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Interview:
Toby Keith stays American through and through
 

By GARY GRAFF
for Journal Register Newspapers

» See more SOUND CHECK

Toby Keith is on top of the country charts again — for the 29th time.



And he’s breathing a sigh of relief, because his latest chart-topper — “Made in America” from his forthcoming album “Clancy’s Tavern” — almost didn’t make it out.



Keith says that after he and regular collaborator Bobby Pinson wrote the song in 2010 he was worried about fans getting a little America’ed out.



“I’ve got ‘Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue,’ ‘American Soldier,’ I just did ‘American Ride’ (in 2009) ... a lot of America songs,” explains Keith, 50, an Oklahoma native who’s sold more than 33 million albums since his self-titled 1993 debut. “They’re just coming daily; if I did ’em all, that’s all I’d record. I thought I should leave about three or four years between ’em and let the last one breathe a little, y’know?



“So I figured (‘Made in America’) could wait for the next (album). I said ‘Man, I might have to put this thing on the back burner for a while.”



But reaction from the musicians and engineers in the studio, as well as executives at his record company, ultimately convinced Keith otherwise.



“I was in the booth singing the scratch vocal, and everyone was going, ‘God, what a smash. That is awesome, pal!’ Keith remembers. “Everyone was high-fiving and carrying on. I wasn’t about to pop everyone’s bubble and say, ‘I ain’t putting it on the album.’ So I said, ‘Alright, y’all win. Put it on there.’



“And now it’s sitting at No. 1.”



Part of the reason for that, of course, is that “Made in America” connects with the economic climate and the mood of the country now, along with the drive to buy indigenous products. Part of the inspiration for the song was Keith’s own attempt to re-open a jeans factory in his home state and learning about the sobering economics of the worldwide clothing and textile industries.



But he notes that he couldn’t have predicted just how timely the song would be when he was writing and recording it.



“I couldn’t foresee two years ago that our country was going to have its credit rating reduced,” Keith says. “We’re songwriters; we’re not that good. But when you sing about something that strikes a chord with something that’s going on right now and the timing is perfect, it affects everything and just makes it more right to have it out there.”



Keith is playing “Made in America” and previewing some of the other songs from “Clancy’s Tavern” — due out Oct. 24 — during his concerts these days. The title track is a tribute to his late grandmother, who ran a nightclub called Billy Gardner’s Supper Club in Oklahoma, where Keith would spend summers during his youth.



“People always say, ‘What school did you go to?,’ and I tell ’em, ‘Man, I graduated from Honky Tonk University,’” says Keith, who used that for the title of his 2005 album. “I was in and out of that nightclub quite a bit and never really told the story. She passed away a couple years ago — she was 86 — and I thought it was time to write about what it was like inside her tavern. So I just walk everybody through the place and paint a picture of what went on there.”



Keith’s grandmother certainly passed her business acumen to him. Forbes magazine recently named Keith country’s highest-paid star with $50 million from royalties, tour revenues, a Ford Motor Co. sponsorship and his 11 I Love This Bar & Grill restaurants — including one in Great Lakes Crossing in Auburn Hills. Keith’s latest extramusical endeavor, meanwhile, is Wild Shot Mezcal, which Beverage Media magazine recently dubbed the top premium mezcal in the U.S., on sale in 32 states.



“Mezcal’s a very small market,” says Keith, who was encouraged into the spirits world by his good pal (and tequila maker) Sammy Hagar. “The retail liquor world doesn’t consider mezcal to be tequila; it’s its own category, so I’m not competing with Patron or any of those.



“So I saw an opportunity there. I could’ve had a whiskey or tequila, but everyone’s got one of those. So I said, ‘Let’s do something that’s really unique and see if we can’t have some success with it,’ and it’s going really well so far.”



One thing not to expect in Keith’s world, however, is more acting and film work — at least not for the time being. After the experiences of “Broken Bridges” in 2006 and “Beer For My Horses” two years later, he says he’s sated with the cinema.



“It’s so time-consuming, and there’s so little bang for your buck — and I thought my music suffered through that,” Keith says. “A song will be heard on the radio from now on. Movies come and go; you may own a movie at your house, but how often do you really play it? And if you do, how many years is it before you watch it again — whereas a song is gonna rotate on radio or be recorded by someone else or sung in a bar. ...



“A song has so much more life. And the movies ... they were fun to do, but they lose their appeal. It doesn’t make good business sense to put that much more time into a project that delivers that little back to you. I’d rather just spend the time making music.”



Toby Keith and Eric Church perform at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30, at the DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road east of I-75, Independence Township. Tickets are $69.50 pavilion and $29.50 lawn, with a $99 lawn four-pack. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.



Web Site: www.palacenet.com

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