Toby Keith had something other than music on his mind when he called the other day for a chat ahead of his headlining performance at Sunday's Coastal Country Jam in Huntington Beach.
"I'm just out here watching these little studs tear up the course," he said from his private golf club in Norman, Okla., where the country star and his wife were hosting a junior golf event for kids from schools throughout his home state.
Yet it didn't take long to get Keith, 56, thinking about his long career — about the quarter-century since he released his debut single and about all the ways he's been perceived over the intervening years. These are excerpts from our conversation.
Your current tour is billed as a 25th-anniversary celebration of 1993's "Should've Been a Cowboy," which went to No. 1. Does that kind of marker mean much to you?
I didn't know about it until it was mentioned to me. Because I kept cranking out a new album every year, I never really had time to bring my head up and go, "Look what's happened." But 25 is a big number, and "Should've Been a Cowboy" was the foundation that allowed me to have a career.
How does your first album strike you now?
What's crazy about it is that when we were coming out, the old-timers were griping at us, saying we weren't country enough. But you compare it to country music today and my album is almost hillbilly-sounding.
There's a tenderness to it that contrasts with the image that started taking shape after 9/11 — the tough-talking patriot whom people think about thanks to songs like "American Ride" and "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)." Has your gentler side been forgotten?
In my show I do four or five of those No. 1s from the '90s and the crowd goes crazy. So I know they know them. But the stuff you read in the headlines, it's just one or two things out of 70 or 80 charted singles. If you was to ask some of the people that would portray me that other way, they wouldn't have any idea that "Who's That Man" [from 1994] was No. 1 and that the greatest songwriter in Nashville, Harlan Howard, came up to me at the BMI Awards when I was a kid and said, "Son, that song you've got on the radio is the best song I've heard in 10 years."
Does that bum you out?
It doesn't matter to me. About 15 years ago I just said, I don't understand the world anymore, but it's not gonna stop me from being who I am. Right now it'd be real easy — real easy — for me to grab a couple of my younger buddies that are doing this hip-hop country and just blow some of that kind of stuff up.
Why don't you? Your last No. 1 was "Made in America," in 2011.
It wouldn't be true to myself. Just because the songs that we've always written aren't working and aren't getting played right now doesn't mean that I have to go do something else. Everybody gets their window; everybody has their time. I'm not gonna rail against the machine. These kids got every right in the world to make their living. If that's what's selling, then that's what it is. [In the '90s] they were punching us in the face, saying we were too pop, and I swore I'd never be that guy.
You are a standard-bearer, though.
I don't feel like that guy — I don't even feel that old. But I try to be nice when [younger artists] approach me because there's been situations in the last 15 years when I'd be at a big event, in a movie-star room, and somebody would say, "Come over here and meet some of my guests." And they'd already painted me as the bad guy.
Do you feel understood by your core fans?
Absolutely. But just as extreme as it can be on one side, you also have fans that love you for the wrong reasons. And as many people that have painted me in a corner, there's people standing in that corner ready for me to paint in there.
Do you ever have the urge to lay out your views as clearly as you can? To say, "Here's exactly what I think about America or guns or the military"?
That's a losing battle. You're never gonna reach enough people in any interview to avoid being misrepresented. But you know who one of my favorite interviews I ever did was? Dan Rather. He came and spent a day at my house and then we flew to New York. He had an earpiece in his ear, and at the very end his producers were yelling stuff in his ear. They tried to corner me on a question, and Dan bailed me out.
What was the question?
"How do you feel about making money off the flag?" You could go a hundred directions with that, so I paused for five seconds; I wanted to make sure of my answer. And he goes, "The Boston Pops play all patriotic songs on the Fourth of July, and people pay to get in to see that, don't they?" And I go, "Oh yeah, Dan — that's what they do!"
What would someone trying to corner you in 2018 ask?
Man, I don't think they could. I've had so much thrown at me that the only way I could get into trouble is if I mess up on something that I'm not hip to.
"Toby Keith, how do you justify gun rights in a world beset by mass shootings?"
That's one of those topics — and I'm not dodging the question — it's one of those things we live with every day. It's like one of the biggest struggles that I have on abortion is abortion. In my heart I don't like it. But in my mind I agree with a lot of the situations where it should be. I understand [the well-being of] the mother. And somebody says, "Hey, a 12-year-old got raped by a convict — you want her to carry that baby?" It's such a big, gray world, and with those issues like that — I know how I feel inside, but I don't know how to fix none of them. I'm not that guy.
And yet people want you to have a firm stance.
Whatever topic they come up with, they know how they want me to answer it. Whether they're for it or against it or whether they believe like I do, they say, "I'm gonna ask this question because I think I know how he'll answer it." And then when you don't, they're like, "What the hell?"
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Coastal Country Jam with Toby Keith
When: 12 p.m. Sunday
Where: Huntington State Beach, 21601 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach