A version of this column appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
Toby Keith, Garth Brooks, Ronnie Dunn tease new music, remember tornado victims backstage at Oklahoma Twister Relief Concert
The country music superstars stopped by the media room to chat before hitting the stage at Saturday’s sold-out benefit show.
NORMAN — A veritable constellation of country music superstars — plus a red rocker — illuminated the University of Oklahoma’s Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium Saturday during Toby Keith’s Oklahoma Twister Relief Concert.
Along with Keith, Owasso residents Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, former Tulsan Ronnie Dunn, Keith’s daughter Krystal Keith, Bethel Acres native Wade Hayes, Moore native Kellie Coffey, Texas icon Willie Nelson, “Swinging” hitmaker John Anderson, Country Music Hall of Famer Mel Tillis and “Red Rocker” Sammy Hagar performed at the sold-out show.
Proceeds from the concert will benefit the United Way of Central Oklahoma May Tornadoes Relief Fund, and promoter Howard Pollack anticipated that the show raised millions for the cause.
While the star-studded lineup attracted more than 60,000 fans and set a record for the largest paid audience for a concert in the history of OU’s stadium, according to Keith’s publicist, not all the action took place on the massive stage in the south end zone. Here are some memorable quotes from the backstage media room, where several of the performers stopped by to chat before hitting the stage:
Garth’s whirlwind weekend
Brooks squeezed in his Oklahoma Twister Relief set between Friday and Saturday night acoustic shows at the Wynn Las Vegas, where he was filming his return engagement for an upcoming DVD release.
“We got in bed about 3 or 4 this morning from filming last night and came here and were excited the whole way. I can’t even imagine taking on what Toby has taken on for all of us. And I’m very thankful for that, that I just get to come and have fun, do my thing and be called a helper, you know, which is pretty cool when actually he’s doing all the work. So God bless Toby Keith today for sure,” Brooks said.
“I think what I like best is getting to play music. I haven’t got to play music in a hundred years. We’ve been joking, but it’s not a joke. … We cover 82 songs in Vegas in a show, but they’re all little snippets. I’m not sure I remember all the lyrics to our stuff, you know, ‘cause we haven’t done it in 100 years. She hasn’t done a complete song in forever, too,” he said, indicating his wife, who has focused the last few years on her second career as a cookbook author and Food Network star.
“Yeah, that’s our disclaimer for today. It might be a medley,” Yearwood said with a grin.
“We’re just gonna go have fun,” he added, laughing. “When you fly by the seat of the pants, it’s the only time when it’s great to have a big a — , if you know what I mean.”
“He’s talking about himself,” countered Yearwood, who recently unveiled her newly slimmed-down figure.
“You got me,” he replied laughing.
Remembering Bethel Acres
Although Keith, who grew up in Moore, organized the benefit in the wake of the May 20 EF5 tornado that ravaged his hometown, several performers said they didn’t want to forget devastation caused by other May storms, including the May 19 tornado that hit the Shawnee suburb of Bethel Acres. Hayes, in remission after a battle with Stage IV colon cancer, made an unannounced appearance at the show.
“He’s doing real well. He’s a really good friend of a bunch of guys in my band. … Wade’s had some tough struggles, and some of his family and friends, I think, were impacted directly by these tornadoes,” Keith said. “The crazy thing about it is we have nine or 10 tornadoes in about two weeks, and the national media comes in and covers one of ‘em. You know, the night before we had Shawnee, and the people in Shawnee felt just like the people in Moore. … You don’t know what the government’s gonna do for you. So at the end of the day, Okies, all the way back to the Dust Bowl, are kind of used to picking themselves up and making sure each other’s taken care of. Pretty amazing, resilient bunch.”
On May 19, Dunn and his wife were traveling through Shawnee on his tour bus from their home in Santa Fe, N.M., to Nashville, Tenn.
“There was a reason I was in Shawnee, Oklahoma, when that thing hit. Whatever that is, I don’t know. Maybe it was just to go to that place the other night and see those people. I got up the next morning and I was depressed. Man, I was wiped out. It hit me hard,” he told me in a one-on-one chat.
