Check Out Toby's Cover Feature In The UK's Country Music People Magazine!
Keith let’s out a chuckle of slight disbelief. “That’s a number that if you’d told me...” He tails off, then says, “A few years ago they threw a party for me at BMI (the performing rights organisation Broadcast Music Incorporated). There were 300 celebrities and VIP industry people. I said, ‘What’s this for?’ They said, ‘You’ve just surpassed 50 million spins as a writer.’ I said, ‘What does that mean?’ They go, ‘Well, that’s Elton John, Billy Joel, the Bee Gees, John Lennon kinda stuff.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding me!’ I had no idea.
“I look at some of the biggest Hall of Fame super writers, people I think are the most successful writers ever. You ask BMI how many spins have they got: ‘Oh, he’s about 35 million.’ You just go, ‘Wow.’
Keith’s ambition is to top 100 million spins. But for country’s Big Dog Daddy, it’s about more than numbers. Writing songs isn’t what Toby does, it’s what he is, and if you want to hear him talk with passion, just get him talking about songs.
His songs, Merle Haggard songs, Chuck Berry songs. He’ll soon be reciting lyrics and even singing them to you, dropping into impressions of Waylon Jennings and Chuck Berry to show you how Chuck’s Brown-eyed Handsome Man works equally well done country or rock’n’roll.
“When you listen to John Prine, Roger Miller and those guys, you learn how to write outside the box and be fearless,” Keith states. “I went to see John Prine play one time and after
the show I asked him... he’s got this song: ‘Bobby bought some popcorn, Mary bought a car... something, something, something... 23 Skidoo.’
“I said, ‘What the hell is 23 Skidoo and what the hell has that got to do with Bobby bought some popcorn? He looks at me kinda funny and goes, ‘I don’t know what it means, but it sings really nice!’”
Toby lets out an explosive laugh. “Holy shit! I never had that thought in my head that I would put something in a song just because it sings really nice. I always thought it’s got to have something to do with the song. So you learn to be fearless and take chances and realise that songs can be absolutely anything.
“Then you see a guy like Merle Haggard or a woman like Loretta Lynn write about life. Mama’s Hungry Eyes by Merle Haggard. The second I heard that: ‘A canvas covered wagon in a crowded labour camp...’ The picture that’s painted is so dark and dirt poor. I was like, ‘Wow.’”
For his own part, Keith says, “Writing songs is my trade. The artist stuff is just icing on the cake. Writing is part of my life. It’s in my day and it’s been here since I was 14-years-old. I hear people talk, I see things with my eyes and my mind constantly says, ‘Is that a song?’”
For Keith, it’s all about observation.
“People say the most profound things in normal conversation and for the most part we just don’t listen. We worry more about what we’re gonna respond with than actually hearing what the other person said. So I go through life listening. The whole time they’re talking, my mind’s going, ‘No, that’s not a song title; no, that’s not
a song title...oh, that might be a song title.’
“There are very few times when I’m not in that zone. It’s not like it’s an effort. It’s like blinking. You don’t think about it, you just do it.”
He gives an example.
“This is really, really country. When someone would sneeze my mom would say, ‘Bless you.’ My country dad would say, ‘Scat cat, you got gravy on your tail.’
“So I’m sitting here one day with Rivers Rutherford, talking about my dad, and somebody sneezes. I say, ‘Scat cat, you got gravy on your tail.’ He goes, ‘What does that mean?’ So I told him how my dad said that, and we wrote a song called Scat Cat, You Got Gravy On Your Tail.
“We set it back in a time when folks were poor, living in a country house. Mama’s in the kitchen. Daddy’s cooking whiskey. It’s moonshine days. And this kid wants to get out. His mama’s telling him when you get old enough you gotta go, you don’t want to live this life here making moonshine like your daddy. Scat cat,
you got gravy on your tail.
“So it can come from anywhere.
A phrase that sounds real country, a twisted word...”
He offers another example.
“You’ve heard the phrase all the money in the world can’t buy you happiness? Scotty Emerick said it backwards one day by accident: all the happiness in the world can’t buy you money. He started to correct himself and I said, ‘Whoa, what you say?’ Next thing you know we’ve written a song.”
