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Hey y'all, it's Toby Keith

By Tom Netherland, December 2003

Controversy clings to Toby Keith like fleas flock to hound dogs. The more he barks the more they bite. Songs recorded and comments made by the burly Oklahoman since 9/11 riled Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines to the point of verbal warfare between the two.

But Keith v. Maines, that's history folks. They've not made up and sure aren't likely to anytime soon, but today's a new day. Yesterday, as Kris Kristofferson once wrote, is dead and gone.

So now Keith loads up with a new album, "Shock 'N Y'all." The 42-year-old Oklahoman's disc debuted at number 1 on Billboard's Top 200 and Top Country Albums charts. First-week sales totaled a whopping 585,000 units sold, according to Soundscan. The first single, "I Love this Bar" rests comfortably in the top slot on Billboard's country singles chart.

Platinum-selling albums. Sold-out concerts. Keith's hotter than a blue tick hound on a quick critter's trail.

"That's the way the public casts their vote, right there," Keith says by phone recently from Los Angeles. "I know it's a pretty good album, and it's a pretty good success, but you just never know and it's something that you can't control is your sales. You put 'em out there and hope people show up. 'Unleashed' is still at number four as of late November on the country charts."

How do you like him now? Music buyers have dug into their wallets for Keith's albums with some regularity now.

But this year has been especially profitable for Keith. With "retired" superstar Garth Brooks hanging with girlfriend Trisha Yearwood out in Oklahoma and not making music, after Tim McGraw's great year of 2002, it was about Keith's time.

Still, the man pretty much remains shunned in whatever awards shows you can name. Most noticeably, the Country Music Association looks over him year after year. Though nominated a whopping seven times this year, Keith came away empty handed. Six nominations last year led to no wins. Keith's lone CMA Award came in the form of Male Vocalist of the Year in 2001.

Keith was also nominated seven times for this year's Academy of Country Music Awards, yet won only one, Entertainer of the Year, only his third ACM win to date.

"It's been disappointing a little bit because of the awards shows again," Keith says. "I keep being nominated and get in there and don't win anything. That's happened two years in a row (at the CMAs). That's just your industry saying, 'We've got our own agenda, and you're not part of it.' But I'm okay with that.

"I'd say it was a monstrous year. We're at number one on the pop charts, one and four on the country charts. 'Unleashed' is such a big album it's at four million (in sales). I've got 5 albums in the Top 75. It's real music. It's what I do. Like it, love it, leave it, whatever."

The 6'4" former semi-pro football player has made quite clear past attempts at crossover success, and even though "I Love this Bar" flirted with hitting pop's Top 20, that and the bulk of the rest of "Shock 'N Y'all" resounds as mostly a country album."I was in L.A. last night having dinner, and a woman walked up from Capitol L.A., which has nothing to do with Capitol Records Nashville, and she said, 'Oh my God, you're Toby Keith. Half of our meeting today at work was spent discussing how we can figure out what makes you tick and how you sell your albums.' I said, 'It's just music to me.' I just out something that people want, and they lay it down. There's no big secret to it."

How's that for Toby Keith, the man so many say has an ego as large as Los Angeles?

"I'm pretty grounded," he says. "I expect to do well because we work hard. I had said years ago, when we weren't doing very well, in lots of interviews that if we ever do get there or whether we don't, nobody will outwork us. Our work ethic is tremendous, and everybody follows suit. When they see me work hard, the rest of my organization works hard. We've got a machine going."

Recorded in Jimmy Buffett's studio in Florida, Keith's album features several sides to the man in addition to the controversial one.

For anyone who thought, 'Yeah, I've got that Toby Keith pegged to a T,' read on.

For one thing, Keith forgoes the typical country route by recording in Nashville and employing the same old studio musicians that everyone else uses.

"The natural system for doing music in Nashville is to get a bunch of songs together, demo them, let the A&R department come in, everybody set down and have a meeting by committee and kind of agree on what's going to go in. Then pick the musicians who are going to play."

That's not Keith's way at all.

"My stuff is just show up with an acoustic guitar at the studio, fly the boys to Key West, New Orleans or Hawaii for a couple of weeks, set 'em down and say we're gonna lay the rhythm tracks for this stuff, take the acoustic guitar, producer walks in, we start making an album. Whatever I wrote last year is exactly what we're gonna put on the album, and we'll live with it. There's nobody in (Nashville) that has that kind of freedom."

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