“I got here the night of (July) the 3rd and went through Shawnee to Bethel Acres. … They lost 85 homes. And people (are) still out there in tents and you can see the kind of hopelessness of the scenario to a lot of them,” Dunn added in the media room. And I think by going out there, we were just kind of pushing through and letting ‘em know that, ‘hey, we’re still thinking about you, still doing things.’ “I took notebooks and some of the guys went with me and I’d pull ‘em off maybe by themselves every now and then and ask ‘em, ‘When it gets down to it, what do you need? What do you need?’ One guy goes, ‘I need my life back.’
“So it becomes really overwhelming and it makes me appreciate the people that we hear criticized a lot, like United Way, maybe FEMA, the Red Cross, really the magnitude of what they have to try to accomplish.”
Brooks, an Oklahoma State University graduate, made his Memorial Stadium debut Saturday.
“I’ve never played Norman — ever. I came to see when it was Jefferson Airplane; I came to see it at the Lloyd Noble. I think I saw Styx here with my brother, you know, when I was a kid. Anytime else I’ve been here I’ve been wearing orange and black and competing out here,” said Brooks, who was a javelin thrower on the OSU track team.
Brooks said the middle of his three daughters, August Anna, attends OU, while his oldest daughter, Taylor, goes to OSU.
“The hardest thing that I’ll have to do today, which is great, is to thank the University of Oklahoma for being fantastic. That’s hard for me,” Brooks said with a grin.
An avid OU supporter, Keith said Brooks wanted to play the show, collegiate affiliation aside.
“If he called, I’d go up there and play. There’s no hate there. I sold Cokes in this stadium when I was 13 but … everything about me is country and cowboy and agriculture,” Keith said. “This is all about love today. He said he wouldn’t have missed it, and I’m glad. You don’t get Garth and Willie and Sammy Hagar and those guys just to come in and offer it up for free if they don’t want to help.”
Given his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame membership, it was no surprise that Hagar brought a raucous sound and energy to the otherwise country lineup. But his inclusion did baffle some concert-goers and reporters.
“Sammy’s one of my best friends, man. Me and Sam go way back. We’ve got a lot in common,” Keith said, adding he had the rocker over for dinner at his house the night before the show. “Sam’s a beautiful spirit. The light shines through his eyes, he’s always on. Sam loves what he does, he loves life, has a great spirit. He’s one of the first people to call me. I didn’t have to call Sammy. Sammy said, ‘I’m coming and you’re gonna have to shoot me to keep me from being there, Tobe.’ Sam’s adorable.”
New music coming
Hagar played a new song from a surprising source during Saturday’s show: Dunn penned the former Van Halen frontman’s rollicking new ballad “Bad on Fords and Chevrolets.” It will appear on the “Red Rocker’s” first-ever collaborations album, “Sammy Hagar and Friends,” due out Sept. 24 on Frontier Records.
“I’ve been working on a new record and just finishing it up, and I sent some tracks out to Sammy — we have the same manager — to play guitar on. And I got word back in a week or so, Sammy called in from Cabo and said he wanted to cut one of the songs called ‘Bad on Fords and Chevrolets.’ … He said, ‘I’m gonna cut it as a single’ and away he went. I said, ‘here, take it,’ ‘cause it wasn’t on the singles list for me. And he rocked it out,” Dunn said. “We did it as a duet (for the album). I think it’s gonna be fun. We gotta get Sammy in some cowboy boots before it’s over.”
The country singer, who recently launched his own Little Willie Records, played his new songs “Kiss You There” and “Peace, Love and Country Music” Saturday. Dunn said his new solo album, “Country This,” is due out in November, with a single in the offing July 22.
Krystal Keith, who dropped her debut EP back in April, premiered her new river party song “Get Your Redneck On” during her dad’s closing set at the Twister Relief Concert.
“I have a single coming out in September; that might be it,” she teased. The younger Keith is due to release her first album, “Whiskey & Lace,” sometime this year on her father’s Show Dog Universal label.
Even Brooks, who entered semiretirement in 2001 and has eked out only a smattering of new songs since, indicated he anticipated making fresh music soon. The Tulsa native vowed back then to stay mostly off the road and out of the studio until his three daughters were grown, and the youngest, Allie, turns 17 on July 28.
“New music feels like it’s on the horizon, so it’s starting to bubble and it’s getting fun,” Brooks said.