By Walter Tunis
CONTRIBUTING MUSIC CRITIC
In the four minutes it takes to spin his current single, one discovers why Toby Keith is one of the top-selling country acts outside the Nashville norm.
Titled Who's Your Daddy?, the tune tells a not-so-politically correct tale of a love-hungry female trying to reheat an old flame. Behind the story line are harmonic hooks that blend Sun Records-style country soul with radio-ready pop appeal. The spirit, like Keith himself, is as fun as it is unapologetic.
Not surprisingly, it sits this week in the country Top 10 and easily could become the 16th No. 1 country hit the Oklahoma singer has chalked up in just shy of a decade.
"A song like that just is what it is," said Keith, who plays his first headlining concert at Rupp Arena on Saturday. "But you put a 10-year career and personality behind it that everybody recognizes, and people are likely to say, 'Hey, that's ol' Toby, man. Check him out.' A new artist might not get away with that.
"Who's Your Daddy? is one of those songs I wrote by myself when I didn't have someone sitting across the table from me going, 'Is this song going to be endearing to women?' I never think about stuff like that. I want the song to be as good as it can be. If it's not single quality or if people don't like it, then we'll move on. You always sell yourself short by compromising."
This year, compromising is the last thing anyone, fan or not, will accuse Keith of. After all, we're talking about the singer and writer of Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American), a 9/11-inspired anthem with the now-famous retaliatory chorus of "We'll put a boot in your a--/It's the American way."
Depending on whom you ask, the song is either a tribute to resilient American pride or a slice of jingoistic opportunism. Peter Jennings and ABC-TV apparently teamed with the latter camp when they bumped Keith from singing it on a live network special that aired July 4. The last laugh, of course, was clearly Keith's. The tune became a monster hit this fall and helped his new Unleashed album enter the Billboard album chart at No. 1.
"I don't know of anybody else in the industry, except maybe Charlie Daniels, who would have the courage to even attempt a song like that," Keith said. "But that's the way it's always been with me. You just have to say it like it is. If people react in a bad way, you live with it. If they react in a positive way, then you've touched a nerve."
Keith said he never intended the song for commercial release. Initially, he kept it hidden from his band as well as his longtime producer, James Stroud.
"I just wanted it to be personal, just me and my guitar. I wanted it for when I'm performing at a military establishment, for people it really meant something to. But then the average Joe would come up to me and just be emotionally blown away by the song. I was hearing, 'Where can I get that?' There was just an instant reaction."
A native of Moore, Okla.,-Keith first worked as a rodeo hand, an oil field laborer and, in an especially curious career move, a defensive end for the semi-pro Oklahoma City Drillers football team. His after-hours and off-season nights were spent playing his songs in honky-tonks. The singer terms an early trip to Nashville to sell his music and get that famous boot of his into record company doors as "humiliating." But a demo tape of original tunes given to a friend eventually wound up in the hands of Nashville music mogul (and longtime Alabama producer) Harold Shedd.
"So he flew to Oklahoma where I was playing two 45-minute sets of original material. That's how I got a record deal. They came and found me.
"But doing all those jobs and playing in the bars and stuff, I had no idea somebody would want my songs or my personality. I never dreamed I'd ever be a big singer/songwriter/artist. But I sure thought of how great it could be."
Despite his parade of hits and an increasing profile as a sellout concert performer, Keith views himself as a Nashville outsider. If you caught any of this month's Country Music Association Awards ceremony, you might agree. Despite being named CMA male vocalist of the year in 2001, Keith walked away this time empty-handed despite nine nominations.
"I'm OK with that," he said. "That doesn't mean anything to me except that the industry hasn't accepted me as one of them. Maybe I'm not one of them.
"I'm just not the hand-shaking, meet-and-greet, politically correct kind of guy. I don't purposely go out and bring that on myself, but I wear that hat. And I wear it well." Toby Keith
Lexington newspaper, November 2002