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Toby Keith rolls his own

A career maverick stays feisty ... and successful

By Phyllis Stark
Special to MSN Music

© Show Dog Music
Toby Keith (©Show Dog Music)

With his nearly two-decade career in country music newly fueled up by his ubiquitous viral hit "Red Solo Cup," Toby Keith is back with a new album, a new top 20 hit ("I Like Girls That Drink Beer") and the same chip on his shoulder that's served him well through his entire career.

The new set, "Hope on the Rocks," released Oct. 30, includes 10 new songs, plus a handful of remixes and live versions of previous hits. Keith produced the set, wrote or co-wrote all of the new songs, and says of the project, "People I trust are telling me it's the best group of 10 songs I've ever turned in."

In a recent chat with MSN Music, Keith talked about a song that was too risqué to make the album, the gig he doesn't regret turning down, the family member he calls "fearless" and the reason he's never taken a break from touring.

MSN Music: You've written several songs around expressions your dad used to say, including one on this album, "Scat Cat," that includes the odd line "Scat cat, you've got gravy on your tail." Why was your father such a songwriting gold mine for you?

Toby Keith: He just talked in that old Will Rogers sort of country humor. It was pretty amazing to sit and listen to him talk. I've written several songs [based on things] that my dad and grandpa used to say. One was "I ain't as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was." [My dad also once said,] "I don't know what I'd do if your mama left me. I guess I'd just go with her." It wasn't a hit, but me and Dean Dillon wrote a song about that.

Other than a live version of "Get Out of My Car," you didn't include any of your funny "bus songs" at the end of this album. Why not?

I had one to put on this album called "I'm a S---ty Golfer." It's really good and really funny, and the PGA has contacted me and said, "We would love to use that, except why don't you change it to 'sorry' golfer." It's not as funny. Then [the label] said if you put this on the album, they'd have to bleep it out or put an explicit [lyric sticker] on my CD. So I'm just going to have to go through the Internet with it like we did for "Red Solo Cup." It's my favorite bus song we've written in years. I play it at my golf course.

Bing: Watch Toby Keith videos

How have you managed to maintain your status as a consistent hit maker when other artists of your generation are starting to get the cold shoulder from radio?

Next year will be my 20th year to have a recording contract. I don't know how long they give you, but I think you have to be consistent in what you deliver, and hit a couple of songs like "Red Solo Cup" and "God Love Her" that that go big with young audiences. I didn't reinvent myself, but I made a new connection to another generation.

I wrote 99 percent of my music through my career, and there's a real common thread through all of it. It's not for everybody, for sure, but I made my own niche.

Was there a halo effect from "Red Solo Cup" in terms of bringing new fans to your shows, especially now that it has well over 18 million views on YouTube?

Oh yeah. You can look at the audience and just go "Wow, that's the audience that every new artist right now wants." They're beautiful. They're young. They're raw. Their energy's over the top, and "Solo Cup"'s their song.

Any special plans to celebrate your 20th anniversary in the business next year?

I'm working on putting something together really big. If I can pull it off, I'd like to get a couple different bands onstage. Get my band to do the show we do every night, and get another band, maybe a studio band, to work up all the [other] songs we've released and just do a three-hour show and do them all in chronological order. Just go out there with no opening act and go from "Should've Been a Cowboy" all the way to "I Like Girls That Drink Beer."

Most country stars have shifted to a two-year cycle between albums, but you consistently give your fans a new album every fall. Is that a business decision, a creative decision or both?

All the years before I had my own record label, I did it because I had songs ready to go. If I have 15 or 20 things ready to go in the studio, if I waited [until] every other year I'd have 30 or 40. I've got to get it out there.

After getting my own label [Show Dog], then it became like a business decision to stay on the same cycle because I had a huge staff, and we own our own building in Nashville, and have a company to pay for, so we need to fund it. It costs a lot of money to try and break an act ... So I just put one out every year [partly] because it's a great business decision, but for the most part, I just write that many songs [and] I'm ready to go.

You turned down the opportunity to be a judge on the next season of "American Idol." How long would you have lasted sitting between dueling divas Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj?

I wouldn't have quit, but I know two or three weeks in I would have been hating it. It's very flattering when they call you up and ask if you're interested in being a judge on "American Idol." It's a huge show. Ten years ago I would have probably jumped on it. But we did a movie project from start to finish, "Beer for My Horses," and proud as I am of it, and as much fun as we had making it . . . in the end it was 10 months of my time, and I was tired of it before we shot the thing.

I know what would happen [on "Idol"]. It was a ton of money, a very impressive offer. It's a prestigious, prime-time, big time television show, and it's very flattering to be asked to do it, but I know about two to three weeks in I'd just be going, "Damn, what have I done?"

Photos: Toby Keith In Focus

You're co-producing a country album for your daughter, Krystal Keith. Are you pleased that she's following your footsteps into this crazy music business?

She's been in it the whole way. I remember when she was 2 or 3 years old and she would stand by the side of the stage, and if somebody wasn't watching her, she'd just wander out there and stand beside me. She never cared about the crowd or nothing. She was never freaked out over it.

When she sang with me on an awards show when she was [a teen], I was nervous for her and prepped her the best I could. We come off [stage] and she goes, "It wasn't as big in there as I thought it was going to be." She is fearless.

Have you given her any advice?

I told her, "Hey, don't let the bastards eat you." They're going to come at her because she's my daughter. I said, "Just keep a firm chin and give them the middle finger." She's, like, gung-ho. She don't care. She's got a better grasp for it than I did because I had to learn on the fly. She's watched me.

Somebody at her high school one time was jealous, and walking down the hall said, "Your dad sucks." She goes, "Yeah, he does. He sucks in about $50 million net a year." This was seven or eight years ago, [so] put seven more years on top of that and I don't have much to worry about.

More: 2012 Country Music Association Awards

You're nominated for three American Country Awards on the upcoming FOX special in December. What are your thoughts on that fledgling awards show compared to some of the more established ones?

The biggest problem I always had with awards shows is that it wasn't fan voted. You've got 1,500 people in the industry who vote for you, [and] the industry has an agenda ... But the new awards shows like the ACA, they're fan voted, so you can't whine if you lose.

The video for "I Like Girls That Drink Beer" offers a Toby's-eye view of the fans at one of your shows. Is that a good representation of what you see from the stage every night?

I've never missed a year of touring, but at some point in a long career you get tired. You look up and the years are flying by [and you think], "I need to just kick back and enjoy some of this because I've had my nose to the grindstone since I was a baby." [Those fans are] what keep you going back. You're the reason that they're having that party, [and] these little gems that I've written over the years have connected with these people. They want to have a release that night, and sing those songs that you wrote. You [see that,] and you're like, "This is the reason I do this."

Veteran entertainment journalist Phyllis Stark has been reporting extensively on the music industry for two decades. As a freelance writer, her work appears regularly in numerous publications and sites. She previously was Nashville bureau chief at Billboard magazine. She regularly reports on country music for MSN Music, where she writes the One Country blog.

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