I’m With The Band – Seth Jackson and Eddie “Bones” Connell Remembering Toby Keith

Posted on March 5, 2024

“I bet you never thought y’all’d see me in skinny jeans,” Toby Keith said to the Nashville audience when he received the Country Icon Award in September. To those who knew the Oklahoma-born singer-songwriter, the quip was “vintage Toby.” The resilient humor that made the miles go faster for his touring crew was as much a part of him as his rich baritone voice and engaging personality. True to form, he wasn’t about to change who he was even in the face of the cancer that had caused him to drop so much weight, and would eventually claim his life.

Toby Keith was many things: a cultural icon, a symbol of American pride, a successful entrepreneur, and a true superstar who introduced millions to county music, while winning a fistful of awards, and selling over 40 million albums, plus charting 20 number one hits. But those lucky enough to be part of his “touring family,” knew Toby Keith for much more than these stellar accomplishments. To them, he was a kind and caring man with a razor-sharp wit, and a sense of loyalty that ran as deep as the old-school values celebrated in his music.

We asked two of Toby Keith’s longtime team members, lighting designer Seth Jackson and lighting director Eddie “Bones” Connell to share their memories of this iconic star, and incredible human being.

You both were with Toby for a long time, 27-years for Eddie and 21 for Seth, so what were your impressions of him when you first met?
Eddie: “It’s funny… When I first started with Toby, the crew rode on his bus, not the band, which I thought was strange, but found out later why.

“I had really long hair at that time, as I was a metal guy just coming from touring with the band Pantera with a short four-month gig in between at a country bar named Cowboys.
Toby says to me ‘You don’t look much like a country music fan.’ I said, ‘not really, but it’s a gig, and I have just moved to Atlanta from Dallas.’ Then he responded: ‘Well, as long as you don’t talk trash about my music, you will be alright. And if you like sports, that would be even better.’

“Turns out, I Love sports, and we started up our own fantasy football league that year, and we still have it going on today.”

What surprised you most about Toby once you got to know him?
Eddie: “How damn funny he was and how he loved to tell stories… for hours, and hours.”

Seth: “I had NO idea what I was getting into when I started with Toby. I was kind of the last-minute replacement. They had hired another team to do the show. Then, about a month out, they just disappeared, so I stepped in. That first round was just jump in the pool and get going. Ford Trucks was sponsoring the thing and called most of the shots, and they had hired Jim Lenahan to design the very, shall I say, ‘Ford friendly’ stage.

“I must have done something right – they called me back next year without all the entourage. That was when I first really got to see Toby’s humor. We had a set that looked like an old roadhouse tavern, and he had asked for a few urinals to be placed in the set. We were near the end of rehearsals, and everyone was trying to figure out what we were going to do for the ‘big rock star’ opening. Toby ignored all the management and Ford folks, looked at me, and said: ‘What if I was standing at the pisser like I was taking a leak?’ Done!”

Toby’s final shows at Dolby Live at Park MGM in December were very emotional for his touring family. What was the mood like?
Eddie: “For me personally, it felt so damn cool to finally be back doing shows. At that time, they were talking about doing a small tour or residency in a few months. Toby was obviously very skinny but I thought – naively — that nothing could stop this man.”

Seth: “I thought the same thing. Like Bones, I was so happy to be back with this bunch. Anyone who knows me has heard me say over and over that putting a Toby show together is the most fun anyone could have. You don’t stop laughing for two weeks. On this Park MGM show, he did look so skinny and frail, but then when he opened his mouth, he sang better than he did ten years, ago. It was incredible. I was really hopeful.”

You mention the fun of working with Toby . A thing we were always struck by is that the people like you who were involved in Toby Keith shows always seemed to be enjoying yourselves and getting along, even though you were dealing with a superstar tour with all the pressure that comes with that territory. Why do you think that was?
Eddie: “It all started with him! He didn’t take things too seriously, and everyone from our management was a bunch of cutups who loved to laugh and have fun. Toby never said much about our production. He knew that we knew what we were doing, and trusted us to make it look and sound good.

“Personally, I loved having people around me like Seth Jackson and others, who were a lot smarter than me. He also had a badass band that constantly practiced new and old songs, just in case he wanted to pull one out at the last minute. It was a well-oiled machine.”

Seth: “His confidence in his people was remarkable. There was never a lot of second-guessing or questioning. Toby used to give me a phrase or a topic. I would do up a couple of quick sketches. He would choose the direction he wanted, and we went. That was really it, until he saw it in rehearsals. He knew we all had his back. And yes, the humor, the cutups, the show was executed at a top level, but nobody ever took themselves too seriously. In fact, if you did take yourself too seriously, you would be mocked without mercy – and whatever the nickname you got was, you would be wise to embrace it and move on!”

Toby did so many charitable things for members of the services and others. Did he ever talk about why he did that?
Eddie: “It started with his dad, H.K. His dad was in the military, and the American flag never came down at their house. He loved the troops and first responders so much for what they did to make it possible for him to live in freedom. He obviously passed that down to Toby, and he never forgot it. He never took a dime from the USO. He said, just get us where you want us. He even told many other entertainers they shouldn’t take money to go entertain the troops.”

Aside from Toby’s kindness and generosity, what were the traits that you admired most about him?
Eddie: “His humor was unmatched! So damn funny and countless stories. He also had the best memory, and was very lucky at cards! I lost a lot of money to him in the old days, lol.”

Seth: “He was a master at comedic timing. The man could drop a one-liner when you least expected it and just kill the room. The big thing to me was his loyalty. We rarely changed a vendor in my twenty-one years. The one time we were about to make a switch, Toby simply vetoed it. ‘We dance with the one that brought us.’ I heard rumors that some of the ‘big name’ design firms were going after Toby one year. ‘Nope, Seth is our guy.’ Discussion over.”

Toby was on top for a long time, yet he always seemed to be ready to push his shows in new directions and introduce new elements to his stage presence why was that?
Eddie: “He was also sponsored by Ford Trucks for years and years. So, they paid for a lot of things, like Trucks, Opening Videos, etc. Seth was the mastermind behind all things visually and had the pleasure of working with them on different ideas.”

Seth: “The Ford years gave us all a lot of freedom to push it. Toby on his own would never have spent that kind of money on production. It wouldn’t be a good return on his investment. He was already selling out venues, so, why add three more trucks to prove a point? However, with Ford guys in tow, there were other things going on to push the show farther. They were great to work with. They would let us go nuts and then say, “so where does the truck go”? One year Toby wanted to do a campy Saturday morning serial, space adventure kind of thing. The truck? Oh, that’s easy – the truck will crash into the spaceship at the top of the show. Problem solved.”

Did Toby get involved in lighting? What kind of feedback did he give you?
Eddie: “Never! I say never as the design part. There was a total of three individual things he talked to me about. If you want those details, let me know!”

What’s the one thing you learned above all else from working with Toby Keith?
Eddie: “Don’t take life too seriously, and treat everyone equally the same! I guess that’s two LOL.”

Seth: “I love what he always said in interviews: ‘You may be better than me, more talented than me, even smarter than me. You’ll never out work me.’”

If you met someone years down the road, and they said “you used to work for Toby Keith, what was that like?” What would you tell them?
Eddie: “To this day, I still get asked this question. Years down the road, I will still be telling them the same thing. He was a very funny, talented, fair, nice, giving, loving, and loyal man more than he was a boss.”

Seth: “I would say, ‘you know what he is like? The guy you saw or listened to or whose lyrics you love – that’s him.’ Toby was genuine, honest, and he put it all out there.”

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