October 24, 2008 / 11:42 PM / 10 years ago

Country star Toby Keith creates his perfect niche

NASHVILLE (Billboard) - As he attempts to balance writing and recording music, producing and starring in movies, running a label, touring and maintaining a small chain of I Love This Bar restaurants and clubs, Toby Keith would be forgiven if he ran around like a chicken with its head cut off.

Singer Toby Keith performs at the 43rd Annual Academy of Country Music Awards show in Las Vegas, Nevada May 18, 2008. REUTERS/Steve Marcus

The secret to not ending up that way? Trusting his business partners.

“It’s a real fine-tuned blend of perfectness for me,” Keith says. “Everybody at my label’s been doing this a long time. I don’t need to sit in a chair with my feet on a desk with a cigar and tell them what to do. They know their jobs. The restaurants are run by a corporation, once every two or three years I do a movie project, and I only do 60 or 65 shows (a year) now.”

The Oklahoman has scored 35 top 10 singles, including 17 No. 1s, since his debut on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 1993. His current single, “She Never Cried in Front of Me,” is now atop the Hot Country Songs chart. Its parent album, “That Don’t Make Me a Bad Guy,” arrives Tuesday (October 28) on his own Show Dog Nashville label.

Keith wrote or co-wrote every song on the album. His collaborators include Bobby Pinson (Sugarland’s “Want To”), Vicky McGehee (Jason Aldean’s “Why”) and Eddy Raven. Keith calls Raven, with whom he wrote “Cabo San Lucas,” “overlooked” for his work as an ‘80s country star and songwriter: “He was never looked upon on as a superstar. He never got his credit.”

Keith, who last worked with an outside producer on 2006’s “White Trash With Money,” self-produced the set. “Producers are all good and fine,” he says before adding the inevitable qualifier. “But I just don’t need outside production anymore. I am my niche, I created my niche, I created my world. When I come on singing it doesn’t have to be some grand production. It’s all me now. I’ve got my fingerprints all over it.”


Meanwhile, his second movie, “Beer for My Horses,” in which he stars alongside comedian/co-writer Rodney Carrington, will begin airing November 2 on CMT after a limited run in theaters. The film, based loosely on Keith’s 2003 hit of the same name with Willie Nelson, includes appearances by Nelson, Ted Nugent and actor Tom Skerritt. An accompanying soundtrack, with songs from Mac Davis, David Allan Coe and Mel Tillis, among others, was released August 12 and has sold 16,000 copies.

Despite having sold 26.4 million units in his 15-year career, Keith says record sales have never been among his top five sources of revenue. “My income from songwriting and from restaurants and from merchandise and from concerts and from Ford endorsements has always been grander than what my record sales are,” he says.

Keith’s income — at $48 million, he was third on Forbes’ annual ranking of the world’s best-paid music stars, behind the Police and Beyonce, for the period of June 1, 2007 to June 1, 2008 — means he can take a chance on new artists.

“I sign people that I dig and because I love what they’re doing,” he says of his Show Dog Nashville roster, which is home to Mica Roberts, Carter’s Chord, Trailer Choir and Flynnville Train. “This label was going to be open anyway. They were going to be promoting me and my albums and my soundtracks, so while we’re open and running, it makes perfect sense that in the time that they’re not promoting me you’ve got a system running to try and break a new act.”

“I can fail at that some,” he adds. “My money’s all out on the road. As long as I’ve got new songs on the radio, I’ve got a hot tour. (Sony BMG Nashville chairman) Joe Galante and (Universal Music Group Nashville chairman) Luke Lewis don’t do concerts — they have to live off their bottom line. We can fail and miss shots because it don’t affect our bottom line.”

WNCB Birmingham, Alabama, program director Justin Case admires Keith for his candor. “Toby is Toby,” he says. “He’s got a little outlaw to him, and yet he has a sense of humor. He says what he feels, he is transparent with his fans, he visits the troops, and I believe the audience sees that sincerity and connects with that.”


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