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Toby Keith Mans The Reins Of His Career

Of the Oakland Press

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Toby Keith is a take-charge kind of guy. The country music superstar ditched the Nashville mainstream two years ago to start his own record company, Show Dog Nashville, releasing his albums as well as up-and-coming artists such as Flynnville Train, Rushlow Harris and Rebecca Lynn Howard.

He’s also started a movie production company that’s working on a film adaptation of his 2002 hit “Beer for My Horses.”

So it makes sense that Keith, who’s sold more than 30 million albums and scored two dozen No. 1 country hits, would take charge of his own music, too. He did just that on his latest album, “Big Dog Daddy,” taking the production reins for the first time and steering his 12th album to a No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200 in addition to the country charts.

“I’m maturing,” explains the 45-year-old Oklahoma native, born Toby Keith Covel, who came to Nashville in 1993 after working on oil derricks and playing semi-pro football.

“I came to a point in my life where I said, ‘I want my fingerprints all over my music from now on.’ I want people to hear that I’ve got my own identity.”

Ironically, however, Keith feels he taps into that identity best on “Big Dog Daddy’s” latest single, “Love Me If You Can” — one of only two songs on the album he didn’t co-write but one that sums up his personal philosophy, with lines such as “I’m a man of my convictions/Call me wrong, call me right/But I bring my better angels to every fight.”

“This song tells exactly everything,” says the father of three. “I couldn’t have written this song word-for-word better to describe myself and how I feel about things — ‘Hate me if you want to, love me if you can.’

“We know there’s people out there who feel both ways.”

Keith has certainly been a divisive force over the years. He took liberal heat, including a nasty public squabble with the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, after his flag-waving 2002 hit “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).”

But don’t just paint him red state; Keith, who claims he’s “not a very political person” in general, is a registered Democrat, but also a fiercely independent spirit who voted twice each for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and campaigned on behalf of Oklahoma’s Democratic Governor Brad Henry.

He supported the post-9/11 attack on Afghanistan but questions the situation in Iraq as much as any of his more outspoken Bush-bashing colleagues.

“But,” Keith notes, “the difference between me and them is, I will go anywhere and play to support the troops, whereas they won’t go to Iraq and Afghanistan to support the troops for being there.”

Clearly Keith revels in being his own man, and nowhere more so than in the music business. After taking the gamble with Show Dog, he’s happy to note that his platinum 2006 album “White Trash with Money” “was every bit as successful as the last one I did with DreamWorks (2005’s ‘Honkytonk University’),” and that running his own shop has other advantages.

“The neat thing about it is, before, there were always music meetings,” Keith explains. “I had four or five people telling me what they thought I should record, what the singles should be, what the cover should look like ...

“There’s no meetings now. I just turn the album in — ‘Here it is, guys. Go promote it.’ ”

Keith plans to give them plenty more in the near future. He’s already recorded a second Christmas album, which he plans to release this fall. But unlike 1995’s “Christmas to Christmas,” which was stocked with originals, Keith’s new, as yet untitled album, will be a two-CD set of existing holiday classics.

“I’ve been meaning to do another (Christmas album) for 10 years,” Keith says. “I’m not an extremely religious guy, but I am a Christian, and I do know what the meaning of Christmas is. It’s time for me to do one.”

Keith says that he took a slightly different musical course on the album, too.

“I cut it mainly with acoustic instruments,” he says. “I called it the bluegrass band — dobro, fiddle, mandolin piano, acoustic bass, brushes on the drums, things like that. That became a new part of me. I like to hear myself working in that atmosphere and that environment.”

Away from music, Keith is working on the screenplay for “Beer for My Horses,” which will be the follow-up to 2006’s “Broken Bridges,” his film debut.

“It’s nothing like the video,” Keith says of “Beer.. ” “That was very serious; (the movie) is a little more of a ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ type of thing, more of a situational comedy, I guess.”

Keith hopes to have something ready to film in early 2008 and have the film out by the middle of the year. He’s also waiting for word about “Convoy,” an action film about civilian truck drivers in Afghanistan, and is in discussions to do “a real controversial movie ... with a famous director and producer” that he hopes he’ll be able to announce in the near future.

It’s a busy and diverse career, but Keith says with pride that “I know where I stand. I go my own way. I do my own thing. I write my own music, put out my own records, make my own movies ...

“I just thank God there’s a home for it out there. Thank God I have a fan base, man.”

Toby Keith, Miranda Lambert and Flynnville Train perform 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday (June 5th and 6th) at DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road north of I-75, Independence Township. Tickets are $72.50 pavilion, $37.27 lawn. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.

Web Site: www.palacenet.com

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