- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

OKLAHOMA CITY — Toby Keith didn’t have to go to Nashville to become a country-music superstar. Nashville came to Oklahoma.

Mr. Keith — who won two American Music Awards on Sunday night — has never strayed too far from his Sooner roots, working long days in oil fields, playing semiprofessional football and raising racehorses.

“Most artists moved to Nashville,” Mr. Keith said recently, lounging on a leather couch in his tour bus. “I never did have an address there. I was there for one day and never felt the need for more.”

Instead of traveling to the Tennessee country-music mecca, he honed his craft in the whiskey halls and bars of the Southwest for nearly a decade.

Mr. Keith began playing guitar at age 8 after receiving one for Christmas. Later, he toured with his band, Easy Money, between seasons playing semipro football for the Oklahoma Drillers and then a short stint with the Oklahoma Outlaws.

When the Outlaws failed and his football career was finally over, Mr. Keith put his energy into his music.

He toured 51 weeks a year, hitting honky-tonks and music halls from Oklahoma to Texas to Colorado.

“It was the only way we could make enough money,” he said. “Nothing ain’t worth having if it’s not worth fighting for. I was only going to do it for 10 years, and it was getting pretty close.”

But before he could quit and head back to the oil fields of Oklahoma, he got a deal with Mercury Records.

“They came to me,” he says with a smirk.

Mr. Keith put out three albums with Mercury before switching to DreamWorks, which allowed him the freedom to record the witty, occasionally overtly redneck lyrics that have become anthems for country fans and nonfans alike.

Mr. Keith doesn’t mince words when describing Nashville and the industry that he says has reluctantly embraced him. Despite nearly two dozen country award nominations, he’s taken home only a handful. (He was two for five Sunday night.)

In 2003, the Academy of Country Music named him entertainer of the year — but he wasn’t there to pick it up. Thinking his chances were slim, he left the ceremony to work on a song with Willie Nelson.

“The awards are kind of like the all-star game,” Mr. Keith said. “You take your turn at bat, smile and give everybody the finger and leave.”

That’s Mr. Keith for you — honest and blunt. That grit translates into his drinking anthems, his ballads and his collection of post-September 11 patriotic songs.

Mr. Keith has written nearly all the songs he’s recorded and says he writes when he gets the inspiration.

“I’ll do it for five minutes here, or I’ll be thinking about it while I’m in the shower,” Mr. Keith says. “I never could write by appointment.” Straightforward lyrics and edgy guitar riffs have given his songs staying power.

Recently, Mr. Keith’s been talking about a lot more than music in his home state.

A horseman, he championed a proposal recently approved by voters that expands casinolike gambling to the state’s struggling horse-racing tracks. Mr. Keith also stumped for a measure to create a lottery to fund public education.

“Everybody needs to try to make a difference, and they have a responsibility to stay up on current events,” Mr. Keith said. “I can be a difference-maker, and I try to be.”

Standing 6-foot-4 with blond curls peeking out from his weathered cowboy hat, Mr. Keith was frequently seen on the campaign trail this fall. He’s supported several Democrats, including Oklahoma’s Democratic governor, Brad Henry.

“I campaign for my friends, people I can trust,” said Mr. Keith, who is a registered Democrat in Oklahoma but nonetheless supported President Bush this election.

“I think Toby is passionate about Oklahoma and truly wants to make the state a better place,” Mr. Henry says. “Instead of sitting on the sidelines, he’s gotten involved in issues he believes are important.”

Mr. Keith is keeping his wealth in Oklahoma, too. He and his family live near Norman, home to his beloved University of Oklahoma Sooners. His latest project is a $4.7 million restaurant and music hall in Oklahoma City’s fledgling entertainment district, Bricktown.

The venture, Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill, will seat up to 600 people and is expected to be a stopping spot for touring acts. Mr. Keith recently opened a similar bar in Las Vegas, and plans for bars in North Kansas City, Mo., and Shreveport, La., are in the works.

“It’s a great chance to help support Bricktown and what they’re trying to do down there,” Mr. Keith said. “The whole concept reflects my passion for Oklahoma and where everyone will feel comfortable.”

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