Toby Keith would like to be judged not by the color of his neck but by the content of his catalog. Yet the country superstar is not optimistic about this prospect.
It has been five years since Keith's high-profile media slap fight with the Dixie Chicks in the wake of his song "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (the Angry American)." That's the number that threatened the 9/11 attackers with a "boot in your ass."
The 46-year-old has released four albums since then that have all hit number one on the country charts and number one or two on the Billboard 200, including the recent "Big Dog Daddy." He has written and sung songs both comic and contemplative about whiskey, weed, women, and Willie. But Keith finds that in some quarters his name remains a punch-line euphemism for, as he says, "war-drum-banging, right-wing redneck."
This is funny to the lifelong Democrat, who took a beating from some conservative figures when he came out of the political closet after they had embraced "Courtesy," assuming he was an ally.
"The sick part about this is me and Michael Moore would agree on a lot of things," says Keith with a laugh by phone from a Cleveland tour stop. "But Michael Moore would bash me just as fast as Rush Limbaugh would bash me. The extreme right and the extreme left are really insignificant, but they make the most noise and get the most headlines."
The idea that any media-affiliated listener - right, left, or neutral - would investigate the nuances of his music or his political opinions is as foreign a concept to him as driving something other than a Ford truck.
"If you come to my show, you'll see a two-hour show and in that two hours you'll hear one song that's a tribute to the American soldier, and you'll hear one song that is a morale booster for our troops going in to get the people responsible for 9/11," he says of his current tour, which comes to the Tweeter Center Sept. 22.
"The other hour and 50 minutes will be about drinking and boozing and smoking weed, and it's in a very liberal light. But that one hour and 50 minutes doesn't outweigh 'boot in your ass.' It doesn't matter that I've had 50 million spins as a writer that writes about liberal things, and that puts me in the John Lennon, Bee Gees, Elton John area for publishing. It doesn't matter that I've sold 30 million albums.
"It's just that one catch phrase that [critics] focus on, so it will never go away, and that's just the weight I have to bear."
To his surprise, that weight has eased a bit with "Big Dog Daddy," the first to be produced by the Oklahoma native himself.
"What's amazing this time, by me producing it I thought they'd really tee off on me - and I had rave reviews from some of the craziest [places]," says Keith of those he perceives as "far left" outlets like Entertainment Weekly and NPR.
Not that Keith has had much time to read reviews. He's been too busy diversifying.
He launched his own record label, Show Dog, in 2005, and the roster includes Keith and four up-and-coming artists, including his Tweeter warm-up act, Flynnville Train. The father of three opened a restaurant chain tied to his song "I Love This Bar" the same year. He's put his "support the troops" money where his mouth is by conducting several USO tours of Afghanistan and Iraq. And he moseyed out to Hollywood to star in the 2006 drama "Broken Bridges." He's currently at work co-writing, with comic Rodney Carrington, a screenplay based on his 2002 duet with Willie Nelson "Beer for My Horses."
"Every other year I'd like to do another project," says Keith of his celluloid dreams.
This work ethic, unsurprisingly, is matched by Keith's capacity for self-promotional swagger. His half-endearing, half-obnoxious penchant for braggadocio would make the toughest thug rapper proud. Ask how his restaurants are doing and you'll hear that the Las Vegas outpost "is tracking in the top 35 grossing restaurants in the US." Inquire as to whether his kids are musically inclined, and Keith boasts that his 10-year-old son "just finished one of the top roles" at summer theater camp. Query him about the small number of artists on the Show Dog roster and he says "We've probably got as big a staff as anyone in town."
"He just makes you feel like you should have done more with your life whenever you talk to him," says Carrington with a laugh, calling himself "the poodle" compared to Keith's Big Dog.
But that confident bark is an inspiration to those around him, says the comic. "He's about as regular a guy as they come," says Carrington. "If you were just hanging out with him at home you don't take away 'This guy is a huge country music superstar.' You just take away the fact that this is a guy who works hard and enjoys what he does and wants to be the best at whatever he attempts to do. I have a lot of respect for that."