Keith’s way with words first came to light in elementary school.
“Every Friday afternoon we had an hour of creative writing. I would just start writing a story: me and my two buddies went over to the woods, found a cave, and some bandits from the 1800s had left some gold in there, and some bullets... my imagination would just run completely wild.
“Most of the other boys would write one page and when you got done the teacher would say you could go to
the back of the class and play quietly and not disturb the others. The girls were apt to write longer. They’d maybe write four or five pages. So, thirty minutes into this hour all the boys were pretty much done and sitting at the back, the girls would still be writing and I’d still be writing. I would write the whole hour.
“The teacher would read these things and she told my mother her background was in creative writing and in the 16 years she’d been teaching I was the best creative writer she’d ever had in her class. She told my parents they should encourage and support me in being a creative writer. And my dad was like, ‘Naw, he ain’t gonna be no writer. He’s gonna work in the oil field like I did.’”
On paper that sounds harsh. But Toby defends his father’s attitude.
“He wasn’t being mean or non- supportive. He was just being, like: my granddad worked hard, blue collar, my dad worked hard, blue collar,
my sons are gonna work blue collar. There was no way anybody in my family was gonna be able to give me direction on how to become a creative writer because they didn’t have that kind of education or background. So he just didn’t deem it possible.”
With a fond chuckle, Toby reveals that later, when he formed his first band, he and his father would clash over the definition of country music.
“My dad loved Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys. If we went on a family trip that was all he listened to on a constant loop. So when I had my band he used to give us hell because we didn’t have a fiddle player. I would say, ‘Dad, country bands today are kinda rock-country. We don’t do the old fashioned Texas fiddle playing.’ That made him mad. He’d say, ‘It ain’t country if it don’t have a fiddle on it!’”
Keith’s latest single, and the title track of his new CD, Clancy’s Tavern, could well be the best song he’s ever written - and appropriately so. Clancy was the nickname of his grandmother, and the song is a 100% accurate description of the bar she owned in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Even the names of the waitress, Lilly, and the cook, Elmo, are unchanged.
Keith remembers the place well because it was during a summer he spent with his grandmother, at the age of 12, that he acquired his love of the stage.
“I worked in the kitchen and looked out through the door and watched the band playing, and I wanted to be on that bandstand.”
Pretty soon he got his chance.
“It was a local house band. They all had jobs and would come in at night and play for four hours. One of the guitar players was a member of the Masonic Lodge and on Wednesday night he had a meeting to go to, so he wouldn’t be there. His spot would be open on stage and my grandma’d tell me to take my guitar and sit in. I’d sit up there the whole night and pick. I only knew a few chords but they kinda got a kick out of me being up there.”
Recalling the very first time he stood on stage, Toby says, “The guitar player had a chair and I just sat in his chair and watched from the inside out. Watched the people dance. The bass player went to the drummer and the drummer had some wooden blocks you could play. He handed me these two wooden instruments and said, ‘Count to eight and play on three, four and seven.’
“So I go, ‘One, two, click, click, five, six, click, eight.’ He said,
‘You got that? Okay, one, two three...’ They’d kick off and I’d start counting... and I got it right off the bat. The guy got on the mike and said, ‘Everybody give Hilda’s grandson a big hand, he just nailed the block!’ Course everybody clapped and I was like, ‘Yeaaah!’”
From that moment, Keith’s ambition to be a singer was sealed. “Then you combine that with the creative writing and it was a natural fit. When I started making music I thought I’m gonna create my own songs. I didn’t have to dial that up, it was just there.”
By the time he was 17, Keith had “a pretty good pile of songs.” To
test them on the public, he began attending jam sessions and open mic nights close to home in the suburbs of Oklahoma City.
“I remember going to this place and there’d be a girl sitting cross-legged on the floor watching and admiring these guys who were four or five years older than me who had written songs. I thought I can do as good as that or better. So when it came to my turn
I’d say, ‘I got one.’ I’d play one and before too long it was like these guys didn’t want me coming over no more. It was like I was stealing their thunder.
