Country music superstar Toby Keith probably isn’t the first person who comes to mind when thinking about cannabis and music. However, with the recent release of his song “Wacky Tobaccy,” Keith may start standing out alongside his friend Willie Nelson. Though this isn’t Keith’s first cannabis-related song (he released his song “Weed with Willie” in 2003), it is his first to be released as a single and so heavily promoted. While cannabis and country music isn’t a recent fellowship, the shift in opinion about the plant amongst some of the genre’s most conservative fans could not be more clearly exemplified than by the runaway success “Wacky Tobaccy” is having right now. Country music was ready for a cannabis anthem, and Toby Keith was up to the job.
Keith recently returned home to the United States after a historic performance in Saudi Arabia during the President’s diplomatic visit to Middle East. Keith’s new album The Bus Songs will be released September 8 and features seven new tunes on the 12-track collection.” Recently, Keith took a few minutes away from his Interstates & Tailgates Tour to chat with CULTURE all about his new album, the challenges of trying to occupy the middle of an increasingly polarized country, his upcoming reception of the Poet’s Award honor from the Academy Of Country Music Awards, as well as some crucial advice for beginner songwriters.
“When I was really young, I had some friends in high school that ended up going to prison over [cannabis], and it was like, ‘Really?!’ They were pretty serious convictions over something that grows out of the ground.”
We watched the video for “Wacky Tobaccy” the other day and absolutely loved it. It seems like the type of song there’s probably a good story behind. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired it?
Well, I was at the race track a bit ago, because I own some race horses in Oklahoma City. This older cat I know who’s about as country as cornbread was talking with me about all of this legalization of medicinal weed everywhere and about how it’s kind of coming over the hump. He’s old fashioned and he said to me, “Do you reckon they’re ever gonna legalize that wacky tobaccy in Oklahoma?” I started laughing, and he said I should write a song about it. And I said, “For you, I’ll go write you one!”
It sounds like the song came together really organically.
It was an easy write, because just the name alone was funny and catchy, and from there I just had to start piecing it together. So, I know in one verse I’m gonna tell you how many different ways you can burn it. In another verse I’m gonna tell you every kind of name for it, you know some folks say, “This is Mexican, this is Jamaican, this is Red Hair Sensimilla, this is Okeechobee Purple, and this is Humboldt County.” Everybody’s got their favorite little things they call it, so I know for one verse I’m going to put that all in there, piece it together, and make it rhyme. Then I said to myself, I need an opening verse to set all of this up. So, I thought I’d start soft so nobody would see it coming and talk about a woman in the office going out at lunch and then coming back in late and so stoned everybody knows it.
It sounds like you had a really good time writing it.
It was a fun one to write, and I had a lot of fun doing it. I’ve tried my whole life to love it, but I’m a whiskey guy so it’s just not my high. You could put all [the cannabis] I’ve smoked in my life in a coffee cup, but any time in the last 15 or 20 years I’ve been around Willie Nelson, I just can’t help it because, hey, you’re with Willie Nelson. Now, he’ll drink a little whiskey with me too, but when he fires one up he just hands it to you, and you’re just not going to tell him no.
“You could put all [the cannabis] I’ve smoked in my life in a coffee cup, but any time in the last 15 or 20 years I’ve been around Willie Nelson, I just can’t help it because, hey, you’re with Willie Nelson. Now, he’ll drink a little whiskey with me too, but when he fires one up, he just hands it to you, and you’re just not going to tell him no.”
Do you have any particular feelings about legalization now?
It’s funny [. . .] In the legal world they treat it like it’s the devil’s grass, but in the real world I know people who smoke weed who you’d never assume even drink a beer much less smoke. Most people I know that smoke will come home at night, smoke about half of something, and then go lay down and go to bed. It’s just always been funny to me how much weight it carries in the world and how little it actually affects anybody. When I was really young, I had some friends in high school that ended up going to prison over [cannabis], and it was like, “Really?!” They were pretty serious convictions over something that grows out of the ground. Personally, I’ve always wondered if when they legalized it whether crime will go down as a result. So, I’m anxious to hear how much the crime might be going down in the states that have made it legal.
