T.K. Kimbrell

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Though he has some strong opinions of his own, T.K. Kimbrell has climbed to the top of the country music management heap by allowing his most famous recording artist, self-professed redneck Toby Keith, to speak his mind, anytime, all the time.

Mr. Keith has become the top-selling country artist with a string of No. 1 singles from his last two albums, both of which have gone triple-platinum. His "Unleashed," which debuted in 2002, featured the post-9/11 kick-some-terrorist-ass song "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)."

Mr. Keith's plan to sing it on an ABC Fourth of July special got him axed from the lineup for being too incendiary and kicked up a fight with the show's host, news anchor Peter Jennings. Dixie Chick Natalie Maines, no stranger to controversy herself, pounced on the song, saying it reinforced stereotypes of country music as ignorant and jingoistic. A battle of words erupted, and Ms. Maines showed up by satellite on last year's Academy of Country Music Awards-during which Mr. Keith won Entertainer of the Year-wearing a shirt emblazoned with the letters FUTK.

"In a PC world, Toby stands up for what he believes in and says what he feels," says Mr. Kimbrell, the 48-year-old owner and president of Nashville-based TKO Artist Management. "It could be scary sometimes, not knowing if that was the right thing for his career. But I decided early on to just let Toby be himself."

There's no denying that "Angry American" helped cement Mr. Keith as a blunt but charming superstar much closer to old schooler Willie Nelson than amiable hat acts Alan Jackson and Tim McGraw.

a country throwback

Mr. Keith has reveled in his throwback status, and Mr. Kimbrell has worked to harness that for maximum marketing impact. The latest example: Mr. Keith's current single, another one for the troops called "American Soldier," from his late 2003 album "Shock'n Y'all" is the fastest-climbing song the artist has had.

"He's gotten press and publicity in the last year and a half that was never available to him before and has never been available to a lot of country artists," Mr. Kimbrell says. "There have been so many benefits like a better position in the marketplace. It's enabled us to get our product at retail alongside Eminem and 50 Cent and other major artists."

Mr. Kimbrell, who used to tour as a bass player in country bands, understands the heart of an artist, his colleagues say, and wouldn't try to squeeze his musicians into a mold.

"He understands the image Toby is trying to project," says John Rose, senior executive-sales and marketing at DreamWorks Records, now part of Universal Music Group's Interscope division. "He's turned down a lot of lucrative offers from brands. He knows the right vehicles to choose, and he follows his convictions."

Over the years, that has included deals with MCI, Coors Brewing Co., Mr. Coffee and Ford Motor Co. The Ford deal-Mr. Keith is a third-generation Ford truck driver-continues as a tour sponsorship and commercial endorsement. The artist and the marketer have been closely aligned for nearly two years, with Ford building a transforming F-150 that's been part of Mr. Keith's stage act on tour, and the country star is writing music for and starring in Ford commercials.

"T.K. understands the creative side and the business side, and he really understands Toby's fans," says Kurt Schneider, senior partner-management director at Ford Division's ad agency, WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson USA, Detroit. "He's created a collaborative relationship with us, with a lot of give and take, and that's led to its success."

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