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After 20 years on top, Toby Keith is still raising hell

ALLENTOWN, Pa. – Don’t think that after 20 years of extolling the virtues of carousing and giving no quarter – from “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” through “Red Solo Cup” – country music superstar Toby Keith hasn’t thought about the time he’ll have to stop being a hell-raiser.

“We think of that quite a bit,” Keith said in a phone call. “I learned from some of the guys that went ahead of me that at some point, you have to take it down.”

But for now, Keith is more like the protagonist of his song “Good As I Once Was”: Still dishing out his bellicose beer songs to a crowd eager to hear them, even from a 52-year-old.

Keith said his audiences wouldn’t have it any other way. With 21 No. 1 country hits from 17 gold and platinum albums, he said he doesn’t have room to fit any other type of song in his concerts.

“The kind of forums we do, I get a couple of hours on stage, and I got to play whatever new song is the hit, and then I’ve got 15 songs that are must-plays,” he said, ticking off rowdy tunes such as “I Love This Bar,” “Beer For My Horses” and “Whiskey Girl.”

Add in a few fan favorites such as “Weed With Willie” and “Get Out of My Car,” and “you’re squeaking for time. Now all of a sudden you’ve got to figure out where am I going to play the rest?

“How many ballads can you throw into the middle of a roller coaster ride?” Keith said. “When you’ve got them standing on each others’ shoulders, are you going to be a buzz kill and sing a big country ballad right there? It just doesn’t fit with what we do all the time.”

Nor, apparently, will it any time soon. Keith has just finished a new disc – it’s being mixed and mastered for likely release in October – with the working title “Drinks, Drinks, Drinks.” The first single from the disc is yet another alcohol-related song, “Drinks After Work.”

Keith said alcohol is a recurrent theme in his songs because most of them are written when he’s on the road, and “when we’re doing our big shows, and it’s just bikini tops and jeans shorts and drinking and tattoos and painted bodies,” it’s easy to use that for fodder.

Plus, he said, he knows that “after 20 years of writing songs, that’s where most of my bang comes from.

“When you get to single time, you gotta pick the one your label will say, ‘We really think we could get this played.’

“You don’t want to send something out there that’s not going to promote the album, so that’s just what we write most topics about. But it’s kind of our thing. It’s what we do live, and it’s what fits our motif very good.”

It has certainly worked. Keith is annually among Forbes magazine’s biggest-selling music acts, with earnings around $50 million for several years running.

Deep in his career, that “motif” gave him the hit “Red Solo Cup,” the 2011 ode to a favorite beer-drinking vessel that went double platinum and gave him the biggest hit of his career.

Another type of song Keith’s fans apparently want is his patriotic chest-thumpers such as the No. 1 gold hits “Made in America” and “American Soldier” and, of course, the post-9/11 chart-topping, gold smash “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).”

He said he knows he takes some heat for the tenor of such songs but says he couldn’t care less.

“I do shows overseas with troops, and I won’t forget the folks who do that,” he said. “I go over there two weeks a year; we do shows in Afghanistan and Iraq. And in some of them we’re down range from small fire.

“So we get over there in the middle of that, and you see these little young faces who our government has asked to go do something for them, and you write what you feel at the time.

“It is what it is, and I ain’t never apologized for it. I don’t apologize for feeling like I want my guys to go do their job and come back as quick as possible and be safe and be successful. And anybody that doesn’t feel like that, I don’t care what they think.