Do you feel like releasing a song like “Wacky Tobaccy,” especially with all of the success that it’s having, will help to take away some of the negative associations that some people, who have probably never consumed the plant themselves, have with cannabis and people who consume it?
Maybe. We live in a headline world, and you can’t fix that. I don’t even try. I just do my deal, and I just don’t even really care. I can’t talk to 300 million people around a campfire, share a beer with them, and let them all know who I am because in the end they’re gonna get their data, intel and information from wherever they get it from. If you get up every day and read The Drudge and Fox, you’re gonna get that. And if you get up and watch CNN and read Huffington Post, you’re gonna get that. So, I can’t talk them into one thing or the other; there’s just no way. You just have to let people find it on their own or just live in the dark.
But, it’s always made me laugh when someone comes up to me with a real strong slant from one side or the other. Believe me, I get hit just as hard from the right as I do from the left because they don’t like that fact that I’m sitting here going, “So, my whole show is about drinking in a bar, hanging out with women, smoking weed with Willie and drinking from red solo cups.” The left doesn’t see it because all they see is my support for the military; they just see “American Soldier” and “Courtesy Of The Red, White and Blue.” While the other side is saying, “What happened to our boy?! He’s smoking weed with Willie! What’s going on here?!”
To talk about something a bit different, rumor has it that the Academy of Country Music Awards will be presenting you with the Poet’s Award, and that you’ll be honored alongside Willie Nelson and the late Shel Silverstein. How does it feel to have your songwriting recognized like that, especially to be in the company of two other legendary writers?
To be on the stage with two of the biggest, Shel Silverstein and Willie Nelson, is magnificent. I’m a huge fan of both of those guys and know everything Willie’s done and most everything Shel ever did—I’m just in awe of them. To even be mentioned on the same ticket with them, I guess it means we’ve done pretty well in the last 24 years.
“Personally, I’ve always wondered if when they legalized [cannabis] whether crime will go down as a result. So, I’m anxious to hear how much the crime might be going down in the states that have made it legal.”
To have a career that’s gone from working in the oil fields to playing honky-tonks in Oklahoma to busking in Nashville to performing in some of the biggest venues around the world and having such tremendous success, is it ever surreal for you looking back on it all?
Yeah! You know, I got my record deal when I was in my 20s, and it’s kind of like everything that was before that is viewed in my mind as my childhood. Once my first single hit and was huge, it was like what they call “an overnight sensation.” But really, I’d been playing the clubs for four or five years before that, cutting my teeth, getting my chops, getting to where I could handle audiences and know how to be professional up there and get through the show no matter what. You know, if you can play for three people on a Wednesday night in Podunk, Texas and still stand up there and deliver, then it’s real easy to play for 100,000.
For those interested in getting started writing songs like you do, what kind of advice would you give for a beginning songwriter?
Well, the simplest thing is to start with your idea and look at your idea as a wagon wheel; you’ve got the hub, you’ve got the spokes going out, and you’ve got the wheel on the outside. Well, the wheel is your turnaround, let’s just say that’s your chorus, the hub is your idea, you want your hub to be your center of attention, and those little spokes are the color, that’s what you’re trying to do in your verses; you’re trying to go out away from the hub, get out to the turn around, get back to another spoke, and then head back to the center again. You know, if you go try to write four verses and then use your idea at the end, people will be tired of listening to your song before you get to your idea. That’s the simplest first grade advice I can give on making your songs better.
To wrap things up, are there any other things coming up in 2017 that your fans should be excited for?
Through the years I’ve written these things called The Bus Songs and they’re not really what a label would look for to put out. They’re incorrect, some of them are stupid, some of them are funny, some of them we would never play. Basically, they’re not for everybody. But, we’ve always had these laying around and somebody would say something and they’ll just take off. So for the people that like those kind of songs, they’re all gonna be on one little pile so we can throw that out. Then I’ve got another album in the can, just real songwriter stuff, that’s sittin’ on go. As soon as “Wacky” is done, we’re gonna release a single off of that, put it out and go back into the mainstream again.