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Toby Keith Talks ‘Clancy’s Tavern,’ Retirement and Keeping His Crew in Line

Toby Keith
Christopher Polk, Getty Images

Since 2001, there has been only one calendar year that Toby Keith has not released a new studio album (2004), and he filled it with a greatest hits project. The singer turned 50 this year, but it still feels premature to refer to him as a legend. Legends lose touch, fade away or retire. Despite playing half as many shows as he did in the mid-to-late ’90s, Keith is hardly slowing down. There’s the restaurant chain to keep him busy, and the country club. And there’s his line of liquor, some occasional acting … plus he runs his own record label.

The ‘Made in America’ singer is more of a brand than just a country music artist these days, but his razor sharp focus on the music hasn’t rusted or dulled. During a lengthy phone call, he talked to Taste of Country about the songs on is new album, ‘Clancy’s Tavern,’ (available now) with an excitement a casual fan would find astonishing.

The title track of ‘Clancy’s Tavern’ sort of sounds like country music’s version of Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man.’
You know, I haven’t heard ‘Piano Man,’ but I’ve heard ‘Taxi,’ by Harry Chapin. I’ll tell you what that story’s about. First of all, that story is true. It’s influenced by my grandmother’s tavern that I was raised in. But I played Ireland here about two years ago for the first time, and [at] the end of the trip it was like, I started kind of getting a desire to wanna listen to some old Irish folk songs. And, you know, I just started writing that melody and just started placing those lyrics in the spot. And then when the chorus comes around … my vibrato comes out. I don’t know — I love the song. It was inspired by my trip to Ireland and I actually have Irish roots in my ancestry, and then having that lyric about that tavern. When I think of an Irish pub over there in Ireland, I think about beer glasses in the air swinging back and forth kind of like an old pirate ship kind of thing, and that’s what I wanted to write, you know.

Your crowd must love ‘Red Solo Cup.’
Oh, goodness gracious. You have no idea.

As you get further along in the song, it seems like your vocals seem to come under the influence of the song in some way.
You know, I sat on this song for two years, so I knew it really well. Actually, it was in the middle of the day and it was just a good acting job. To me it sounds like that, and it’s like it’s so stupid — the song is so stupid but so adorable that … I’ll give you an example. My sister is in the studio visiting me when I sang it. She’d never heard it. First time I went through it [and] laid the first vocal track down for her, I looked through back in the studio and she was laughing. When I walked back in the studio she said, “I love that little song,” and I said, “Yeah, it’s pretty stupid,” and she goes, “I think it’s hilarious.” The next day she comes in the studio and she’s singing it as she’s walking in.

Well then, the president of my record label, my partner — he’s produced ‘I Hope You Dance,’ he wrote hit songs in the ‘80s and ’90s for Vern Gosdin and Earl Thomas Conley and he’s a song guy. And he goes, “I can’t believe that the biggest songwriter in the history of BMI would record this song.” And I said “You don’t like it?” He goes, “It’s just stupid,” and I said, “I’m stupid sometimes myself” and just laughed him off. Well, the next day he comes in and he looks like hell when he comes in the studio and I said, “What’s the matter?” He goes, “I didn’t get much sleep last night … I had to take an Ambien at four o’clock this morning ‘cause I couldn’t get ‘Red Solo Cup’ out of my head.” There’s a magic about that song. It just grasps people and infects you with stupidity.

Watch the ‘Red Solo Cup’ Video | Read Our Review of ‘Red Solo Cup’

You work at a pretty incredible pace. Have you looked ahead to how long you’ll be able to keep working this hard?
You know, when I was starting out, I was listening to all the cats that were three or four years older than me  … I heard a lot of belly aching and a lot of complaining. And I’ve always just said, “Hey, you’ll know. You’ll know when the youth movement takes over.” If you’re not draggin’ the youth with you on the way up, if you can’t keep injecting new music into the youth, you’ll lose that … And I just said, “Hey, when my time’s up some day, it’ll just be up and I’ll just go raise my race horses and play golf and write songs and send them to the kids, you know.”

We did 23,000 tickets in Cincinnati last night, so as long as it looks like there’s a reason to come out here and people want to buy a ticket to see it and hear it, then I go. I only do 65 cities. I used to do 155. In 1993, I did 155 shows.

That’s a heck of a lot of cities.
Yeah [chuckles]. But think about it. How hard is it? I hear people all the time whining about, “God, I gotta go out on the road, I hate it.” Well, dude, you could get up at 7 o’clock in the morning and run out and get on the end of a shovel handle. 155 shows ain’t s—-!

Recently, a new country artist went into rehab. As a record label president, have you ever had to sit an artist down and give them a stern talking to?
Not personally. I’ve had guys on my label who have gone through rehab, yeah. But it wasn’t me that sat ‘em down, it was their own camp. And I’ve had an employee or two that I had on the road that I had to do that with.

Where do you draw the line?
First of all, no chemicals. If you’re just a bass player or just a drummer or background singer, something like that, I don’t mess with your high. Whatever you do, you do. But if you’re a rigger or you’re a production guy or hanging lights above my head, or you’re hanging speakers above my head … we’ll go as far as to piss test those guys. If I think that I got somebody using meth or [cocaine] or something like that and we find out about it, you’ve got a lot of mamas and dads up on that stage. And sons and daughters. If those frickin’ lights fall and crash through the floor and take everybody with ‘em because [of] you — it takes a special engineer because those need to be hung just right, and it takes a special tech to go up do the right thing.

We were in Alabama 15 years ago, and 20 minutes after we walked offstage the entire light system hanging from the ceiling fell all the way through the floor. And luckily, somehow, no one was onstage. They were getting ready to strike the stage, and everybody had gone off to a little meeting to talk about how they were gonna back the trucks in and load it up. Just the good Lord was watching over them. It fell, and when it hit it went all the way through the stage. And we had a production manager that was addicted to crystal meth, so I said, “No more, guys.”

But I don’t really mess with anybody [in the band]’s high. If they wanna drink or they wanna smoke a little weed or whatever they do, I don’t care as long as it doesn’t effect them. But people who can endanger your life, they’re gonna be straight, and they’re easy enough to find.

Did they ever catch the guy who got your golf course? The robber and whoever started that fire the same week?
No. Well, the fire was media being the media. Here’s what happened, a guy walks in off the street — you gotta be pretty bold if you’re not a member there to walk into a private country club. Because you’re not going to be recognized and somebody is gonna walk up and say, “Can I help you?” Well, this guy was pretty smart. He dressed in real good golf clothes and he came in and he knew where he was going. Apparently it was an inside deal. He kind of knew right where to go and it was the time of day, like 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon, when there’s no lunch crowd in the dining area. It was 105 degrees that day, so there weren’t a lot of people on the course. There wasn’t a big social thing going on anywhere, so it was just kind of a slow part of the day. And he walks in the front door. He doesn’t park in the parking lot, somebody drops him off, he walks in and he goes right back to what we call the Men’s Grill, which is back by the men’s locker room. And he goes in there and snoops around and waits until no one’s in there, and he goes in and grabs the till out of the cash register.

Well, we got him on camera and stuff, so I just put him on the local news and said, “If anybody sees this punk, let me know ‘cause I wanna press charges.”

But then a few days later, the pump on the swimming pool out there … it shorted out and caught on fire and burned up one wall on the back of that pump house. So three days later, it’s ‘Toby Keith’s golf course has been robbed and the guy has come back burnt down his pool house. Bad news for Toby Keith.” And it was all bulls—-.

Watch the Toby Keith ‘Red Solo Cup’ Video

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