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Singer warhawk { July 25 2002 }

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Toby Keith, by Jingo
The Country Singer Takes On America's Enemies -- and His Own -- With a Vengeance

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 25, 2002; Page C01

The Best Buy in Manassas has one of those 10-acre parking lots that could double as airports, but at the moment there's not a free spot in sight. This wouldn't seem strange on, say, a Saturday in mid-December, but it's a Monday in July -- and it's 11:30 at night.

Something like 5,000 people are snaked into a line here that stretches more than a mile, across the front of this immense strip mall and then down a street. Many are plopped into beach chairs as though they think the sun is about to come out. Most are standing, fidgeting or laughing or getting ready to wave homemade signs. There are teenagers, babies, parents and grandparents. One fan wears a T-shirt that says, "Bite me Chev boy, real men drive Fords." Everyone is semi-illuminated by a nearly full moon.

Occasionally, there's a chant: To-by, To-by.

That would be Toby Keith, a 6-4, 240-pound country music star from Oklahoma who has come to Manassas for the midnight release of his latest album, "Unleashed." The turnout for this event, which has been sponsored and hyped by country music station WMZQ, seems to have surprised everyone here, especially the Best Buy staffers, who have the frazzled, giddy look of someone about to sidestep a bronco. A guy with a bullhorn is walking around, trying to mollify the crowd with news that Toby will sign copies of his album for as long as it takes.

About 12:30 a.m., Keith finally strides from the back of the store to the front, wearing a studded suede shirt, leather pants and cowboy boots. He smiles like a bouncer who's just tossed a dozen drunks out of a bar. A few hundred fans from the line have been allowed in, and they hear Keith perform one song: "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)." The tune, which shot to No. 1 on the country charts this month, is a furious reaction to the attacks of Sept. 11 and a swaggering celebration of the U.S. bombing of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Keith plays it near the store's exit, with a guitar that has an American flag painted on the front.

It seems that everyone here has been waiting for the same verse: "You'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A. / 'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass / It's the American way." All of Best Buy sings along, or waves a fist, or both.

Outside, few of the fans have any idea that Keith has just performed, because most are well out of earshot. That includes 4-year-old Valerie Carte, who is wearing white cowgirl boots and a T-shirt bearing the words "I Wanna Talk About Toby," a reference to his hit "I Wanna Talk About Me." Valerie has seen her share of Keith concerts, a friend of her mother explains.

"You've been to West Virginia University to see Toby," she says, "you've been to Nissan last year to see Toby, you're going to the West Virginia State Fair to see Toby, and you're going to Nissan in September to see Toby." Valerie nods and plays with her hat and smiles.

"Did you show the note on your behind?" another friend asks.

Valerie turns around and lifts up her dress. The word "Toby" is emblazoned in red on her underwear.

Toby Keith is a neo-honky-tonker with the air of a man in search of revenge. He began his career in 1993 with a self-titled debut album that featured "Should've Been a Cowboy," one of the most-played country songs of the decade, and he's been a reliable seller ever since. Last year he scored with one of the genre's biggest albums, "Pull My Chain." People magazine recently put his net worth at $25 million. By most standards, his career has been a triumph.

But Keith is promoting "Unleashed" like he's never nibbled success. The day after the Manassas mob scene, he's at the Bethesda studios of WMZQ, bright and early.

"What are you doing?" asks an employee as Keith strides down a hall.

"Album crap," he says before heading out the door.

Lots of album crap, it turns out. After MZQ, it's off to the Voice of America, "The Oliver North Show" and XM radio for more talking, then on to Philadelphia for another in-store signing, then into New York. That's just Tuesday. Yesterday, he appeared on Don Imus's show, Fox's morning show and Connie Chung's show before another in-store signing. Soon he'll head to Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles for more autographs and more renditions of "Courtesy." He's a wholesale artist with a retail sales pitch.

"We lease a jet," says his manager, T.K. Kimbrell. "It makes it a lot easier."

Keith, 41, sells like a man possessed, in part because he has a phenomenal work ethic and in part because he's got a bit of a chip on his shoulder. There are naysayers in his wake, among them a Capitol Records executive who rebuffed him during his first trip to Nashville and a label (Mercury) that foolishly rejected his 1999 album, "How Do You Like Me Now?!" -- which turned out to be a massive hit.

Keith and his musical hunches were officially vindicated last year by the Academy of Country Music, which handed him the Male Vocalist of the Year prize. But that's not enough. He'd like to prove his detractors wrong all over again. He and DreamWorks, his new label, are betting that "Unleashed" will be the No. 1 album in the nation next week, and they've already shipped 1 million copies of the disc to stores.

The atmosphere of vengeance around Keith is one reason he seems perfectly in sync with the mood of the country, which has had vengeance on its mind lately, too. Pop country puts a high premium on manners and modesty, and Keith is perfectly capable of both. He can also sing stirringly about family; he's been married for 18 years and has three children. But he's also a master at what he calls "attitude songs," which are numbers that tread the line between rascally and mean.

The meanest, by far, is "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue," which unabashedly glorifies the bombing of Afghanistan. The song traffics in vivid, simple shades of black and white, good and evil.

