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THE FLINT JOURNAL FIRST EDITION ^ | Thursday, February 23, 2006 | Doug Pullen

Posted on 02/23/2006 12:18:08 PM PST by WestTexasWend

-Country's most outspoken star, Toby Keith is learning to enjoy these 'happy days'-

Toby Keith learned a valuable lesson in the late 1990s, he says.

"You can't be anything other than you are," the country music superstar said recently in a free-wheeling interview that touched upon his ventures into label ownership, acting, his friendship with the always-colorful Ted Nugent and testy relationship with Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines.

Keith, whose flashy "Big Throwdown II" tour comes to The Palace of Auburn Hills on Friday, is known for being his own man. He speaks his mind. He does what he wants. He defies conventional wisdom.

But it wasn't always that way. A former semipro football player and oil field worker from Oklahoma who nearly quit music when he didn't make it big by age 30, Keith recalls a falling-out with his former label, Mercury Nashville, that helped make him a star.

"The one mistake I made was when I compromised with Nashville enough to feed my family. But I drew the line and they dropped me," the singer, who's been pretty successful since his debut album made him a star in 1993, said.

He eventually won the battle over his "How You Like Me Now" album. "I believed in the music so much I bought the music, took it to Dreamworks (his new label at the time) and sold 3 million," he said.

Lesson learned.

"You have to have complete belief in yourself and being what you are," Keith said. "I threw all those stylists' clothes away, got my jeans and my books and crumpled-up hats and started being me. Man, it just opened all the doors at once and out came this character people wanted to see. Now I'm being true to myself."

If his 2000 album, "How You Like Me Now," struck a blow for creative freedom, his new album "White Trash With Money," due April 11 (the title was inspired by something someone said about him), could be Keith's emancipation proclamation.

It's the first album on his own Show Dog Nashville, a label he formed last year with record executive Steve Borchetta, whose Big Machine Records is operating under the Show Dog umbrella.

Show Dog's initial single, "Big Blue Note," was recorded quickly and released in September, becoming the first single from a new label to top the country charts. Keith defied the odds last Christmas when he released his second single, "Get Drunk and Be Somebody," over the holidays, when new releases are as scarce as real cowboys in Nashville.

It's currently a Top 20 hit. Ingram's "Wherever You Are" is Top 25.

So how's life treating the newly minted label executive?

"Well, I can't ever remember having these many happy days in a row," Keith said. "It's so trouble free. If I'd known this (before), I'd have been fighting for this a long time ago."

Now that he doesn't have to worry "about a bunch of chefs stirring the pot," the 44-year-old Oklahoman - born Toby Keith Covel - is free to sign the artists he respects. They include songwriting partner Scotty Emerick, Rebecca Lynn Howard and a singer named Sarah Johns, whom he describes as "the female version of me."

His record sales will support their efforts. Keith can take them on tour with him (as he's doing now), showcase them in his growing I Love This Bar & Grille chain and feature them on the soundtracks he'll make for his other new pursuit - movies.

Keith will make his feature film debut in "Broken Bridges," in which he plays a faded, alcoholic country star trying to turn his life around. Co-stars in the film, slated to open Labor Day weekend, include Kelly Preston, Burt Reynolds, Tess Harper and teen actress Lindsey Haun, "who steals the show," he said.

Keith has a second movie, "Beer for My Horses," based on his 2003 hit duet with Willie Nelson, in development, has written another that's "better than 'Beer for My Horses'" and is considering a fourth about "redneck" civilian truck drivers in Afghanistan. "I fit right in there," laughed Keith, who spurned several offers to do network and cable TV shows.

"I'm not going to quit my night job to do something I don't know if I'm good at," he said of those TV offers.

He is good at controversy. His 2002 hit "Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" was an angry, unapologetic response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and an homage to his late father, who died in a car accident in 2001. It was a huge hit that rallied those who agreed with it and upset those who didn't.

ABC anchorman Peter Jennings asked Keith to tone it down for a special on his network. Keith withdrew instead. Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines, already the scourge of country music-loving conservatives for her criticism of the president, got into a war of words with Keith, calling the song "stupid."

Keith resented being lumped into a political ideology he didn't necessarily share.

"Nobody took the time to ask if I was a Democrat," said the singer, who describes himself as a conservative Democrat. "I was just this crazy Republican. I believe in justice, and I believe in security, and I believe in supporting our troops. Past that, I'm a Democrat at heart. If you don't like that, tough s---."

He figured the feud with Maines was over until he read her recent comments about country music in Entertainment Weekly magazine. Maines said in the interview that the unflattering stereotype of country music is true, that she "did not grow up liking country music," and that while she has no beef with the music or its fans, she wants nothing to do with the country music industry.

