THE EARLY YEARS

Here's the real - and unexpected - story, in his own words, of the country superstar's childhood and everything that went into growing up Toby.

First, let's talk about Country Weekly making me 'country's worst-dressed' male star." It's Toby Keith's opening volley to me as we walk along a corridor backstage at Nashville's Gaylord Entertainment Center. We're on the way to his bus parked in the center's underground garage. The live broadcast of the 2005 CMT Music Awards is less than three hours away. "Hey, Toby, that wasn't my vote"-I declare with a laugh-"you're a heckuva lot bigger than I am!" Then Toby's grin lets me know I'm off the hook, or, actually, that I was really never on the hook. "I thought it was pretty funny," he adds as we step into an elevator. "And there was Keith Urban voted best-dressed-and he's wearing a T-shirt. Now, that's really funny!" On the bus, I scan my notes. What he's accomplished since catching Nashville's attention with "Should've Been a Cowboy"-his 1993 debut single that roared to No. 1-is remarkable. Fourteen of his 26 Billboard Top 10 singles have gone to No. 1. He's racked up eight platinum albums and three gold albums, and his latest CD, Honkytonk University, hits stores May 17. He's snagged a roomful of trophies, from the CMA's 2001 Male Vocalist to six ACM awards, including 2003's Entertainer of the Year. And along the way, his fans keep flocking to sold-out tours- his latest, the Big Throwdown II Tour, featuring Lee Ann Womack and Shooter Jennings, kicks off June 10. As Toby sits across from me, I get ready to delve into his life before the spotlight-about his early relationships with his dad, H.K. Covel (who died in 2001); his mom, Joan; his brother and sister and friends. In the next hour and half Toby talks candidly about the good times, the rough spots, how he got a police rap sheet, his first-and ill-fated- marijuana experience and so much more. The following Q&A is the first of a two-part special-look for the conclusion in our June 6 issue. Your current single, "Honkytonk U," is autobiographical. It opens with you talking about your grandmother and the nightclub she owned when you were a kid. Tell me about her and the club.
Her name is Hilda Martin. She's my grandmother on my mother's side. She's 84 years old. Great health. Great mind. She's very dear to me.
When her husband died of a rare stomach cancer, she was strapped with three children-a 4- year-old, a 2-year-old and a newborn. My mom was the 2-year-old.
So my grandmother had to go to work. Years later, she ended up running Billy's Supper Club in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
When I was about 12, I'd go to grandmother's in the summertime. She lived by herself, so I'd stay with her and she'd take me to the club-that was my first introduction to live music. There was a three-piece horn section, bass player, baby grand piano, drummer and a Chet Atkins Gibson guitar. The band played everything from 'In the Mood' to country ballads to Sinatra to what was hot then, like 'Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.' And I'd jam with them. And your grandmother gave you your first guitar.
Yeah. I was 8. It was an Otasco. There were Oklahoma Tire & Supply Company-OTASCO-stores all over Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas. You could buy bicycles, tires and other items, like guitars, there. What were the first songs you learned to play?
I'd play my mom's old records and try to figure out the guitar licks. I learned mostly from Webb Pierce, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins and Bob Wills. But the Bob Wills songs seemed old-fashioned to a kid growing up in a rock 'n' roll era. Today, I really appreciate what Bob was doing. Let's go back a bit. You were born in Clinton, Okla., and your sister and brother were born in other Oklahoma cities. Were you following your dad's oil-field work?
Right. We were born wherever dad's rig was. The rig would punch its hole and move on to punch another one. When I was born, the rig was on the Texas- Oklahoma line. Mom drove herself to the Clinton hospital to have me. Two years later, we were living in Ardmore in southern Oklahoma, when my sister, Tonni, was born. And my little brother, Tracy, was born in Oklahoma City. Were times tough for your family?
Yeah. When I was about 4 my dad broke his leg and was stuck in the hospital. My mom was working two or three jobs, but we still couldn't make it. And for a short time we were living on government food. But dad was a hardworking guy and when he got back on his feet, we were well provided for.

- Larry Holden

To read more from Part One of The Early Years with Toby Keith, pick up the new Country Weekly hitting newsstands on May 9!

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