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer] Chad Smith, Michael Anthony from Van Halen was there.” But that’s not the only time they’ve collaborated. “I did a Super Bowl party in Houston and they told me to put an all star band together and I got—[former NBA player and musician] Waymon Tisdale was still alive—I had him on bass, I had Willie Nelson, I had Aerosmith—Steven Tyler and Joe Perry—and Sammy and Nuge. It was a pretty big bash and we had a TV taping for it and it was a Super Bowl party for CMT and they all came in to jam on it. Sammy does my song, “I Love This Bar,” at his shows.
American Idol may want Toby Keith, but this busy and successful artist/businessman doesn’t seem to have room on his plate for even one more bite. Although scientists tell us bears are omnivores, which means they’ll eat anything and everything, it’s highly probable scientists haven’t met the bear they call Toby Keith. This bad boy bear obviously has much more discerning tastes.
Toby Keith at San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino, 777 San Manuel Blvd., Highland, (909) 864-5050; tobykeith.com. Fri, Aug. 10. $75-$599.