USA TODAY International Edition
‘ Turning and burning,’ Keith keeps the hits coming
As he marks 25 years in the business and patriotism as his platform, he has yet to slow down
Toby Keith’s single When Love Fades was going to be released to country radio at 10 a. m. At 8 a. m. and for the next hour and 59 minutes, Keith and his team were on the phone begging his record label not to do it — to choose a different lead single from his new album. It was 1999, and Keith lost the argument. The label released the song, it flopped, and its failure changed his life.
“We said, ‘ Look, you have to come with this other song to save the album,’ ” Keith, 56, recalled of his conversation with the label. “And they came with it and it blew up. From that point forward, I was a little harder to deal with.”
The winning song is Keith’s signature multi- week No. 1 hit How Do You Like Me Now?! Its success persuaded his record label to let him have more control over his music. Eighteen years later, it’s still a star at Keith’s shows, and he can claim more than 30 No. 1 hits.
As Keith prepares to celebrate 25 years in country music ( this week he is performing for the first time in Nashville, the genre’s epicenter, in 13 years) he is out with new music — his raucous single Wacky Tobaccy. “We started having fun with ( writing ‘ Wacky Tobaccy’) and it turned into a neat little song. It’s just more of the stuff we do. I don’t expect it burn anything up anywhere, but the crowds are going crazy over it.”
Next year Keith will celebrate the 25th anniversary of his first No. 1 hit, Should’ve Been a Cowboy. Since then, he has become one of country music’s most celebrated songwriters. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York in 2015. His songs have been played more than 90 million times on commercial radio stations, and he has sold more than 40 million albums.
Keith attributes his longevity in the music business to continuous songwriting. Starting early in his career, Keith released an album a year for almost 18 years. He took songwriters on tour and wrote songs for three or four days at a time. When he got home, he would take some time off, then grab his guitar and writing buddies again when it was time to head for the next town. When it came time to go into the studio and record his next album, Keith chose the best of the best. Then he would start over again.
“I just kept on turning and burning, and I never had a hole in my career,” said Keith who has had hits including I Love This Bar, Who’s Your Daddy, I Wanna Talk About Me and Beer for My Horses. “I never slowed down. I just kept coming with hits. That kind of production really gives people the opportunity to get to know what you’re doing.”
After he won some freedom from his record label, Keith never shied away from controversy. The singer said the label was hesitant to release How Do You Like Me Now?! because executives thought it might offend some in the music business. But Keith plunged into the thick of it. He made patriotism his platform, playing USO Tours and writing and recording songs including American Soldier and Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue. Dixie Chick Natalie Maines bashed the latter, igniting a yearslong feud. Most recently, Keith faced criticism when he played a free men- only concert in Saudi Arabia amid a visit from President Trump. He also tackled recreational marijuana use in the comical Weed With Willie and Wacky Tobaccy, both of which were inspired by real- life situations.
Keith’s longtime manager, TK Kimbrell, said Keith’s diversity as an artist — ranging from humor to patriotism to love songs — is what has endeared him to country fans.
“When you can cover that much territory as a songwriter and singer, you relate to a greater audience,” Kimbrell said. “Only the greatest singer/ songwriters in country music, like Haggard, Nelson, Parton, Cash, wrote huge hits by themselves. He is a very charismatic person, and people want to hear what he has to say.”
Keith opened his own record label in 2005 and laments that it was just in time for “the world to go digital.” Though album sales lagged, Keith said opening his own label gave him the freedom to release songs including Red Solo Cup.
“It’s all about just having fun, making music and not worrying about the business part of it.”
“I never had a hole in my career. I never slowed down. ... That kind of production really gives people the opportunity to get to know what you’re doing.”