"Courtesy" didn't just sell well, it also produced the sort of controversy that performers dream about. Keith was slated to appear on an ABC July 4 TV special, but the invitation was rescinded, according to Keith, because the network, and news anchor Peter Jennings in particular, heard the lyrics to the song. A spokesman for ABC said in an interview this week that Keith was dropped largely for logistical reasons -- namely, he demanded to open the show and needed a jet to get him to another concert that night. Regardless, Keith had the perfect country music enemy: a brainy media guy who also happens to be Canadian.

"I find it interesting that [Jennings] is not from the U.S.," he told USA Today. "I bet Dan Rather'd let me do it on his special."

Country radio stations urged listeners to mail their boots to Jennings as a protest, and anti-Jennings placards became staples of Keith concerts. Jennings took the abuse with humor and told the Associated Press that his wife asked if he'd received any size 8 1/2 boots in the mail.

"This is the truth, my hand to the Bible: I never started the boot campaign," says Keith, sitting on a sofa in a tour bus heading south on Connecticut Avenue toward the Voice of America studios. Assorted managers and handlers are sitting nearby and a plasma TV is playing CNN. Keith is wearing dark wraparound sunglasses and is chewing gum. He sits back, one leg propped up across the aisle. Now and then he adjusts his crotch.

He readily acknowledges that he got a far bigger bump getting dropped from that holiday show than he would have gotten playing it.

"That show was lame," he said. "It finished something like 66. I couldn't have done anything to help those ratings.

"Some woman wrote an article saying that I'm out of touch for writing this song," he added. "When you write a song and it goes Number 1 in seven weeks, I think you hit reality square on the head."

"Courtesy" kicks off "Unleashed" and sets the tone for an end-zone dance of an album. It's Keith's ninth, if you include a greatest-hits compilation. There are other 9/11-inspired numbers here, including a duet with Willie Nelson, one of Keith's heroes, called "Beer for My Horses." (It includes a denunciatory toast to "evil forces" that, it's implied, are in for a butt-kicking.) "It's All Good," a quieter consolation tune, pats the listener on the back and says that this, too, shall pass.

There's a Latin feel to "Good to Go to Mexico," a tender ballad or two, and Keith's PG-13 idea of bawdy on "Who's Your Daddy." Throughout, he comes off as the witty, straight-talking yahoo who says exactly what's on his mind. It's pop country with feints toward the outlaw stylings of singers like Nelson and Merle Haggard. It's manly stuff that's largely targeted at the ladies.

Keith had a hunch in his early teens that he'd have a career in music, but his route to music stardom was hardly direct. After high school, he headed straight into the oil-drilling business, which was then booming in Oklahoma. For four years, he worked on a casing crew, a strenuous but high-paying job, at least until the oil market collapsed in Oklahoma in 1983. Then, hundreds of drilling crews lost their jobs and Keith began wondering if he'd made a serious career mistake.

"I thought, 'What am I going to do now?' " he recalls. "I thought I'd messed up by taking the money instead of going college. Now, do I go back to college at 22 and start over or do I try something else?"

One possibility: professional football. Keith played defensive end for the semipro Oklahoma Drillers, and in 1984 he tried out for the United States Football League's short-lived Oklahoma Outlaws squad. But he was 15 pounds too light, he says, and the following year the team relocated to Arizona. So much for the gridiron life.

Music, though, seemed like an option. Keith had started writing songs at the age of 14, and he thought his own material far outshone originals by an older buddy who lived nearby and who flat-out wowed friends. "People were so fascinated by his songwriting and I remember thinking, 'I can do better than that.' " He wrote constantly and after he'd drafted about 150 different songs, one of them actually won some raves.

He kept at it, and during his oil years he co-founded a quintet called Easy Money. Heavily influenced by big-harmony country acts like Alabama, Easy Money built a local following in the early '80s and on a good night could pull in $35 a man for a five-hour show. When the band finally got an out-of-town gig, it was in Pascagoula, Miss., which through freakishly bad luck was all but demolished by Hurricane Elena the day Easy Money arrived.

"The eye of that hurricane fell right over Pascagoula and blew the town away," Keith says. "We thought it was an omen."

Soon after, Keith gathered enough courage and cash for a road trip to Nashville, where he showed up with a six-song demo cassette. Through a friend of a friend, he landed an appointment with a Capitol Records executive, who sent a mid-level A&R flunky to give Keith a once-over and an audition. The memory of that afternoon, years later, still seems to rankle.

"He come out and he put the tape in and pressed fast forward, play, fast forward, play. He run through them real quick and he said, 'You know what, you're a pretty good singer and you've got the look, but we need to find you some songs.' It really broke my heart because I was first and foremost a songwriter, so I left Nashville with no intention of ever coming back."

Luckily, Keith had also given a copy of the tape to a friend and fan who knew Harold Shedd, a record producer whose credits included the first dozen albums by Alabama. Shedd listened to the tape, and a few days later he boarded a plane to Oklahoma.

"I thought he was really good live," says Shedd, who today is a co-owner of VFR Records in Nashville. "They were doing a lot of originals that nobody in the crowd had ever heard and they were getting a huge reaction. I thought, there's no reason not to like this."

Shedd signed Keith on the spot. As for that guy from Capitol, he's otherwise employed and lamenting the day he missed out on a fortune, says Keith. "He isn't in the music business anymore. I think he's cutting grass."

2002 The Washington Post Company

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