Line 'em up. The records sold, the charts topped and the arenas headlined. Gather the Entertainer of the Years, the multi-platinums and the multi-week No. 1s. Stack the televised performances, the magazine covers and the glowing reviews (toss in the scornful ones, too – why not?). Even the controversies – real and imagined – can pile in. All the attention, all the accolades, all the arguments fade away in the shadow of the only recognition Toby Keith ever wanted – the one that means the most. And it happened in June of 2015 with his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Understanding why that honor is so meaningful is to understand exactly who Keith is as a creator, an artist – perhaps even a person. That knowledge also informs any view of his music, including the new album 35 mph Town. Writing songs – and all of the magic, mysticism, craft and elbow grease that goes into it – is the means and the end, the flower and the root of his entire career. And at no point has that been clearer than it is now.
For one, access to songs and their role in the business of music has changed. "Used to be as the current hit went, so did ticket sales," Keith explains. "After 15 years of headlining, I'm at the point where that doesn't matter. I can't tell the difference between having a 'Red Solo Cup' or not. I know my crowd is going to come ready to party. And it puts us in a great atmosphere for writing while we're out on the road. It's rewarding to walk out to my crowd and know my job is to give them something new they really want to listen to." Whether it's viral videos, single downloads, radio airplay or some combination of the three, fans find the music. The hits beget themselves.
Into that new paradigm comes a collection of songs unfettered by external constraints. They and their creator, free of those parameters, reveal a post-PhD level dissertation on songwriting. If the Songwriters Hall "honors those whose work represents a spectrum of the most beloved songs from the world’s popular music songbook," then said honoree likely has a few advanced lessons to share about the process. And that curriculum, of course, comes in the form of songs – 10 of them in this syllabus. Fortunately, it's the most rip-roaring, heart-stopping, slow-dancing, glass-tipping good time course work most have ever had.
"I've been writing songs every single day of my life since I was 15 or 16," Keith says, begging the question how he can keep challenging himself to improve when he's been doing it all his life and, well, is in the Hall of Fame. "I don't think I could go back and rewrite 'Should've Been A Cowboy' and make it better," he says of his first single and chart-topper. "There are little things every once in a while you think you could change, but most of the time there ain't a word I could fix.
"That's not really the direction you grow," he continues. "Where you grow is learning to weed out the dead ends. And the fewer dead ends you have the more open road you've got. When aspiring songwriters or artists are inquisitive about what will make them better, I always say to keep the process simple. Unless you're more talented than I am, once you get to where I've gotten, it's not how to write a song, it's what idea to write and how to write that idea."
Getting there took some trial and error. "I had to write 500 songs before I wrote a great one," he says. "It didn't take me 500 songs to write the next one. So you start closing that window down. Then I'm hanging out with two or three other great songwriters and you start to feel like you're only a great idea away from a great song."
He offers up a song on the album as a for-instance. "If someone says, 'Rum Is The Reason,' I think, okay let's talk about that. Reason for what? The reason pirates never ruled the world? Now that's a great idea. You give me and the guys I write with that idea and we'll give you a great song every time. If we don't, if we mess it up, you'll never hear it. We'll keep it around until we rewrite it into something that measures up to it."
Though he produced the rest of the project with longtime collaborator Bobby Pinson, Keith brought in Mac McAnally to co-produce "Rum." He also brought in Jimmy Buffett's Coral Reefer Band, of which McAnally is a member. "Who better?" Toby asks. "The way it was written, the second you hear it even just on acoustic guitar, you know you have to have the steel drums. It sends you to Key West pretty quick."
The man himself guests on "Sailboat For Sale," an idea Pinson brought to the writing room. "The melody is fantastic," Keith says. "The guy swaps for the boat he's dreamed of and realizes he got swindled out of what he really wanted, which is the boat he had. I love the part about the old pirate. I put Jimmy Buffett on it and I hope it gains some legs and takes off running."
35 mph Town opens with "Drunk Americans," the only track Keith didn't write. When a Hall of Famer says he'd rather have one of yours than one of his ... well, there may be no greater compliment for Brandy Clark, Bob DiPiero and Shane McAnally. "The second I heard it I knew I had to cut it because it sounded exactly like what I've made a career of doing," Keith says. "Very well-written with a nice waltz tempo, it's a drinking song with a good little message: Everyone needs to get along and drink a cold beer."
Likewise, the title track offers a subtle yet significant adaptation of a familiar theme. Lamenting the good old days and the decline of today's youth is well worn territory, but rarely if ever is it tempered by self reflection. "We can't blame our babies for growing up lazy and crazy/It ain't them that let them down" is a stunning confession for mainstream country music.
As has been the case in the past, however, the discussion of the song has instead focused on partisanship. "We wrote it with no thoughts about message or politics," Toby says. "Bobby had just gotten back from Alabama driving through all those 35 mph towns. We jumped on that first line and kept writing until we got to the last line, which was as far as you could take it. Now people want to talk about it, dissect and analyze the big political statement we were making. That just cracks me up. They should dissect and analyze the fact we're talking about ourselves."
"What She Left Behind" has what Toby says might be his favorite line on the album: "Took her sandals, took her sundress, took her 10 dollar sand dollar necklace." Blistering horns offer spice to "Good Gets Here" and "10 Foot Pole," the latter of which reveals the power in changing a single letter in a common phrase, separating what could be interesting from what would be clichéd. Or is it the other way around? And "Every Time I Drink I Fall In Love" is a well-mixed cocktail of melody and tempo.
The song that may have offered Keith and company the toughest test is "Haggard, Hank & Her." "We had this idea a couple years ago, but it was too easy," he says. "Let's do something else, I don't want to be that guy. We ain't workin' hard enough on this idea. One day recently we didn't have anything else and we started in to see where it would go. It reminds me of everything I hear when I walk around little bars with struggling, striving, aspiring singers who are learning to write. This is an idea I would have jumped on 25 years ago, but you see it now and think it's too much of a layup. Almost trite. So if we're going to do it, we've got to be better than that. We have to beat the idea. And we did. I'm very happy with it. It's very traditional and we did remember to be good songwriters when we put pen to paper."
And lest anyone forget Keith's standing as a vocalist, there's "Beautiful Stranger." "That was written years ago and I kept saying I wasn't putting it on an album until it had a shot at being a single," he says. "And it might now. The vocal shows some range people probably don't hear out of me a lot. The only scary part is that 99 percent of the stuff I do I can cover if I've got a rare head cold or vocal fatigue out on tour. I'd have to take the night off on this one in the set list if that happens, though."
Those standing-room-only shows, the long-running Ford F-Series tour sponsorship, the RIAA sales certifications, the Toby Keith signature Wild Shot Mezcal, the I Love This Bar and Grill restaurants, the USO Tours, and The Toby Keith Foundation and OK Kids Korral are all by-products, however. That's because the whole of it can be distilled down to its barest essence and elevated to its grandest vista in the same breath: Toby Keith. Songwriter.