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Toby Keith: Survivor (2001)

Toby’s first appearance on the cover of CW: Rugged Toby Keith kept doing things his way—everybody likes him now!

Originally published in the Aug. 21, 2001 issue of Country Weekly featuring Toby on the cover. This story is presented here in its entirety.

Inside the rough and tumble honky-tonk, two-stepping couples crowd the dance floor as Toby Keith and his band grind out on solid country music. An icy night wind swirling in from the Oklahoma prairie pushes under the door, causing dust motes to do their own whirling dance. Suddenly, tempers flare. The harsh scrape of chairs scooting back cuts the air. A flurry of fists follow. Toby frowns, sets his guitar on the stage—and jumps smack dab in the middle of the brawl!

Snapshot of a hot-headed kid, ready at the drop of a Stetson to throw his 240-pound, 6-foot-4-inch body into a fray? “I worked a lot of tough taverns back in the mid-’80s and fights broke out all the time,” recalls Toby. “A fight would cause folks to head for the door. If they left early, the owner would lose money and may not pay the band as much as he planned. So, even as a big 21 year old, I’d try to break up every fight.” Translation: Toby Keith’s a survivor who will at all costs protect the livelihood that takes care of his family.

That relentless trait drove him to excel when he toiled in the oil fields, when he was initially rejected by Nashville and even when award show after award show snubbed him. Now his persistence—plus his outstanding singing and songwriting talent has racked up multi-platinum albums and a string of No. 1 records, including last year’s mega-smash “How Do You Like Me Now?!”

In May he finally took home his first awards, and he was a pivotal part of this summer’s monstrously big Brooks & Dunn Neon Circus and Wild West Show tour. And Toby’s latest single, “I’m Just Talkin’ About Tonight,” from his just-released Pull My Chain, debuted higher on the charts than any other song of his career. And just like his “Getcha Some” hit was called “country rap” by detractors, the new tune, which Toby co-wrote, is being tagged as the “quickie” song.

“A guy ‘getting a quickie’ is not what it’s about,” explains an amused Toby. “I’ve always found it humorous when a girl and boy first meet, the girl always has her defenses up while the boy is always thought to be on the attack. The song has the guy saying, ‘I’m just talking about what’s going on right here tonight.’ He just wants a nice moment without her putting future expectations on him.”

At May’s Academy of Country Music Awards, where Toby won best male vocalist and Album of the Year for How Do You Like Me Now?!, the taste of vindication was sweet on his tongue. “Everybody in the industry who’d ever done me right got hugged and kissed,” he declared that night. “Everybody who’d done me wrong got the finger.”

It’s now late June and Toby is visiting Kelley Elementary School in Moore, Okla. He donated money from a concert to landscape the campus after a 1999 tornado swept the school building into oblivion. The school isn’t far from Moore High School, where Toby played football, graduating in 1979. And it’s only a few miles from Toby’s 160-acre farm, and close to his new horse-training facility, with a racetrack and stalls for his 40 thoroughbreds.

“I absolutely love performing and writing songs,” explains Toby, walking down Kelley’s summer-empty halls, “but being at home with my wife, Tricia, and my three kids is the best feeling of all.” But easy, now. If you’ve suddenly got a mental picture of Toby at home pushing a vacuum cleaner, he assures the image is pure fantasy. “Me and a vacuum cleaner won’t be happening,” he declares with a chuckle.

But when Toby talks about his kids, he’s every inch a proud papa. Shelley, 20, is a University of Oklahoma sophomore studying architecture. “She’s a sharp, level-headed kid who loves the country club circles and social events,” he gushes. “Krystal’s my little 15-year-old redneck rebel. She’s a very talented singer/songwriter who’s into cowboy boots and jeans.” And Stelen, 4, is a mini-Toby. “Every time someone sees Stelen they say he’s my clone,” admits Toby. “I do catch him doing my actions and gestures. And, man, playing with him is a lot of fun."

Toby will soon have more space for fun. He’s building an 8,500-square-foot house on his farm. “The Great Room will be awesome,” he reveals, “but the theater room’s spectacular. It’ll be loaded with my sports memorabilia, a state-of-the-art sound system and the biggest TV there is.”

Toby and Tricia celebrated their 17th anniversary in March. They met when he went with friends to an Oklahoma nightclub in 1981. “She and I danced, he says. I thought she was great.” They dated for three years before walking down the aisle, and he kept food on the table by working with his dad in the sometimes-dangerous Oklahoma oil fields.

“When I was 19 I saw a guy die,” he says. A pipe was being lifted to the top of the derrick when a cable broke. It fell into a crowd of five roughnecks and landed on him.” When the oil business went bust in the mid-’80s, Toby turned to music to pay the bills. Even though his band was called the Easy Money Band, there was nothing easy about the sporadic income flow. “Dozens of people told Tricia, ‘You need to go tell your old man to get a real job.’ It took a strong-hearted and loving woman to say, ‘He’s good enough at music that I’ve got to let him try. And it’ll be a great shot for both of us if he can make it work.’”

Toby did make it work—but he hit a brick wall the first time he went to Nashville in 1992. “I took a tape of songs I’d written to Capitol Records. On it was ‘Should’ve Been A Cowboy,’ ‘Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine On You,’ ‘He Ain’t Worth Missing,’ ‘Wish I Didn’t Know Now,’ ‘Close But No Cigar’ and ‘Valentine.’ The Capitol exec told me to go home and get back to my woodshed.”

Toby was devastated. But after a few days, he thought, ‘Hell, if Nashville doesn’t like my songs, I can still make a living writing and singing right here in Oklahoma.” Translation: Toby’s a survivor who was going to take care of his family.

Not long after that, Mercury Nashville president Harold Shedd heard Toby’s six-song tape and signed him to a record deal. Four of the songs eventually made it to Top 5, with “Should’ve Been A Cowboy” reaching No. 1. When Mercury Nashville got a new president, it quickly became clear to Toby he was second fiddle to other artists on the roster.

“When you don’t promote my songs and leave me hanging out to dry at radio,” he declares, “you’re messin’ with my livelihood. And I’m not going to stand for that.” So he and Mercury parted company in 1999. Toby, 40, is now a flagship artist on DreamWorks Records.

Throughout his career he’s proven himself to be a top-notch songwriter and one of country’s most recognizable voices. “I got my singing ability from my mom,” Toby declares. “Some of my earliest memories are crawling around on those old hardwood floors while she bounced through the rooms cleaning house, whistling and singing. She loved to sing Patsy Cline’s ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’ and Skeeter Davis’ ‘The End Of The World.’”

Toby confesses he got the wit he often showcases in his songs from his dad, H.K. Covel. “Anything you hear in a song that’s funny springs from my dad. He was like a modern-day Will Rogers, with funny one-liners or ‘H.K.-isms.’

But there was nothing funny about March 24, 2001. “My dad had a heart attack while driving on an Oklahoma interstate. He had already crossed over to heaven before his car crossed over the median and wrecked. “I cried at the funeral. He raised me to be strong. He prepared me for tragedies like this and I didn’t even know he was doing it. I miss him a lot.”

With his dad “watching out” for him, and his career finally hitting on all cylinders, what does Toby want now? “To ask for anything more would be completely greedy,” he acknowledges. “All I want is good health for me and my family to continue doing what I love to do for a living—writing and singing my songs.”

Translation: Toby Keith is a survivor with class.