Toby Tells Us the Truth on Hot Topics

Toby Keith waxes warmly on a variety of hot topics, including his Oklahoma benefit concert and why he’s cutting back on his touring schedule.

Originally published in our July 15, 2013 issue featuring Toby Keith on the cover.

As Toby Keith calls from his home base in Oklahoma, he kicks off the conversation in a regular-folks manner with a capsuled weather report. “It’s a nice, sunny day here, kind of a typical summer afternoon,” Toby says. “It’s great to have a day like this, when everything’s pretty calm and normal.”

Calm and normal would sit just fine with Toby’s fellow Oklahomans, who have survived a recent spate of deadly and devastating storms. A mammoth May 20 tornado killed 24 people in Moore, where Toby was raised, leaving the city practically in ruins. Additional tornadoes later in the month and early June hit Oklahoma City and the town of El Reno, upending cars, leveling buildings and causing mass flooding and an untold number of power outages. The storms and the damages they left behind dominated the national news headlines for days. 

“Miles and Miles of Nothingness”

To lend a hand to his home state, Toby organized the Oklahoma Twister Relief Concert in Norman, Okla., taking place July 6. Toby recruited an incredible lineup for the show, including fellow Oklahoman Garth Brooks and his wife, Trisha Yearwood; Ronnie Dunn, who grew up in the state; Willie Nelson; rocker Sammy Hagar; Mel Tillis and John Anderson. Net proceeds from the show will benefit the United Way of Central Oklahoma May Tornadoes Relief Fund.

For those who live in the state, the possibility of a tornado outbreak is more than just a crapshoot. It’s a very real threat, one which residents have to take seriously. “Okies are pretty tough and they do bounce back pretty fast,” Toby says with a measure of pride. “But these latest [storms] were about as bad as I’ve ever seen. It’s real comparable to what happened in 1999. There are just miles and miles of nothingness.” During a six-day period in May of that year, a severe tornado outbreak occurred, with the most prominent storm tearing through Oklahoma City, Moore and other nearby towns, resulting in more than $1 billion in damages. 

“I probably wasn’t in the position then to pull off this kind of concert,” Toby says of the benefit. “It’s good that we can do this now. I grew up in Moore, and I have lots of family and friends who were affected by these latest tornadoes. We have to keep helping them any way we can. The money we raise is staying right here in the state, which is what we wanted.” 

Toby was heartened by the immediate show of support for the concert. “I called Garth and got a message back saying, ‘Hey, man, I’m following your lead. You just tell me when to be there.’ That was great,” Toby says. “Then, I think my second call was to Willie and he said he would do it. Once I had those two,” he adds with excitement, “I just needed to find a date. Then I heard from other people like Mel Tillis and Ronnie. John Anderson called and said that he wanted to come. The people who want to reach out and help because of your friendship, those are the ones you want to get on there for sure.”

Toby knows the resilience of the folks in the Sooner State. He also realizes that the building-back effort will take time and patience. “You just do it a little bit at a time,” Toby says evenly. “We’ve done it before. This last time, the national media that came down here was completely amazed by how fast the streets were back up and running and how quick power was being provided to people. We know how to get it done.”

Cutting the Schedule

Before the natural disasters that hit his home state, Toby suffered a loss that struck to the core of his personal and professional life. His longtime bass player and band leader, Chuck Goff, was killed in a car accident in February at the age of 54. “He was a close friend for over 25 years,” Toby noted in a release about Chuck’s passing. 

It was a slightly different atmosphere, then, when Toby set out on his new Hammer Down Tour presented by Ford F-Series in June. “This is my first tour professionally without my bass player, Chuck,” Toby says in a somewhat downbeat tone. “That was kind of strange at first. But everybody’s back in the swing of it and doing well. We did the first weekend of shows and it all went smooth.” The current tour features dynamic opening act Kip Moore and upstart Drake White.

