Sure, Toby Keith has had a string of No. 1 hits, but what we — and he — want to talk about this Memorial Day is his work with U.S. troops and returning vets.
How Do You Like Him Now?
Toby Keith’s current album, Clancy’s Tavern, inspired by his frequent childhood visits to his grandmother’s club, debuted at No. 1 last October. He was named Artist of the Decade at the 2011 American Country Awards. His hit single “Red Solo Cup,” the second off Clancy’s Tavern, was also the No. 1 country download on iTunes. Plus, Beverage Media magazine called his Wild Shot Mezcal “the number-one premium mezcal in the U.S. market.” He’s even been named the nation’s top-earning country performer by Forbes.
Yet Oklahoma’s favorite son likes nothing so much as to talk about his trips overseas to entertain U.S. troops, and about his work with returning veterans. Keith, 50, stepped into that work after his ubiquitous anthem, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” — a virulent response to the September 11 terrorist attacks — proved a rallying cry for belligerent compatriots. Never mind that critics denounced it as “knee-jerk jingoism.”
Keith put his money where his mouth was, and after a 2003 trip to Baghdad, he began trying to improve conditions for Americans fighting abroad. On a trip to Afghanistan in 2007, he saw how troops in remote outposts lived between literal walls of sand, without creature comforts. That moved him to sponsor the USO2GO program, which distributes care packages to overseas U.S. bases. Keith is also a cofounder — with NFL players Tommie Harris, Roy Williams, and Mark Clayton — of Pros 4 Vets, which offers legal assistance and advice to Oklahomans who return from active duty.
As in his songs, in interviews Keith is forceful, outspoken, and passionate.
How did you get so involved with the USO?
Well, the first time I went over there was about ten years ago. I was just going to go for two weeks the year after my dad died, to honor him, and then I said, “Man, we’ve got to do this again.” I went the next year, and the USO said, “You could be a big force in the USO.” And so my agent, Curt Motley, became a board member, and he works tirelessly trying to get other entertainers to go over.
You made the news recently with your USO2GO program. How did that come about?
We were over there, and we saw that some of those FOBs [forward operating bases, or secured forward positions used to support tactical operations] had shitty conditions for R&R. Those boys take wire baskets and put cardboard in them, fill them with sand, stack ’em, and that’s their wall. And they put cardboard huts up to eat in, and put some tents up, and then they have a little room, maybe 20 by 30 feet, with some air piped into it, and they sit there trying to run a
DVD. So we put these care packages together that include things like DVD players and flat-screens and games and PS3s. The USO is a morale-lifter, and it brings a piece of home over.
Why do you keep going back? What does it satisfy in you personally?
There’s a big void there that needs to be filled. I’ve done 180 shows, and it takes that many to get the word out. And there’s such a big need for it. I go two weeks every year, and the USO board can use that as a tool to get other people to go. But you’ve got two strikes against you when you go. One’s political. A lot of people don’t want to associate themselves with it because of the political brush they’ll be painted with. And there’s a distinct fear factor for a lot of people. That’s a big issue. We’ll land at a big base in Afghanistan, and then we’ll go to the small bases, little FOBs up on the front, and play as many forward bases as we can. I figure if I made it through 180 shows, you can at least go to Walter Reed hospital in D.C. and shake hands. But if you can get anybody to go once, they find out how great it is. It’s a wonderful geography lesson, a wonderful history lesson that you can’t get anywhere else. To talk with those guys who put their lives on the line every day, and to eat lunch, shake hands, and spend time with ’em, is just a wonderful experience.
You’ve had some scary experiences. Four mortars hit close to you and you had to hunker down in a bunker, for example.
Yeah, but that happens all the time. The people you’re surrounded by live under that duress every minute, so they’re prepared for it, and fortunately the enemy is terrible strategists, terrible warriors. So it would be like getting hit by a stray bullet in a major city in the U.S. The second that a launch is detected, they sound a siren, you get in a bunker, and the missiles hit, and then when it’s over, you go on with your day.
Was it easy for you to figure out what the soldiers wanted to hear?
The biggest reality check came the first year I was there. We’d been on a C-17 to Kuwait from Germany, and then we were on a C-130 from Kuwait into Baghdad. When we landed, it was dark and it was still 122 degrees. They took us to Camp Cook, which had just lost four guys a couple of hours before we arrived. And we played a very somber show. I didn’t know what to expect, so I had a bunch of comical stuff. I wanted to make ’em laugh. My dad used to sing a song called “Army Life” that was real popular back 50 years ago. So I wanted to write a bunch of stuff like that, play ’em four or five hits, play “Weed With Willie” and make ’em smile, especially since they’d just lost four guys. But it was still so somber that you just had to suck it up and get it done.
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This interview with Toby Keith comes from the May, 2012, issue of Penthouse Magazine and defines “Hero” in a fashion approachable by us all. We applaud that.
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