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Toby Keith Takes the Back Road to Fame

Oil’s well that ends well

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Country hit maker Toby Keith used to be in the oil business. ”I did all the dirty jobs in the oil fields for four years,” recalls the blond-haired, blue-eyed Oklahoman. But Keith’s musical career now looks like something he thought was behind him — a gusher. After doing 260 gigs a year opening for Brooks & Dunn and Sawyer Brown, the muscular baritone has racked up five straight top five singles since early 1993, including his latest No. 1, ”Who’s That Man.”

Keith, 33, doesn’t have your typical country-singer résumé. After digging for Texas tea, Keith test-rode bulls and broncos for a rodeo and spent two seasons playing semipro football for the Oklahoma City Drillers. Meanwhile, he worked his band, Easy Money, around Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. In 1992, a flight attendant friend passed his demo tape on to Polydor Nashville president Harold Shedd in mid-air; Shedd later flew to Oklahoma City, heard Keith in person, then signed him up over the next morning’s breakfast. In February 1993, Keith’s first single, the dance-floor hit, ”Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” raced to No. 1, and country music had a new fair-haired hero.

That instant success gave him more stylistic freedom than a record-biz rookie might ordinarily command. Keith followed the honky-tonking ”Cowboy” with the pop-flavored ”He Ain’t Worth Missing,” then with the raunchy guitar rock of ”A Little Less Talk.” ”He gets the big picture,” says Shedd, ”and he’s a powerful personality.” Maybe too powerful: In April, Keith broke his ankle playing as an honorary participant in a University of Oklahoma alumni football game, resulting in surgery and weeks of canceled bookings. Now, however, safer activities are planned. Keith’s hunky looks have landed him a role in a film, Burning Bridges, which costars Sinbad and begins shooting in the spring. ”I’m lucky,” ventures Keith, ”’cause I got to do a whole different thing right away.”