There are few safe bets in life, even fewer when it comes to entertainment. A new Toby Keith album, however, is as close to a sure thing as can be found. As he releases Hope On The Rocks, Keith is coming off yet another No. 1 country album – Clancy's Tavern – which included the biggest viral event in the genre's history, "Red Solo Cup." That effort was just the latest in a long run of chart-topping albums and singles that form an unmatched model of consistency. So much so as to fuel and attract other notable endeavors.
Keith's tours, and his long running association with title sponsor Ford Trucks, are annually among the nation's top draws. His I Love This Bar And Grill restaurants are perhaps the fastest growing of any such celebrity chain. And his signature Wild Shot Mezcal has almost single handedly stoked growth in an entire segment of the spirits industry. Those successes lead Forbes to regularly rank Keith as one of the top-earning musicians in the entertainment industry.
Remarkable as they are, however, those achievements pale in comparison to the singular vision behind an astonishingly focused creative process. The principle songwriter behind the incredible career of Toby Keith has been and remains Toby Keith – to the tune of more than 75 million airplay performances, according to BMI. That number puts him among the top songwriter/artists of all time in any genre.
Clocks could be set by Keith's creative calendar. His devotion to and protectiveness of this music making structure even led him to recently turn down one of the biggest opportunities in entertainment. But his expertly constructed creative workflow did not come easily to its current fine-tuned state.
Songwriting, it turns out, is also a way Keith marks time. "You can look at a list of songs and may not know exactly when you wrote them, but you can remember where you were in your life," he explains. "If I look at my first album, I know that every one of my songs was written prior to having a record contract. I know what house I was living in. I look at my second album and think it could have been better, but I only had a year to write that one and I had my whole life to write the first one.
"By the time you get to Dream Walkin', you start to see improvement as I start settling in and figuring out how hard I have to work to produce an album every year. How much volume you need. Past that you start to see the albums true-up and become something that could have had five or six singles. When you cross into the 2000s and How Do You Like Me Now?!, you start seeing those monster back-to-back hits. You really see the writing hit its stride. So when I look at this album, people I trust are telling me it's the best group of 10 I've ever turned in. They feel like we could pretty much have a single on any of them. You'd have to be more blessed than I am to figure out how to accomplish that without doing it for 18 or 19 years."
In that sense, Hope On The Rocks is an accumulation of a career's worth of experience, craftsmanship and a deep understanding of how to channel inspiration. "I write all year and record at the end of the year," he says. "Once in a while an outside song like 'I Wanna Talk About Me' or 'Red Solo Cup' comes along and I've always said I'm not going to pass up a hit that sounds like I wrote it. But most of the time it's just me cutting whatever I wrote in the last year. So there's never a theme or a pre-conceived plan."
Instead, Keith works steadily with the time-proven assurance that when it comes time for an album, he'll have a bit more material than he needs. With the contributions of co-writers Scotty Emerick, Bobby Pinson and Rivers Rutherford, the Hope cycle resulted in 25 compositions and roughly 10 recordings. Three songs held over from the Clancy's Tavern sessions brought the total to 13. "For the time it takes to run a single up the chart, you're only going to get three singles from each album," Keith says of his regularly scheduled overruns. "On the last album I had three I knew had a chance to be singles, but I had three singles already on there. So I put three aside and had them ready when we started this album. So when I recorded this one, same thing. The label picked what it wanted and I pulled three others out for next time. It's unfortunate we can't get to more singles, but we don't live in that world anymore."
Where most artists sift through countless discs and files to assemble an album's worth of material, Keith skips the step. "We don't do demos. We just take an acoustic guitar in the studio and play the song for the band. I'll have Scotty, Bobby or Rivers in there to make sure I didn't forget something. Then we sit down and let the band start forming our ideas. It's a big group. A bunch of heads in a kind of think tank."
For as much as Toby has remained the centerpiece of his creative tableau, he's quick to point out he's far from the only piece. His current collaborators each bring a unique perspective.
"Scotty is like a one-man-band on the gut-string guitar," Keith says. "When he plays you can feel and hear the drums, bass and lead. And the gut string just brings that natural sound you don't get off a steel string guitar. He's going to give you a real organic feel that puts you in a mind to write something earthy and maybe even more country.
"Everything Bobby says is backwards. When you listen to him talk for a full day you'll have 10 ideas. He just sees the world through a different scope. I used to hear people talk about Roger Miller, wanting to follow him around to find a hit because he said things like that. Bobby is different from Roger, but he sees things differently in that kind of way.
"And Rivers is a great steel string guitar player and he's from Memphis so he brings that groove. Besides being a great player and songwriter, he's got his own little thing, too. He probably should have been an artist, but for whatever reason that never happened. He's got all the gifts to be that guy, too. And he's got a little more simplicity to him that's brilliant. Whereas Bobby is all over the place.
"They're all really different, but the reason I trust them is they show up, they want to be there, they want to work and they're not yes-men. They don't just say, 'Here's a song, fix it your way and put your name on it.' We start them all from scratch. Once in a while I'll have a chorus and say write the verse from this, but ninety-percent come from an idea and we just pound it out."
