Krystal Keith’s getting-ready-for-tour to-do list was relatively short. She had to get the merchandise organized. The meet-and-greet logistics needed to be worked out. And she had to cut her normal 60-minute set to a tight 25, because she wouldn’t want to upset the headliner.
“He might try to ground me,” she said.
“We’ll unplug her if she goes long,” the headliner said the next day. You know him as Toby Keith. Krystal calls him Dad.
He is as familiar as summer by now, one of the biggest country stars of the past two decades. In 1993, his first single “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” off his self-titled debut, went to No. 1, and he’s done nothing but build a mountain of hits since. Guy songs, mostly. Drinking songs. Sly pick-up-line songs. Some love songs. Songs with lyrics that look good on a T-shirt. A few songs saluting the soldiers who do the real work in the real world. Country radio’s playbook was pulled from Toby Keith’s songbook.
He’s got an Oklahoman swagger, and when he calls he says, “ThisisToby” – three words rolled into one, spoken in a deep, casual, familiar voice. Yes, he is, and that is all the introduction he needs.
Sunday, he’ll be at Sleep Train Amphitheatre making an early stop on his ‘Shut Up and Hold On’ tour, which, as his tours are, is sponsored by Ford’s F-Series. Country hip-hop hybrid Colt Ford is one opener. The other is Krystal, who released her debut album “Whiskey & Lace” in December.
Toby co-produced the album and wrote or co-wrote four of its 10 songs. Krystal co-wrote the title track, which employs a hard-edged guitar riff to support the story of a stripper getting through her shift with the help of a shot or two. Krystal said a friend was wearing a T-shirt with the title and she stuck it in her phone for future reference. She dug it out during a session with well-known country songwriters Rodney Clawson and Lynn Hutton. Clawson, Krystal said, was slightly wary of writing a song about a stripper with Toby’s daughter.
And while many of Toby’s hits come with a certain socially casual attitude, his contributions to the record lean more toward love, including “What Did You Think I’d Do,” about a girl gone wild quickly settled down when she finds love.
“I said, ‘I’d never written one from a girl’s perspective,’ ” Toby said. So he did. “I wanted that to be a single,” he said, adding that he couldn’t talk the label into it, which is odd because he co-founded the label.
Krystal, who at 28 would seem immune to getting grounded by her father, said the only real tension in the studio was when she’d hear a song she wanted to record and her dad had already cut it. She said he’d look at her, grin and say, “I wrote it; I got dibs.”
“He definitely is my vocal coach and my songwriting mentor,” she said. “And he’s good at what he does.”
So into the family business she goes – an ever-expanding business at that. Last year, Toby landed the cover of Forbes, grinning. Grinning because the cover read “Toby Keith: Country Music’s $500 Million Man.”
He’s sold nearly 40 million albums, and will add to that in June when he releases “5 Rounds,” a box set bundling his 2008-2012 output. He’s had success with his entrance into the booze market, a mezcal called Wild Shot. In 2011, industry magazine Beverage Media named it the top premium mezcal in the United States.
“Like being the tallest Shetland at the circus,” Keith said.
He took his 2003 No. 1 hit, “I Love This Bar,” and flipped it into a franchise: Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill. He’ll soon have more than 20 of those, including the one in Folsom. They put him in competition with fellow musical restaurateurs Jimmy Buffett and Sammy Hagar.
It’s a cheery rivalry, Keith and Buffett teaming up most recently on Buffett’s “Too Drunk to Karaoke,” and Keith and Hagar working up a duet of Buffett’s “Margaritaville.” That one came together not long after Hagar traveled to Oklahoma to play a benefit Keith assembled after a tornado ravaged his hometown of Moore.
Keith recently hosted his annual golf tournament, which raised nearly $1 million for his foundation, and last year, that foundation opened a home for kids with cancer, one he describes as a cross between the Ritz-Carlton and Walt Disney World. Normally, he’d fit in a USO tour, but after 11 years, he said he’s taking this one off.
As he approaches his 53rd birthday in July, he sounds not at all like a tortured artist trying to navigate middle age. He’s a guy who paid his dues, put in the work, and can now enjoy the rewards.
After a show in Newfoundland last year, he jumped behind a bar and went to work for a little while, because he could. Then he picked up the tab, because he could.
“There was a pub every 5 feet,” he said, “and these people were really good to us.”
The days of 100 to 150 shows a year are past. He’ll play 40 or 50 in high-impact markets and craft a set list full of songs his fans love to hear, and he’ll have fun playing them. He’ll do his charity work. He’ll spend time at his house in Mexico or on his golf course.
“I like to chill out and live a little bit,” Keith said. “I’ve worked my whole life.”