Come fall and football season, however, Toby won’t be as visible on tour as he has in past years. His son, Stelen, is showing considerable promise on the football field at his high school in Norman, and the proud dad plans to take in every game possible. “He’s going into his junior year,” Toby explains, “and he’s really busting it, doing the best he can. He says that he wants to play football for a living, but I think every kid that age says that. He’s always been a good student, so that’s the best part. But I want to see him play,” Toby adds, “so I’m going to stay around here as much as I can. I might work a few odd Saturday nights, but as far as leaving on Thursday and coming back on Saturday or Sunday, that’s going to be over with at the end of the summer.” 

In Dad’s Footsteps

Another member of the family, daughter Krystal Keith, also seems success-bound, in the same field as her dad. Krystal recently signed a record deal with Toby’s label, Show Dog Universal Music, and is getting ready to release her debut album. That project will include the song that garnered her some considerable national attention, “Daddy Dance With Me.” Krystal wrote the touching song as a surprise for her father on her wedding day. Toby was moved, although not quite to tears (at the ceremony, anyway). But he was definitely surprised.

“To have something you’ve never heard before pop up like that, and you realize what it is,” Toby says with a laugh, “well, that was really cool. But then you go, ‘It’s really good, too.’ It doesn’t just say stuff that means something to me and her, it’s a song that anybody could play at their wedding.”

Krystal has aimed to follow in Toby’s impressive footprints since she was a teen. She made her national debut in 2004, singing the popular duet “Mockingbird” with her dad on the telecast of the Country Music Association Awards show. But before there would be any talk of record deals and songwriting contracts, Toby insisted that Krystal pursue a college degree, which she received from the University of Oklahoma. Now, Toby feels that his daughter is ready for the erratic ups and downs of the record business.

“She handles herself really well,” Toby says. “She was out at some new artist events recently and everybody came up and said that she was very poised. She’s been around it all her life so she knows what it takes.” Toby’s doubly impressed by Krystal’s commitment to her career. “Krystal does this because she wants to,” Toby says. “She is here to make music and I think she’s gonna be fine.” 

Playing for the USO

For more than a decade now, Toby has been making room on the calendar for an important series of shows, entertaining U.S. troops overseas on tours for the USO. Since 2002, Toby has traveled to Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries to play for servicemen and women. He recently completed his 11th USO tour this past April 28 through May 7, visiting bases in the Philippines, Guam and Hawaii.

“This was a little different than any of the ones we’ve done in the past years,” Toby explains. “Every year, we would do a week in Afghanistan and a week in Iraq. This year, we went to some small islands and there were Special Forces people training down there. We went to some real remote places that I never knew even existed, so there’s always a history and a geography lesson every time you go on one of the USO shows.”

This last trip also proved more physically exhausting, owing mostly to the hectic schedule of events. “We were used to landing in Baghdad or Kandahar and jumping on a Black Hawk [helicopter] and playing for the soldiers,” Toby notes. “We would do a big show at the base that night. This time was more bouncing around to five or six places a day and we were pretty worn out when we got back.” But the demands of such a tour, as always, are small compared to the rewards. “Some of the bases we played don’t ever get any entertainment,” Toby says. “So this was a special trip for us. It’s always great to travel with the USO and have the opportunity to lift up the soldiers and their families.”

As usual, Toby has set out a full plate of activities for the rest of the year. He has a new single on the charts, “Drinks After Work” (see sidebar), and is working on a new album project. Plus, the astute businessman is seeking out additional locales for his restaurant chain, Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill. Present locations include the original in Oklahoma City along with Denver, Cincinnati, Foxboro, Mass., and others, with one in Jacksonville, Fla., soon to open.

“We have more under construction,” Toby says. “The biggest thing with us is the quality. You can get anybody in here once, but the food and the service are going to bring them back. We try and keep the prices reasonable for people and it has worked out really well for us. It’s a lot to keep up with,” Toby admits with a brief laugh. “But we manage to keep it all together.” 

Just as he always has.

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