Toby Keith may be a bona fide country music superstar, but he confesses to being a bit apprehensive when he hit the road earlier this year.
"When we started out on this tour, gas prices were at their highest and I thought, 'Wow, this may really affect our tour," says Keith, 47, a former oil field worker who's racked up 44 country hits and is a perpetually strong concert draw.
The good news is that his worries proved unfounded. Tickets ales are up "between 11 and 15 percent" according to Keith, and "at some of the shows we've sold more tickets than we've ever sold. Some of our biggest cities, where we've set big marks in the past were bigger than they've been -- ever.
"So it's just rockin'. I don't know why. I'm just...grateful."
The reason may be that the Oklahoma-born Keith has successfully created a brand of quality in his 15 years of recording. It's borne out in more than 31 million album sales and six No. 1 country albums. The publishing company BMI honored him earlier this year for 60 million radio and jukebox plays of songs he's written, "and that's approaching 60 (million) really fast as we speak right now," Keith notes.
In May Forbes magazine named Keith the top-earning star in country music, with an estimated gross annual income of $48 million.
All of that allowed Keith to in 2005 step away from the Nashville country music establishment and start his own label, Show Dog Nashville, which has released his last four albums -- including "Toby Keith's 35 Biggest Hits" in May -- and will put out "That Don't Make Me a Bad Guy" on Oct. 28. His Show Dog Productions, meanwhile, put out its first major feature, an adaptation of Keith's 2003 hit "Beer For My Horses," this summer (it opens Sept. 19 in the Detroit area).
"I just frickin' go for it," says Keith, who also owns a chain of I Love This Bar & Grill restaurants and is a longtime Ford Truck pitchman. "I just go for it and let it fly, and I don't care who it intimates or who it (angers). I don't hold back.
"I've got so many things that promote my brand name...I'll never be bigger than country music, but I'll be bigger than the people who [i]run[/i] country music. I'm so big that the people that run country music can't stop me -- even though they'd like to 'cause I'm not part of their club and don't kow-tow to their rules."
Keith seems to be doing just fine in spite of that. He's back in the Top 10 of Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart with "She Never Cried in Front of Me," the first single from "That Don't Make Me a Bad Guy" and a harbinger of several songs he's written with new collaborator Bobby Pinson.
"He just talks differently and he's real inspiring for me to write with," Keith says. "He just says things differently, his choices of words and everything, and he sees the world through a different set of eyes. He came out here on the road and we hit it off right off the bat. He really inspires me to want to write more."
Keith says there are more surprises on "...Bad Guy," the second album he's produced entirely himself. Among those is "Missin' Me Some You," a "really slow" blues song inspired by an encounter during one of his visits to troops in Iraq, and a "Southern rock" track called "Cry of the Creole Woman" about "a guy stopping in a bar in Louisiana and getting taken up to a girl's room...and she puts the mojo on him and curses him." Keith says there's also "a couple of real steamy love songs that are kind of out of character for us."
But "...Bad Guy" is hardly a wholesale change for the multi-platinum country artist.
"I've always wanted my music to sound like a good band," Keith explains. "I never wanted it to sound like it was intricately produced. I never put a lot of time into my songs; I think there's a beauty in the first blush of the rose, sometimes. It was a fun album to make."
With that done Keith's turning his attention towards his next film project, though he notes those are a little more daunting. "You're on something for 12, 15 months -- that's a big piece of your life," he notes. "If I do 60 shows a year, I could do that in two months, really. (The movies) are too much of an undertaking."
But he was buoyed by the reception to "Beer For My Horse," which opened in limited release in August. A DVD with a variety of extras is due out in November, and Keith says if it does well he might consider turning it into a franchise.
"It was No. 1 in a lot of markets, so I expect it to be a big video seller," he notes. "If it is, it would be a very good business call to go forward and try to do a sequel to it."
One thing Keith [i]is[/i] steering clear of these days is politics, especially after his well-chronicled feud with the Dixie Chicks that began in 2004. This year Keith, who's a registered Democrat but has endorsed candidates from both parties, isn't making his presidential choice public but has good feelings about both candidates.
"In the past years, I wasn't happy with either candidate," he says. "But I really like both these guys. One side hates the other all the time, but this year I feel like we've got an opportunity with both of these candidates to move forward as a country and get some unity back.
"This frickin' polarized hate thing that's going on is just crippling our country, so [i]that's[/i] really what we've got to end, and I think both these guys can do that."
Toby Keith, Montgomery Gentry, Carter's Chord, Mica Roberts and Trailer Choir perform at 7:30 p.m. Sunday (Sept. 14) at the DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road east of I-75, Independence Township. Tickets are $79.50 pavilion, $37 lawn. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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