“So I knew I was on to something, but I didn’t know if I could take it to the next level. Then, when you get up into the bars and start playing your songs alongside the songs coming off the radio, you realise you got a long way to go.
“So you write 500 and you write
a good one. Then you write 250 and you write another good one. You write 100 and you write a good one. That ratio keeps closing and you become a songwriter.”
All of which takes time. Keith spent more than a decade paying his dues in the bars while working in the oil fields by day.
His inspirations were, “Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Bob Seger... Cassettes were the big thing when I was a kid and I had three boxes of ‘em in alphabetical order so I could find ‘em quick when I was driving. There was Jim Croce, Charlie Daniels, Jimmy Buffett, Dolly Parton. Hoyt Axton was in there. John Prine. There was even rock bands like Kiss and Three Dog Night. And when you look back and say what did they have in common? They all wrote their own music.
“Now here I am, 17 albums, 29 number ones and 99% of my stuff I wrote.”
Not that Toby got to sing much of his own stuff in his due-paying days.
“We played what we called jukebox music in places where people wanted to dance to George Strait, Randy Travis and Alabama. When they hear George Strait’s The Chair, they know the second it kicks off exactly what they’re gonna do on the dance floor: they’re gonna two-step slow. When they hear Johnny B Goode they know what they’re gonna do.
“And when they hear your song, which they’ve never heard before, they don’t know what they’re gonna do so they’re not gonna grab their girl or guy and head for the dance floor. They’re more apt to stand back and listen.
“So I played Should’ve Been A Cowboy all the time in the bars leading up to my record deal and there was very little dance floor activity. Very few people came up and said that’s a good song. There was no feedback at all. A lot of the time, the club owners would say, ‘Hey, I know you write your own songs, but don’t play ‘em
in here. You’re paid to fill the dance floor.’
“Of course, after Should’ve Been A Cowboy came out and was a hit, then everybody said, ‘Oh, he played that every night in the clubs and it was awesome. We knew he was gonna make it.’ It was all bullshit.”
Keith has fond memories of his bar band days, though, as evidenced by his hobby covers band, Incognito Bandito.
“I was in the studio one day with the triple scale session cats who are the best in the world. They’re all set up and the engineer goes, ‘Guys, give me five minutes, I’m gonna go reload this computer.’ While he’s away doing that, the drummer starts this little groove and the bass player comes in on top of it with a familiar groove. Next thing you know the guitar player’s in and I recognise where this is headed. It was an old Three Dog Night song, Shambala. I knew the words so I started singing.
“The engineer comes back and
he’s like, ‘I’ve been waiting for three minutes but I wasn’t gonna break you guys up, that was awesome.’ So I said, ‘Do you guys ever get to play cover songs?’ ‘No, not really.’ I said, ‘Me neither. Don’t you miss those days
of just walking into bars and playing road house music? If I set something up and pay you guys handsomely, how about we put a little group together and go out and play seven or eight times a year?’
“We went in and learned everything
from Night Life by Willie Nelson to Ain’t No Sunshine by Bill Withers. My booking agent called the Fillmore in New York City. I said find us the slowest night and we’ll work for
the door. They didn’t advertise it as nothing more than Incognito Bandito. But each of these musicians has
their own website and Twitter and Facebook. So little by little word leaked out: ‘I’ll be in New York playing a show with Toby...’ and the next thing we know we’re sold out. We recorded the whole night and I’ve used the tracks as bonus tracks on the last two albums.”
That’s where Toby Keith is today. But, getting back to when he really was in an unknown covers band, how
did the former Toby Keith Covel become just Toby Keith?
“In the South a lot of mothers call their kids by their first and middle names: Billy Ray, Bobby Joe, Carly Ann. So my mom, especially when she’d get mad with me, she’d say, ‘Toby Keith get in this house!’
“So when I started my band I had
a guitar player called Yogi. His name was David but everybody called him Yogi. Scott was a guitar player. Danny was the bass player and Toby Keith was the singer. It was no different to, say, Billy Ray.
