Passing the Bar
by Bill DeLapp - Saturday, September 28th, 2013

Toby Keith surprises the lunch bunch with a musical set at his new Destiny USA tavern

TobyKeithBefore country star Toby Keith took the stage at the New York State Fair’s Grandstand to entertain more than 10,000 fans who turned out for his Aug. 23 concert, he spent part of the afternoon at a venue that must have felt near and dear to him. That explains why he showed up at—where else?— Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill, his chain of theme taverns that specialize in Southern hospitality, from tasty grub (try the deep-fried macaroni and cheese triangles) to unique libations.

The bar opened in February at megamall Destiny USA, with Keith dropping by—albeit decked out in stealth mode with sunglasses and baseball cap—for an official opening ceremony. Keith is pushing has his own liquor line, notably his Wild Shot Mezcal. For a Blue Mezcalita, a barkeep will mix an ounce of Wild Shot, an ounce of orange liqueur, six ounces of margarita mix and a splash of blue Caracao, all served on the rocks in a salt-rimmed glass. After a few of these, better leave your pillow on the floor, because that’s where you’ll spend the night.

Keith’s polished establishment mixes both a patriotic palette of reds, whites and blues with the honky-tonk flavor once found in Mickey Gilley’s fabled roadhouse of yesteryear, replete with a mechanical bull ride for urban cowboys who don’t know any better after bellying up to the bar. The singer didn’t go for the typical ribbon-cutting theatrics at Destiny, however, preferring instead to serenade the afternoon crowd with a mini-set of three favorites. With musician Scotty Emerick as backup, the guitar-strumming Keith delivered “I Love This Bar,” “Beer for My Horses” and “Red Solo Cup” with a breezy, relaxed charm. He also handled an intense grilling of softball questions from the Syracuse New Times.

How’s the franchise going? We started in Las Vegas seven or eight years ago, and we had reservations with the veterans and enlisted people to come in and show their ID to get beers and burgers and stuff on us, and to come look at the memorabilia we brought back from doing 200 shows over there in the desert for ’em. And here, seven or eight years later, we got over 20 of these things. We spend lots of money and we knock them out of the park, so I couldn’t be happier.

How much input do you have for the restaurants?

The décor and the food and the liquor, stuff like that. And once they had four or five built, we just cookie-cut. So this wallpaper is exactly the same in 90 percent of them; the girls dress in the same tops and belts; it’s the same liquor and food. The chefs that understudy to the other chefs move over and take these over, so we got that built in. It’s gotten so big now that everybody’s kinda got a spot: This chef’s good and his assistant’s good, so I’m gonna give him the next big job that’s available, you know? It’s that kind of deal, that’s the way they do it, but it’s workin’ really good.

Have you been on the mechanical bull?

I have, but I haven’t been on one in years. I used to ride mechanical bulls all the time. I used to work for a rodeo company, so I used to ride real bulls, but I sucked at it, I never was never very good. We used to test-drive any of the bulls that the stock contractor brought in, so the mechanical bull doesn’t touch that deal. But it’ll throw you off. {Laughs.}

You’ve done some acting {such as the 2006 drama Broken Bridges}. What was it like picking up tips from performers such as Burt Reynolds?

You know, it was wonderful. Burt took a part in that movie that was really below him, you know, but he did it for me. I met him one time and he said, “We need to work together,” and we had Kelly Preston and Tess Harper and we had to find somebody to play Tess’ husband for two weeks. And they asked Wilford Brimley and they asked Fred Dalton Thompson and they all couldn’t do it, and we were going to start shooting in a week. And I said, “Get Burt,” and they called him and he said, “Sure.” He showed up and sat right here by me for two weeks, just right in my ear, saying, “You’re going to be leading me: Do this, go do that,” and even when he wasn’t shooting with me he’d come over. So it was great meeting those guys.

Do you have any film roles down the road?

I don’t, man. They take too long, and my songwriting really suffers. I write all year and put out an album at the end of the year. {The 2008 movie release} Beer for My Horses took 10 months, and I was like, “Man, I ain’t got 10 months.” Broken Bridges only took three or four months. I rotate inside of a year and I have to have six months to write and three months to get ready for an album. If the right part comes along and they say, “We need you for three weeks,” and it’s a big blockbuster movie and it intrigues me, I’d go do it.

But other than that, I’m kinda outta that.

How many cowboy hats do you own? Three or four.

That’s it? Yeah, I look around at these pictures {promotional shots on the bar’s walls of Keith wearing a variety of cowboy hats}, there’s pictures in some of these rooms that’ll have me and {Merle} Haggard or me with Willie {Nelson} on stage somewhere, and I’ve still got that shirt hangin’ in the closet. I find me 20 shirts and 20 pair of jeans and three or four hats, and the rest of the time I’m golfin’. {Laughs.}