Toby Keith - Inspired by gran's bar
Toby Keith never got to play in Clancy’s Tavern. The bar in Fort Smith, Arkansas that this multi-million album selling country singer pays homage to with his latest album belonged to his grandmother and every time he drove out there with his family to visit her as a youngster he filled up with anticipation.
“I absolutely loved going there,” he says down the line from his tour bus in Florida. “There’s no question that just being around that bar played a big part in making me want to become a musician. I spent a summer there with my grandma when I was about twelve and I think I knew then that I wanted to be the guitarist in a band. I didn’t know that I was going to write songs but I’d watch the people coming in to the nightclub part out back, all dressed up for a good time, and then see the band strike up and I’d think, I want to be part of this.”
Within three or four years of that summer visit his grandmother had retired and sold up, and the new owners turned Clancy’s Tavern into a different kind of retail outlet. But by then the cheap guitar that his grandmother had bought Keith for Christmas when he was eight had gained a more sophisticated successor that had become more and more of a companion.
His early gigs, in bars not unlike Clancy’s Tavern but without the magic he’d perceived through his younger eyes, were inauspicious. They were, however, ideal for developing the tough country voice that, along with the ability to write songs that connect with the blue collar audience of country music’s heartlands, set Keith on the road to a success story that includes being the fourth best selling artist in the US (ahead of Britney Spears, Madonna and even Bruce Springsteen) and garnering more than seventy million radio plays.
The resulting wealth has enabled Keith, an astute businessman, to develop an entertainment empire that includes major motion pictures and a chain of restaurants. He’s also branched out into acting but he still lives in the same area of Oklahoma he grew up in, although in a rather larger house with a garden running into acres, and remains in touch with his community. When a clothing factory nearby closed a year or two back, he tried to save the two hundred jobs involved by refinancing the operation.
“I thought, everybody wears blue jeans, surely there must be a way to make that work,” he says. “I didn’t need to make any money out of this but we looked at every cost and it turned out that there was no way we could turn out blue jeans that competed with the imports. Ours were going to be five, six, seven dollars more expensive at trade price and although I wasn’t it in for profit, I couldn’t subsidise things to that level over the long term. It’d be crazy. But the price tag has become more important than the ‘made in America’ label and that’s just the way things are. Everything’s gone global; nothing’s local any more.”
The opening song on Clancy’s Tavern, Made in America, addresses this very subject. It’s about a different generation, he says, people like his father who wouldn’t “buy anything he couldn’t fix with WD40 and a craftsman wrench”. He doesn’t expect to change anything by singing and recording it but he felt he had to make the point and after all, people do listen to his songs.
Just how many of them do this took him by surprise when he scored a hit song, Should’ve Been a Cowboy from his eponymous first album. The first song he’d ever written, it went on to be the most played country track in the US throughout the 1990s.
“My teacher at grade school had told my parents that I had creative writing talent and I suppose if you put that together with learning to play guitar, songwriting’s an obvious option,” he says.
“But I’d never put it together until a group of us were on a hunting trip once and we hit a bar in our hunting clothes. One of the guys spotted this really attractive young lady wearing jeans with creases you could have cut yourself on, a shirt that really emphasised her curves and a cowboy hat. So he goes up to her, looking like he’s just come out of the woods, which he had, asks her to dance and gets refused. Minutes later, a guy wearing smart cowboy gear approached her and they hit the dance floor. We all laughed and someone said, There you go, you should’ve been a cowboy, and I went back to my room and wrote that song. It didn’t flow out but I learned an important lesson that night: you have to apply craft to songwriting just as you do with any other creative pursuit.”
From then on Keith has never been short of songwriting ideas and the concise style of his writing – there’s never a word wasted – shows how well he learned that night while his fellow members of the hunting party were sleeping off their excesses. With every album he’s recorded he reckons there have been fifty songs to choose from and the best ten or twelve, the ones he’s really honed, are the ones that have made the cut.
“I think this idea of whittling away the stuff you don’t need came to me without realising it through listening to the people whose songs I really rated early on and still love,” he says. “People like Chuck Berry – he wrote real poetry when you look at it on the page – and Buck Owens, Waylon Jennings, Gordon Lightfoot. These are great teachers as well as great writers.”
He pays homage to some of his early influences on the bonus tracks that are included on Clancy’s Tavern, as performed by Incognito Bandito, the back to basics band he formed with the studio musicians he records with in Nashville.
“I was speaking with them one day and asked if they ever get to go out and play just for fun,” says Keith. “And they said no but they’d love to. So I offered to pay them their top rate, suggested we book a venue somewhere and show up and play these songs we all grew up playing. If nobody came to hear us, too bad, we’d just enjoy ourselves.”
As if. Even with minimal advertising, word got round that Incognito Bandito was Keith and his session-playing chums and the gig promptly sold out. Others have followed suit as the Nashville guys’ schedules have allowed.
His return to Scotland, this weekend, will be more business as usual, focusing on his own repertoire.
“I give people who come out to see Toby Keith what they expect,” he says. “They want to hear my songs and I’m grateful for that. But it’s still great to go out and just have fun with some old favourites every now and then.”
From The Herald, November 2, 2011.