When most recording artists go on the road, it’s about touring behind an album. It’s strictly business. And then there are performers like Toby Keith. Part of his itinerary are trips to the Middle East to play for those in the military.
He’s been akin to a contemporary Bob Hope for more than a decade, playing for the benefit of the USO.
“It’s a real honor to have the opportunity to do it,” Keith said. “A lot of people look at musicians as heroes but the reality is that the people serving our country are the ones who are the real heroes. They deserve our respect.”
Keith, who will perform Sunday for the closing day of the Kansas State Fair, is owed respect as well. He’s been a consistent force in country music since his debut album dropped 20 years ago. But Keith took off through the stratosphere months after 9/11 due to the smash “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” his fiery response to the incomprehensible tragedy that struck the U.S. a dozen years ago.
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“That song just struck a chord with people,” Keith said.
Music struck a chord with Keith, 52, early on. While growing up near Oklahoma City, he started to play guitar at age 8. “The first guitar I had came from my grandmother,” Keith said. “It was a start for me.”
Keith learned a great deal while working at the club his grandmother owned in Arkansas. “I was just 12 and I saw a lot of music,” Keith said. “I took it all in.”
Keith has 19 No. 1 hits on the country chart and 16 additional Top 10 hits. “Beer for My Horses,” “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” and “As Good As I Once Was” are some of his biggest hits. Keith has sold more than 40 million albums.
“It’s been incredible,” Keith said. “I have no complaints about anything. And the great thing is that it’s far from over.”
“Hope on the Rocks,” the latest album by Keith, features familiar passionate, earnest and free-wheeling contemporary country. It’s familiar terrain that Keith travels well. “Haven’t Had a Drink All Day,” “I Like Girls That Drink Beer” and “Cold Beer Country” are new songs that suggest that Keith could use a tall, cold one. The tunes hit listeners in the gut but they also have some humor and surprises in the mix.
“I like songs that have multiple dimensions,” Keith said. “That makes it interesting.”
Keith has done that for more than two decades on the circuit. Just think how it could have turned out very differently for Keith if he’d made the USFL’s Oklahoma Outlaws during the ’80s. “I loved playing football,” Keith said. “But it worked out best when I didn’t make (the Outlaws). I’m where I’m supposed to be. But it is true that a lot of musicians dream about playing football.”
That’s especially so in the world of country. Keith is passionate about the pigskin but he probably isn’t quite as obsessed as Kenny Chesney, who not only revels in playing football stadiums, he also had “Monday Night Football” analyst and Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden visit his crew and band to give a pep talk before they kicked off their tour in Tampa in May.
“I can understand why anyone loves football,” Keith said. “It’s a great game, but what I love about music is that I can play and play until I get old. You can’t do that with football. Everything worked out perfectly for me.”