Keith accused her of "shooting herself in the foot with a 12 gauge" and said there's little hope of mending fences after those comments.

"I've had awards promoters ask if we'd come together and shock the world," Keith said. "This put the end to everything. Ever."

He's no less sympathetic to Nashville record executives.

"There are executives around that town who have had their jobs over a decade," Keith said. "They're very powerful people, but if you look at their true track record, and I'm not going to name names, but they never broke one major act. Everything they've accomplished is off of other acts somebody else signed or something that dropped into their lap."

Clearly, Toby Keith isn't worried about being PC.

"Nothing can harm me right now, There's no danger I can get in. When you're trying to come up and be successful, you're one mistake away from being Dixie Chicked right out of it," he said, sounding more confident than cocky.

"I'm at a point now where PC doesn't play into what I'm doing. I've already weathered that storm. I'm past that. I'm not going to harm any children or murder anybody."

Keith's mood lightens when asked about buddy Ted Nugent, the former Michigan rocker known as much for his extremist political views and deep-seated love of hunting as his music. The two men performed for American troops in Iraq and the Middle East, and toured arenas together last winter.

"I appreciate his energy and his save-the-world mentality. He's completely outrageous and awesome. He's so good at what he does ... (but) I'm more in the middle than Ted," Keith laughed.

He's also in the middle of a lot of record executives' crosshairs right now. If Keith's "no-brainer" label venture succeeds, he'll quiet their grumbling. If it falters, he'll never hear the end of it.

Keith doesn't appear worried. If anything, he likes the challenge.

"When execs go, 'What does he think he's doing? He ain't gonna make it work.' They don't want me to make it work. It's a kick in the teeth," he said. "(They) can take this big budget and blow money on 20 acts trying to stick one to the wall. What makes them think I can't do that?"

TOPICS: Music/Entertainment
KEYWORDS: dixiechicks; tednugent; tobykeith

1 posted on 02/23/2006 12:18:10 PM PST by WestTexasWend
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To: WestTexasWend

His concerts are incredible and his songs are the best. Doesn't Alan Jackson also have his own label?

2 posted on 02/23/2006 12:25:06 PM PST by sarasota
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To: sarasota
Alan Jackson sure looked like a dork on his Gong Show debut. Star Search or what ever that was.
3 posted on 02/23/2006 12:44:51 PM PST by Deguello
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To: Deguello

Jackson is the most low-key performer I've ever seen and comes off as being shy. But what a voice.

4 posted on 02/23/2006 12:46:38 PM PST by sarasota
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To: sarasota

Alan is the Perry Como of Country music. In fact, I thing Perry was more animated. :-)

5 posted on 02/23/2006 12:51:19 PM PST by lysie
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To: WestTexasWend

I'd like him a whole lot better if he'd admit that his idea of a conservative democrat is actually a Republican.

The Democrats left his type a long time ago. He doesn't belong with them.

6 posted on 02/23/2006 12:59:25 PM PST by colorcountry (Lead me not into temptation. I can find it myself)
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To: WestTexasWend

I love Toby! Saw him in concert and he was fantastic, of course.

7 posted on 02/23/2006 1:20:31 PM PST by mlc9852
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To: WestTexasWend
Boy has he got the Nashville execs nailed! We have battled those types for 20 years now. What made country music good was the reality of the person behind the music, and the reality of the music. When you start letting bean counters and DJ's tell you what to do, you have lost the magic. I wish him luck.
8 posted on 02/23/2006 1:45:10 PM PST by Grammy
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To: lysie

LOL! My daughter loves Alan and I'm looking at his 2006 calendar right by the phone every day.

9 posted on 02/24/2006 6:21:47 AM PST by sarasota
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To: Grammy

He does put out songs that connect and his shows are said to be powerful. There's no doubt that he's a talent who seems to have fought and won against the constraints of the music industry. All that being said, I live in Nashville and haven't yet met anybody who has had anything nice to say about the guy. I'm not talking music execs here. I'm talking about working people and struggling musicians.

10 posted on 02/24/2006 7:01:22 AM PST by Emmett McCarthy
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To: Emmett McCarthy

That may very well be. I have not met him, but I have met a number of the execs. Perhaps it takes a jerk to beat a jerk

11 posted on 02/24/2006 8:46:21 AM PST by Grammy
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To: Grammy

You surely have a point there!

12 posted on 02/24/2006 9:15:10 AM PST by Emmett McCarthy
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To: WestTexasWend

You is the MAN!

13 posted on 02/24/2006 9:17:07 AM PST by Pippin ( I never met a happy liberal)
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