Keith doesn't stray far from Oklahoma roots

Sunday, November 7th 2004, 4:30 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Toby Keith didn't have to go to Nashville to become a success in country music. Nashville came to Oklahoma.

Keith has never strayed too far from his Sooner State roots, working long days in oil fields, playing semiprofessional football and raising race horses.

From the spotlight of country music to business and politics of Oklahoma, Keith is balanced.

``Most artists moved to Nashville,'' Keith said, lounging on a leather couch in his tour bus. ``I never did have an address there. I was there for one day and never felt the need for more.''

His unorthodox journey to success has apparently worked. Keith has been nominated in five categories for awards from the Country Music Association.

Keith didn't head for the recording studios of Nashville, like many upstarts in country music. Instead he honed his craft in the whiskey halls and bars of the Southwest for nearly a decade.

Keith, who began playing guitar at age 8 after receiving one for Christmas as a child in Moore, had been touring with his band Easy Money, in between playing semipro football for the Oklahoma Drillers and then a short-stint with the Oklahoma Outlaws.

When the Outlaws failed and his football career was finally over, Keith put his energy into his music.

He toured 51 weeks a year, hitting honky tonks and music halls from Oklahoma to Texas to Colorado.

``It was the only way we could make enough money,'' he said. ``Nothing ain't worth having if its not worth fighting for. I was only going to do it for 10 years and it was getting pretty close.''

But before he could quit and head back to the oil fields of Oklahoma, he got a deal with Mercury Records.

``They came to me,'' he says, with a smirk.

Keith put out three albums with Mercury before switching to DreamWorks, which allowed him the freedom to record the witty, sometimes redneck philosophy infused singles that have become anthems in bars for country fans and non-fans alike.

Keith doesn't mince words when describing Nashville and the industry he says has reluctantly embraced him.

This week he could receive awards in five categories at the CMAs. In the past he's been a favorite for awards, boasting nearly two dozen nominations from the CMA and the Academy of Country Music, but has only taken a handful of awards home.

In 2003, the ACM named him country music's Entertainer of the Year, but he wasn't there to pick it up. Thinking his chances were slim, he left the ceremony to work on a song with Willie Nelson.

``The awards are kind of like the All-Star game,'' Keith said. ``You take your turn at bat, smile and give everybody the finger and leave.''

That's Keith for you. Honest and blunt. That grit translates into his drinking anthems, his ballads and his collection of post 9-11 patriotic songs.

Keith has written nearly all the songs he's recorded and says he writes when he gets the inspiration.

``I'll do it for five minutes here, or I'll be thinking about while I'm in the shower,'' Keith said. ``I never could write by appointment.''

Straightforward lyrics and edgy guitar-riffs have given him staying power. His second greatest hits album comes Tuesday.

``It was important everybody speak their mind,'' Keith said. ``But if you're going to speak up, at least have something to say.''

Recently, Keith's been talking about a lot more than music in his home state.

As a horseman, he championed a proposal recently approved by voters that expands casino-like gambling to the state's struggling horse racing tracks. Keith also stumped for a measure to create a lottery to fund public education.

``Everybody needs to try to make a difference and they have a responsibility to stay up on current events,'' Keith said. ``I can be a difference maker and I try to be.''

Standing 6-foot-4 with blonde curls peaking out from his weathered cowboy hat, Keith is one of the best accessories on the campaign trail.

He's supported several Democrats, including Oklahoma's Democratic Gov. Brad Henry.

``I campaign for my friends, people I can trust,'' said Keith, who is a registered Democrat in Oklahoma but nonetheless supported Republican President George W. Bush.

``I think Toby is passionate about Oklahoma and truly wants to make state a better place,'' Oklahoma's governor said. ``Instead of sitting on the sidelines, he's gotten involved in issues he believes are important.''

Keith is keeping his wealth in Oklahoma. He and his family live near Norman, home to Keith's beloved University of Oklahoma Sooners.

Keith, who is a regular at the university's sporting events, and former OU football coach Barry Switzer are among a group of investors who bought a golf course in Norman. They've also purchased four housing units and three-mini storage facilities.

Keith's latest project is a $4.7 million restaurant and music hall in Oklahoma City's fledgling entertainment district, Bricktown.

The venture, ``Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill,'' will seat up to 600 people and is expected to be a stopping spot for touring acts. Keith recently opened a similar bar in Las Vegas and plans for bars in North Kansas City, Mo., and Shreveport, La., are in the works.

``It's a great chance to help support Bricktown and what they're trying to do down there,'' Keith said. ``The whole concept reflects my passion for Oklahoma and where everyone will feel comfortable.''