Toby Keith was working on a summery new single in a Nashville recording studio on the stormy spring day when the second EF5 tornado in almost 15 years ravaged his hometown.
“As we were leaving (Max) Westheimer Airport, I could see it building back in the west, and I said, ‘Man as soon as we get there, we need to keep an eye on that,'” Keith said, recalling how he opened his iPad weather app when he got to the Tennessee studio.
“Sure enough, it was a tornado on the ground headed for Moore. And then I saw it cross the interstate at Fourth Street, and I knew that that was my old neighborhood and where all my peeps live. You think funny things when you see 'em on the ground. You're thinking, ‘Man, I hope it goes north of my sister,' but by hoping for that, it's gonna hit someone else, you know?”
The day after the deadly May 20 tornado devastated the community, where the water tower is emblazoned with the slogan “Home of Toby Keith,” the country music superstar appeared on national television talking about plans for an all-star benefit concert.
Saturday, he will keep his word at his sold-out Oklahoma Twister Relief Concert, featuring Keith, his daughter Krystal Keith, Owasso residents Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, former Tulsan Ronnie Dunn, Moore native Kellie Coffey, Willie Nelson, Sammy Hagar, Mel Tillis and John Anderson, plus a special performance by Checotah native Carrie Underwood via satellite from Nashville.
The one-day festival will pack the stands at the University of Oklahoma's Gaylord Family — Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman. Net proceeds will benefit the United Way of Central Oklahoma May Tornadoes Relief Fund.
“The show's gonna be big, and it's an honor to even be a part of it, let alone host it,” said Keith, who also organized a benefit show after the 1999 EF5 tornado that ripped through Moore. “God bless all the people that lost loved ones and were injured, and I hope this concert starts a healing point for everybody the best it can.”
‘You're just thankful'
On May 19, the singer-songwriter, who was born in Clinton, raised in Moore and now lives in Norman, was on high alert at home when a tornado formed in rural Norman near Lake Thunderbird and tore through Pottawatomie County. It was just the first of several tragic storms that would rampage through his home state over the next two weeks.
“We were sure surrounded there for a few days,” Keith said by phone from a tour stop in Oshkosh, Wis.
As he watched the May 20 tornado from afar, he called his sister, who had fled south to Pauls Valley with their mother. His sister soon called back to say that the tornado had crashed into her Moore home.
“They just gotta rebuild,” he said. “Some people like my sister were fortunate enough that the shell was still standing, so ... they got what was left of it tarped up and boarded in, and she got out her valuables.”
Others weren't so lucky. The May 20 tornado killed 24 people, including Shannon Marie Quick, 40, of Moore. In the days after the tornado, Keith visited Quick's son, Jackson, 8, who was badly injured while riding out the storm in a closet at home, at The Children's Hospital at OU Medical Center.
“He's a strong little guy. When you see stuff like that, you're just thankful that possessions were the only things you lose,” he said. “People like Jackson, they'll have that emotional and physical stuff to deal with for a long time and maybe for the rest of their lives. But he's alive, and I know his dad's grateful for that.”
Keith, who turns 52 on Monday, said he was invited to perform at Blake Shelton's “Healing in the Heartland” concert May 29 at Chesapeake Energy Arena but felt it was just too soon after the devastation. Plus, it was still twister season, and Shelton's televised show actually played out under a tornado watch.
“Friends of friends and friends of family were burying people and boarding up. My whole crew and both my sons-in-law were out with trucks and trailers. ... I was getting a million requests and trying to cover as much ground as we could but still get everybody boarded up. We were out with all my equipment from my ranch pulling people out of ditches and stuff from the floods. So we were just out, and our way of helping was kind of ... like, ‘We didn't get hit, so let's go,'” said Keith, who appeared in a video clip asking viewers to donate during the “Healing in the Heartland” show.
“All the money raised from all these concerts is great. We just felt like, instead of a TV show, we wanted to do more of an effort to say ‘This is a healing process' and have a great hot summer day in the sun at OU stadium with a bunch of really high-caliber acts.”
He didn't have to work too hard to put together a star-studded lineup. Although they don't know each other well, Keith said fellow Oklahoman Garth Brooks vowed, “I'm following your lead. You tell me when to be there and me and Miss Yearwood'll be there.” Underwood also wanted to help despite her prior commitment to the Grand Ole Opry, and his pals Nelson, Hagar and Dunn were quick to agree.
“Sammy Hagar and Willie and Ronnie and Garth — that's all just the first four or five people that I called. And I said, ‘OK, we got a show. Let's do it,'” Keith said.
Keith's set list will include his breezy new track, “Drinks After Work,” the summery song he was working on May 20 when the Moore tornado sent him winging back home. He had a deadline to finish the leadoff single for his upcoming album but was too busy in Oklahoma to get back to Nashville.
“I left the studio and came back and didn't do the final vocal on it,” he said. “They came to my house and brought a mobile unit ... and we recorded the vocals at my house — in between the sirens one night.”
That's right, the Nashville team was working with him at his home on May 31 — just in time to have a close call with another round of severe storms, including one that produced a record-setting EF5 tornado near El Reno. Although his house was struck by lightning and sustained hail damage, Keith said they got the song done, and he will triumphantly play it for the hometown crowd
“It's a wonderful opportunity. I'm a big fan of these people that are gonna be there. So I'm gonna get a big kick out of it, too. Getting to perform there is probably second to getting to watch these other acts perform. And boy, they're ready to go,” he said.
People like Jackson (Quick), they'll have that emotional and physical stuff to deal with for a long time and maybe for the rest of their lives. But he's alive, and I know his dad's grateful for that.”