And occasionally he'll write one by himself, as he did on the title track. The profoundly melancholy tale of busted lives and drowning dreams, which Keith expects to be a single, is unlike anything he's ever released. Fun abounds on imbibing songs including the fast-rising lead single "I Like Girls That Drink Beer," the whimsical "Cold Beer Country" and the tongue-in-cheek pick-up tune "The Size I Wear." Separation themes echo through the ballads "Haven't Seen The Last Of You," "Missed You Just Right" and "You Ain't Alone." The moonshining story song "Scat Cat," horn-seasoned ode to country wisdom "Get Got" and barn-burning rocker "Haven't Had A Drink All Day" complete the group and affirm the process that created them.
"Really, it's what you should expect if you get any combination of the four of us together," Keith says. "You put a couple minds together who have done it this long and crafted so many songs, and usually a great idea will become a great song. If I have an idea that seems like a Bobby Pinson kind of thing, I text him. I don't say anything, just text him the hook. Or he'll do me that way. And the second you hear it, you know. Scotty sent me one once and said, 'All the happiness in the world can't buy you money.' The second I saw it I said, 'Oh, we're going to write the hell out of that.' And we did. It never was a single ('Can't Buy You Money' from White Trash With Money) but it will find a home someday because it's that good. With some luck, you can make a good idea into a great song, but most of the time a good idea ends up being a good song. Very few times does a great idea end up being a good song. They mostly end up being great."
As important as songwriting is, its crucial twin is Keith's sense of his audience. "When people say you have a great song, you have to be careful you're not in a room full of songwriters," he says. "Because you really want to look for songs that move people, not just writers, who are sometimes moved by things that regular listeners wouldn't be. They might appreciate the craftsmanship and difficulty factor, or the time that was put in. It may be one of those things a songwriter will wish they'd written, but that doesn't always translate."
This sense of what will move listeners was also behind his decision to start his own label, Show Dog, in 2006. His stories of struggling with prior label regimes are numerous and epic. "I had one record exec tell me he didn't want to release 'Beer For My Horses' as the fourth single from Unleashed," Keith explains. "He said, 'The last thing we want is to have to deal with another 'Whiskey Girl.' Now, 'Whiskey Girl' went to No. 2 for three weeks and sold a million albums. Why would you not want to deal with that? Everybody should have that problem."
"Beer For My Horses," of course, went on to enjoy a six-week run atop the singles charts. "I've never been able to figure out why labels care so much about chart position," he says. "'Red Solo Cup' died at like No. 7. Can you think of one song in the last five years that had a bigger impact? Would you rather have an album with four turntable No. 1s and we can all pat ourselves on the back, or have one 'Red Solo Cup'? And I've been through that the whole way. Chart position never mattered to me."
Crowd reaction, on the other hand, matters greatly. "I know what works when I play live. I've learned that over the years and you have to learn it. You couldn't have just known it. When my first album came out, 'Should've Been A Cowboy' did its thing and I had picked out 'A Little Less Talk And A Lot More Action' as a single because I needed it in my live shows. I knew I was going to be in nightclubs and it's that big, three-chord boogie-woogie. The label said, 'No, put that at the back of the list. Let them hear the good stuff.' So then 'He Ain't Worth Missing' came out. By the time we got to the third single, they let me come with 'A Little Less Talk' because by that time the staff had seen me perform at 30 or 40 shows and saw how well it worked. Well, they got another hit out of it and I'm still doing it in our show today."
There are a few that got away. "We got to the third single of Pull My Chain and the label wanted 'My List,' but me and Scotty had written one called 'I Can't Take You Anywhere' that I wanted to put out. But we went with their song next and it was a five-week No. 1. And for the life of that record we were selling half of what we were used to selling each week. And we never got to go with my song."
Though Show Dog is now a joint-venture with Universal Music Group called Show Dog-Universal, Toby's hard-fought self-determination remains. He even recently re-upped his deal. "That was a nice vote of confidence, but one way or another I'm going to be in charge of my music. If Universal wants to say they're done with this, I would just go back to being an indie. Nothing's changed."
Despite success as an actor and producer with feature films Broken Bridges and Beer For My Horses several album cycles ago, Keith says he's not likely to reprise those roles. "I kind of learned my lesson on the movie thing," he says. "It took 10 months to write, produce, act in, complete, publicize and release Beer For My Horses. At the end of the day, my writing suffered, my time suffered and my creative world suffered all around. I'm glad I did it; there's not a lot of people in my position who can say they have. But they were very time consuming. I won't say I'd never do it again, but it would have to be the right situation. If they were going to remake The Alamo with lots of stars, lots of money and I was going to play Davy Crockett or Jim Bowie – something crazy big like that – you'd have to consider it. I've got some big-time actor friends and get tossed a few things, but it would have to be a two month window and fit into my schedule. Otherwise, I'm comfortable sitting here watching everybody else do it."
And that experience may have informed his decision to pass on a judge's chair on American Idol. "That was a flattering offer in a huge primetime spot with a lot of money and all of that," he admits. "Ten years ago I probably would have done it. And I've been offered sitcoms by all five major networks. I always sit down with them and after three months of negotiating end up turning it down. It's a lot of time, production and prep. So yeah, American Idol's a big show and a lot of money, but it took me five seconds to go, 'Nuh-uh.'
"I really just enjoy racing my horses, writing songs, playing golf and traveling around to see some stuff other than what I see when I'm working," he adds. "I've just gotten to that point in my life where I'm enjoying some of what I've harvested." And that may be the most telling statement of all. As he considers what he most enjoys away from his work, Toby Keith includes songwriting. Which makes the notion that a year from now there will be another batch of ten impeccably crafted songs – and another handful held out in hopes of being singles someday – a pretty sure thing.