“When we started, there were five of us and we all owned 20% of the Easy Money Band. One by one they all decided they were gonna get day jobs
and not pursue music to the extreme that I was. So I bought their parts out and instead of the Easy Money Band it became Toby Keith and the Easy Money Band.
“When I got my record deal they signed us as a group. Then, by the time I got around to doing my album, the Vice-President of the label said, ‘You write all the songs, you sing all the songs, you can take your band with you but we just want you as a solo artist. We got a band on the label, the Kentucky Headhunters. We need a solo male and we want you to be the guy. So they dropped the Easy Money tag and Toby Keith was born.”
Since opening his account with the chart topping Should’ve Been
A Cowboy, Keith has made many more trips to the top spot, including the six-week chart-toppers Beer For My Horses and As Good As I Once Was, en route to becoming one of the highest-earning artists in the world.
As evidenced by his 75 million spins as a songwriter, he’s written or co-written most of his material. But he also had a multiple-week stay at the top with the Bobby Braddock-penned rap I Wanna Talk About Me. And, if any of Music Row’s top tunesmiths are reading, he’d be very keen to have some more outside songs show up in his mailbox.
“If you’re an artist that doesn’t write then you have the greatest songwriters in the world right here in Nashville and they‘re all pitching songs to you. When someone like Lee Ann Womack gets an I Hope You’ll Dance that’s an exciting moment. You know it’s gonna be a hit and it’s gonna help their career. But when you write your own songs, nobody pitches you anything.
“I’ve been sent probably ten songs in my life, because they know I write most of my songs, so it’s more productive for them to focus their energies elsewhere. It’s not that I won’t cut something that’s great, but even if they get on my album they know there’s probably some stuff on there that I’m gonna release that I’ve written, so they’re competing with that.”
Ironically, the one outside song on Keith’s newest album could be poised to give him an unexpected hit in the form of a novelty about a plastic cup. Penned in a moment of whimsy by two sets of brothers, Jim and Brett Beavers and Brad and Brett Warren, Red Solo Cup is not the sort of song you can imagine many major artists recording. So how did Keith come by it?
“Somebody heard it and MP3’d it to me in an email and said, ‘Listen to this damn song.’ It was just somebody
passing it on to a bunch of people because it was funny. I heard it and went, ‘That’s the stupidest song I
ever heard in my life!’ Then I found myself the next day with it stuck in my head. I went back and listened to it again and thought, ‘Actually, if you’re gonna write a song about a plastic cup, it’s quite clever and very infectious in terms of the melody.’ It’s almost like a nursery rhyme.
“I always put a song on every album that’s not mainstream. We call ‘em bus songs: I’ll Never Smoke Weed With Willie Again or Get Out Of Your Clothes Or Get Out Of My Car. It’s my comic relief on the album, and
I didn’t have one on this album, so
I thought I might just cut it for fun. Somebody put a playing card through the strings of a guitar and raked them for percussion. Somebody was playing a banjo, there’s a bass and that’s all there really is on the track.
“Mark Wright, my partner at the record label - he’s had 60-something number ones as a producer - he goes, ‘I can’t believe you cut that stupid song.’ I said, ‘Is it any more stupid than Weed With Willie or Get Out Of My Car?’ ‘Well no, I just can’t believe you do those things.’
“The next day, he comes in looking like hell. I said, ‘You have a late night?’ He said, ‘I had to take a sleeping pill at 4AM because I was laying in bed in the dark and couldn’t stop singing that stupid song!’ Everybody that hears it, you just
find yourself singing it later. There’s something magic about that goofy little song.
“So here we are with my album coming out in two weeks. We’ve released Made In America as a single, which is number one. We were gonna release Clancy’s Tavern next... and there’s a pot full of radio stations that are playing Red Solo Cup and saying it’s a major smash if we release it. We’re afraid to release it, because we don’t know if it’s a single, but it looks like it’s gonna have a life of its own. So we’re stuck in a holding pattern, just sitting back watching to see what happens.”
One thing’s for sure. Whether Red Solo Cup becomes a hit or not, you can bet it won’t be long until Toby Keith reaches that magic 100 million spins.