THE TWO HORSEMEN

One's an in-your-face, rabble-rousing superstar. The other's a laid-back, longhaired American icon.

Like a lot of great country music tales, this one begins with whiskey. Willie Nelson and Toby Keith were on Willie's bus, passing the bottle back and forth - to be precise, a bottle of Willie's own signature brand, Old Whiskey River. They were having fun, but Toby had a serious question for his boyhood hero.

"I've got a project I'd love to talk to you about," he offered. "It's singing the second verse on a song that I think fits you like a glove."

"What's the name of it?" asked Willie. "'Whiskey for My Men, Beer for My Horses,'" replied Toby.

"Hell, let's go cut it!" Willie exclaimed with a laugh. "It'd be hard to have a bad song with a title that good!"

Many months later, Willie's judgment turned out to be right on. "Beer for My Horses" shot to No. 1 and stayed there for six weeks - marking Willie's first appearance at the top of the charts since 1989.

"Johnny Cash said one time that all that's wrong with any of us can be cured with a No. 1 song," chuckles Willie. "And I think he was about right. I'm almost cured of everything!"

Toby is justifiably proud to have helped bring Willie back to that pinnacle - but perplexed by the way his hero was shut out of the No. 1 spot for so long.

"When you see somebody that still has the love and passion that he's got, you don't understand why they can't have a shot like these young guys and girls," he says. "But I've told him time and time again that I'm glad to be the guy that got to take that ride with him."

The ride actually began many years ago, way back in mid-Sept. 1976. Toby, then 15, made his way backstage when Willie was appearing in concert at the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Okla., as part of an "Outlaws" tour with Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser.

At the time, Toby already idolized Willie, who was then riding high with the No. 1 Waylon duet "Good Hearted Woman" - a song Toby himself would sing with Willie months after Waylon's death in 2002.

Toby still remembers meeting Willie that night, 27 years ago. "He was his usual polite self," he smiles. "Willie is a real sweetheart. He takes care of everybody, and wants everybody to have a piece of him."

By the time they met again in the '90s, Toby had followed in Willie's footsteps to become a star himself. It happened that Toby's guitarist, Joey Floyd, had played the part of Willie's son in the 1980 movie Honeysuckle Rose, and still kept in touch. Joey made the introductions - and Toby and Willie's friendship was off and running.

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Story by Chris Neal

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