Nashville, Tenn. – Toby Keith (search) has tangled with Peter Jennings and the Dixie Chicks over his music, criticized the media for its coverage of the Iraq war, tweaked the Country Music Association over awards snubs and threatened to flee his record label.
Keith was at the Country Music Television offices last week to promote "Honkytonk University," (search) his new CD out Tuesday, the same day he's up for the Academy of Country Music's Entertainer of the Year award.
At 6-foot-4, the former oil field worker, rodeo hand and semipro football player doesn't so much enter an office as take it over. He's candid and talkative and doesn't seem to mind stepping on toes — anyone's.
This day, he's still sore about a February report in Rolling Stone (search) magazine that referred to him as "the king of ultra-patriotic country" and said his 2004 concert tour — which brought in $27.7 million, second only to Shania Twain in country music — earned "mostly red state dollars."
"The truth is — and we looked it up — we made a lot more money in the blue states," says Keith, 43, wearing a weathered straw cowboy hat and yellow Western shirt. "We did more shows in the red states, but we made a lot more cash in the blue states."
Keith feels he's been unfairly portrayed by the media and his critics as a hardcore right winger. While he's backed the American troops in his songs and supported President Bush's re-election, he describes himself as a conservative Democrat who doesn't always agree with the administration.
Back in Oklahoma where he and his wife of 21 years, Tricia, live with their three children, he's campaigned for Democratic candidates including Gov. Brad Henry.
"I get brushed with this big, gigantic red, white and blue brush. But I don't mind," he says. "I look good in red, white and blue."
Keith's star shines brighter than most country artists, and he'll be the first to tell you so. He's sold about 25 million albums with a sound rooted in the whiskey halls and beer joints of the Southwest.
Unlike most his peers, he writes just about everything he records. He says he can't imagine sifting through hundreds of songs to find a dozen or so that he likes and that reflect his personality. His hits include the hawkish anthem "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" — a song inspired by his father's death in a car accident in 2000 as well the 9-11 terrorist attacks — the boozy "I Love This Bar," the patriotic "American Soldier" and the chest-thumping "How Do You Like Me Now?"
The new album, "Honkytonk University," has a harder country edge. There's an old-school duet with his musical hero Merle Haggard, "She Ain't Hooked on Me No More," and a mid-tempo tune called "Big Blue Note" about a guy who finally comes to peace with a Dear John letter. The second single, "As Good As I Once Was," is a rumination on growing older and wiser.
The release of that single symbolizes Keith's frustration with his record company.
He left Mercury Records (search) in 1999 because he was upset with the way his music was being handled. He went to DreamWorks, then an independent label, and became a superstar. Last year Dreamworks was acquired by Universal Music Group Nashville, which has Mercury under its umbrella.
"As fate would have it, in the end the little independent label I'm on that's $27 million in the hole when I walk in and it sells for $100 million four years later because of what we accomplish — who do they sell to? I go right back to the hell hole I was in at first."
Keith said he approached things with an open mind but ran into trouble with the single. He wanted "As Good As I Once Was" to be the first one for radio; the folks at Universal, he says, thought it was too risky and chose the title cut.
"I had put out four or five albums without one A&R meeting. We put out what we wanted and it worked. So why would I have to change?" he says. "At this point in my career I'm not going to put up with it."
While he won't rule out a distribution deal with the music giant, Keith said, "Universal knows where they stand. I've got one more album (to fulfill his contract). After that, the next album is going to be on my label — period."
Universal Music Group Nashville declined to comment Monday, but Billboard magazine reported that at the March radio industry conference where Keith made his remarks, UMGN co-chairman Luke Lewis said, "To (Keith) I say, 'Good luck.' The track record of artists running record labels is not that good."
Asked last week about Lewis' comment, Keith quipped, "Ask him if he wants to bet paychecks."
By starting his own label, Keith wants to move closer to the business side of music and, perhaps, farther from the artist side. He says he'll focus on signing songwriters, whom he believes are the forgotten backbone of country music.
"I'm trying to bring the song back and make songwriters into artists more so," he said. "The industry has forgot the song itself. They try to find the song and then attach it to a pretty face so it works on video."
What you probably won't find Keith doing, despite his strong opinions, is entering politics.
"I couldn't tick off the line. My dad called it 'glad-handing' — walk up and smile and shake their hand whether you like them or not. If I don't like you, I don't like you. I don't want to come up and shake your hand."