There was no chest-thumping or patting himself on the back. In fact, Toby Keith’s usual how-do-you-like-me-now? bravado was absent when the topic of his lofty stature in country music came up.
For the second year in a row, Forbes magazine named Keith the biggest money earner in country music, with $65 million. Take that, Taylor Swift.
He sounded somewhere between embarrassed and resigned while discussing it over the phone recently.
“Well, it’s nice, but I don’t like for that to be part of my headlines,” said Keith, who kicks off the State Fair Grandstand series Thursday. “It kind of gives you an uncomfortable feeling that they figure out how much money you make, but I guess that’s how they make their living.”
Before hitting the golf course on a recent day off at home in Oklahoma, Keith, 53, chatted about his brand of mezcal; his opening act (daughter Krystal); the state of country music and the nation’s electorate, and his approach to “Drinks After Work,” the title of his latest album.
On how much of his success is due to musical talent vs. business acumen:
“I’d say music is 60 percent of it. We’re somewhat of an entrepreneur on the side. They [Forbes] don’t know about the money we make in real estate developments and stuff. They just looked at the entertainment money.”
Even though Keith hasn’t had a big radio hit since 2012’s “Beers Ago,” he’s having another big year.
“Record label money is probably 20th on your list of earnings. Touring would be No. 1. I’ve got two acts with me out on tour, and neither one of them’s ever been on the radio. We’re having just as big of a year as we’ve ever had. I’ve built my fan base so big in the last 20 years to where if I didn’t have a hit for the rest of my life, it wouldn’t change my tour very much.”
On performing in a downpour at Minnesota’s Winstock festival in June:
“I don’t know if we started a tradition years ago where we said, ‘If the crowd’s gonna sit in it, we would, too, as long as it wasn’t dangerous.’ We did it at the Sturgis bike rally one year, and we did it at two or three other festivals. I just turn to the band and crew and say, ‘If you’re good with it, I’m good with it.’ ”
On radio ignoring his latest singles “Drinks After Work” and “Shut Up and Hold On”:
“It ain’t like it was 2003-2007 where we were 51 weeks at No. 1. That’s pretty crazy. You can’t be that hot all of your life. Every couple years we’ve managed to come with an ‘American Ride’ or ‘Made in America’ or ‘Red Solo Cup’ or ‘Beers Ago.’ Bro country has kind of changed the format.”
On “bro country,” which mixes hip-hop, rock and lyrics about partying:
“A lot of ’em say I influenced them. What I tell them is, ‘Hey, I like candy, but I don’t like a bushel basket full of it.’ I hope it doesn’t kill country. Not that I’ve ever been a complete traditionalist, but I hope it doesn’t change it to the point where traditional country becomes a niche like bluegrass or something.”
His daughter, Krystal Keith, records for his label and opens his shows. “She works hard, [but] I can get her in places like the Grand Ole Opry that most artists wouldn’t be able to get.” Riding his coattails is particularly helpful now because female artists aren’t getting much love from country radio unless they’re named Carrie, Miranda or Taylor. “Back about ’98-’99, it flip-flopped the other way,” he said. “They were only playing two or three guys. Now it’s bro country; it’s really difficult to get a girl airplay.”
On his liquor, Wild Shot:
Since there were so many brands of tequila, he decided in 2011 to launch a mezcal, which, like tequila, is made from the agave plant but is in its own category. “I grew up drinking mezcal,” he said. “It all fit me. I’ll do two or three bottle signings a year in towns I’m already in. Five minutes before the show, I’ll meet some distributors and retailers, and they’ll come back and do a shot with me. It ain’t that big of a deal.”
On Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar chain:
He cut ribbons at the first 20 but hasn’t attended the grand openings for the last five or six. He thinks the places are doing well because they fill a void — for live music and a certain style of cooking.
“In a bunch of those cities, there’s no great country cooking. You add country music, liquor and whiskey girls, and we allow the military community in free — there are a whole bunch of reasons we fill a void.”
On election-year issues:
“I see a bunch of angry people out there everywhere I go,” he said, citing illegal emigration from Mexico as the top issue. “It’s like our country is out of control. There’s so much going on, I don’t know who could fix it. I’m as sad for our country as I’ve been in my lifetime. I’ve got buddies on Homeland Security and Border Patrol down there and their hands are tied. Why? No one can answer that question, and I don’t hear it asked enough.
“The health care thing freaks people out. It doesn’t affect me, but it’ll start affecting companies and the downsizing of the job workforce. Companies start going to 30-hour weeks to keep from having to pay [health insurance]. There’s a lot of good to [health care], too, if they can make it work. A lot of people need it. But I don’t know if you cut your nose off to spite your face.”
On what he does after work:
“If I’m at my ranch, I ease down about an hour before dark and fish. Then I come back in and lay and watch the [Los Angeles] Dodgers till midnight. On the road, we’re drinking. Thirty minutes before showtime we get started and we don’t quit till we get off. Afterwards, if the Dodgers are on, I’ll watch ’em. If not, there’s usually some friends there and they’re hanging out smoking a cigar and drinking some good tequila.
“Summertime, that’s my schedule.”