Do you like tattoos? You’ll see plenty before a Toby Keith concert, especially if it’s outdoors in August in the Inland Empire, an exploding conglomeration of hot and sandy city-towns inhabited by those who can’t afford or don’t want to live near Los Angeles an hour to the west. Out east in the desert, this is cowboy and horse and big vehicle territory. This is Toby country, where perhaps a third of the women have tattoos. There are tattoos of chains around fleshy female shoulders, roses on forearms, designs on breasts, and big cats on backs. A little girl about seven sports a tattoo on her arm. The women, young to middle age, are frequently wearing cowboy hats, and almost all are in old blue jeans. They fill them out. This is a crowd of hearty eaters and smokers and beer drinkers. And the men look almost as tough as the women.
They’re all excited on a splendid Saturday evening as waning sun lights up the San Gabriel Mountains to the north and soft barren hills roll around the rest of the amphitheater near San Bernardino. Shooter Jennings, Waylon’s son, opens the show with several songs from his debut album “Put the O Back in Country,” and he’s a good rocker but that doesn’t matter. Lines are way long to the Toby souvenir stands where T-shirts and other memorabilia are flying out fast. One woman has already changed into a shirt that says: “He’s not as good as he used to be. He’s even better.”
These circumstances must be difficult for Lee Ann Womack. In 2001 she won a Grammy for best country song and the Country Music Association award for female vocalist of the year. She’s also pretty and charming. But when she steps on stage, hundreds of country music aficionados aren’t in their seats. They’re still buying Toby stuff. Many won’t see any of her set, which is a bridge to the next intermission when souvenir sales surge again and people start asking when the big guy’s coming out. Anticipation – that’s a key part of the experience. Unlike much of the American public, these folks know who Toby is and what he’s gonna bring.
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Toby Keith Covel was born in Clinton, Oklahoma in 1961 and as a child moved with his family to Oklahoma City. He got his first guitar at age eight and spent summers absorbing the roadhouse music scene at his grandmother’s supper club in Fort Smith, Arkansas. After high school he still hadn’t committed to a musical career and instead was pipelined to the oil fields where he often toiled seventy hours a week. Three years later the oil market crashed and Keith pointed his muscular six-foot-four frame toward the gridiron. Three hundred men, all but Keith with college football experience, were trying out for the semi-pro Oklahoma Drillers of the United States Football League. He made the squad and started at defensive end. The experience was gratifying but he realized he’d never make the NFL or enough money to pay bills.
In 1984 he charged another direction, joining the country band Easy Money and touring small clubs in Oklahoma. What were those places like? Last year Keith told CMT.com they were “complete dumps…little, old, puke, whiskey-stained carpets. I think I got twenty-five bucks a night and some beer…You’d just get up there and jam. No bouncer in the house, just a big ol’ bunch of rednecks. If a fight broke out, you were on your own.”
Playing fifty-one weeks a year four or five nights a week, Keith and the band struggled to climb into better clubs, then earned regional status, appearing in places from Arkansas to Arizona and down into Texas and to the Gulf of Mexico. He eventually outgrew other band members and became head of his own group. In 1993, after nearly a decade on the road in cramped vehicles pulling wobbly trailers, he sensed his career was ready to surge. He was riding his first tour bus, with Shania Twain aboard. And as they passed through Bowling Green, Kentucky – the birthplace of this writer, incidentally – he heard what he’d so long hoped for: one of his songs on the radio. “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” climbed to number one on the Billboard country chart and his debut album, Toby Keith, registered platinum.
Throughout this period Keith was composing music, and he still stresses he’s a “driven songwriter…really driven…I stood up and fought for what I believed…I held my ground artistically…No corporate bullshit…” Alas, the words corporate and bullshit are impossible to permanently separate. After a series of creative disputes, Keith moved from Mercury Records to Polydor then back to Mercury which, despite the success of his first four albums, rejected his next proposed work, so he jumped to DreamWorks Nashville and it produced How Do You Like Me Now?! The album sold more than two million copies and garnered his first two Academy of Country Music awards, for best album and vocalist.
The business boys have since sold DreamWorks to Universal, which now owns four country labels, including Mercury, and employs some of the same bureaucrats Keith had clashed with. Did big Toby this time respond by delivering a forearm shiver or sacking the corporate quarterback? No, he declared independence with plans to start his own label. One more album then he’s free. Keith the entrepreneur has also entered the restaurant business and his I Love This Bar & Grill roadhouses have opened (or soon will) in Las Vegas, Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Shreveport, and Council Bluffs, Iowa. He says people’ll enjoy dropping into places that offer catfish and meatloaf and chicken and ribs and a music system pumping out The Doors and The Rolling Stones along with Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and Alabama before the house band takes over or big-name singers play or even Toby stops in to surprise.
All that sounds fun. But business isn’t what drives Toby Keith. Music moves the man. When he gets up to run four or five miles several times a week, he’s energizing his powerful voice. He’s enhancing his stage presence. He’s preparing to pump iron in his home gym. He’s got to be ready when the introductory video ends and the cloth screen covering the stage falls and another monitor shows him bigger than a horse striding toward you. Everyone’s standing now. And they ain’t gonna sit down. Not as long as Toby and his big three-horn band electrify the night with songs about love and booze and Mexico and war. Some say he’s country, but that’s a subtext. He’s a rock and roller. He’s Elvis with a beard and biceps.