By Vernell Hackett
NASHVILLE (Reuters) - Toby Keith grew up in Oklahoma where a man's handshake is his word, family is of utmost importance and opinions are welcome.
Keith has never been shy when it comes to his music, an outspokenness that has served him well over the years and continues to do so today as he nears the release of his new album, "Clancy's Tavern," on October 24.
As a young artist, Keith asked to be let out of his contract with Mercury Records when executives didn't like his album, "How Do You Like Me Now?" because they thought women would view the title track's lyrics as disrespectful.
But "How Do You Like Me Now?" went on to attain gold status, selling more than 500,000 units, and Keith went on to sell 25 million albums for his new label, Dreamworks.
"It was the day of reckoning," Keith told Reuters about the day he told Mercury chief Luke Lewis he wanted off the label and demanded his album back.
"He said to me, 'You believe in this album that much?' and I said 'Yeah.' Two hours later my accountant cut me a check, and I went over and picked up the master and walked out."
The 50-year-old Keith has headed his own label, Show Dog/Universal, since 2004 and has several other ventures. His latest release, "Made in America," is near the top of Billboard's country singles chart.
Forbes magazine named Keith the top-earning country music artist for the past year, putting his earnings at $50 million.
"Those figures make me laugh," Keith said. "Who cares about stuff like that?"
Keith's enterprises include his "I Love This Bar and Grill" chain of restaurants and his "Wild Shot" premium mezcal liquor, imported from Mexico.
"I've not come up for air since 1993. I've not missed a tour, I've not missed putting out an album, I've not taken time off. That's why we are in Forbes, because of that work ethic."
My family knows of the sacrifices we've all made in order for me to be in this position, the time away from each other, and me being busy."
KICKING AND ROCKING
"When I decided to go out on my own in 2004 with Show Dog/Universal, people asked me 'What makes you think you can run a label?' I told them, 'Because I've seen the people who do it and I'd put a bullet in my mug if I couldn't do as good a job as they do! And here we are, six years later, still kicking and rocking."
Keith will release a new CD, "Clancy's Tavern," this coming Monday. The title song tells the story of his hard-working grandmother and her tavern where he fell in love with music.
"Her husband died and left her with three kids, 4 and under. She left them with her parents and went to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where she worked as plant manager for the Dixie Cup Factory," Keith said.
"It was unheard of for a woman to do that in the 1950's."
Clancy, a nickname bestowed by her second husband, also worked part-time at Billy Garner's Supper Club and eventually bought the club where Keith got the entertainment bug.
"The characters are real -- like there was a black dude named Elmo who cooked in the kitchen, and Clancy's best friend, Lillie, took over her old job. The song is true, right down to her taking her pistol and the money to the bank."
The song "I Won't Let You Down" from the album is about a character familiar to Keith, though not who fans think it is.
"My father had a lot of similar traits, but it is really about that generation. A lot of people come up to me and say 'That's my dad, that's my old man.'
"This guy is a kid at heart, probably around 30. He's met some girls in the past who he thought were right and it didn't work out, and he knows it was probably his fault. Now he's found someone who thinks she can change him and he's OK with that. The guy decides to be up-front with the girl, so he tells her 'Look, I love you and you love me, but I might not be capable of a relationship.'"
Another song, "Made in America," extols the virtues of American-made products. The Clinton, Oklahoma, native felt some backlash due to his business selling mezcal from Mexico and his strumming Takamine guitars from Japan. He has ready answers.
"Can you get mezcal in Milwaukee? If you find me some good Mexican moonshine here in the U.S., and it's good, I'll go for it. But until then, if somebody wants to drink mezcal, you've got to import it."
As for the Takamine, Keith said, "When we were too broke to buy guitars, Gibson and Fender wouldn't take care of us or give us anything. Takamine was right there. Now, if I've got a wounded soldier coming home, and he asks me if I can get him a guitar so he can learn to play while he's learning to walk on his new legs, I call Takamine and they send him one."
The singer heads for Europe at the end of October to promote "Clancy's Tavern,' with his first stop in Edinburgh on October 30.
(Editing by Andrew Stern and Bob Tourtellotte)