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20 November 2013
Toby Keith’s ‘Shut Up’ Makes Sense Of A Chaotic Event

Toby Keith was in the middle of a recording session at Ocean Way on 17th Avenue South in Nashville, and in between takes, he was nervously spellbound by footage of the twister.

“My assistant pulled an iPad up,” Keith told reporters at a round-table event. “I come behind the console, and he held up the iPad that had a local weather app rolling, live stream, and [the tornado] was crossing I-35 and headed, literally, about a mile-and-half from my sister’s house, going right down her road. I’m having to sit in the studio trying to see it.”

That “tornadic event,” as they call it on the Weather Channel, had a long-lasting effect on Keith’s year. Most obviously, he rallied a bundle of artists—including Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson, Ronnie Dunn and Trisha Yearwood—for a July 6 concert in Norman that raised $ 2 million for the area.

But the disaster also impacted the rollout of Keith’s latest album. His attention to Oklahoma forced Keith to delay recording. His Show Dog- Universal label still needed a single, so they picked “Drinks After Work”—one of only two tracks that were finished at the time—and released it as the first single and title track.

The second single—“Shut Up and Hold On,” shipped to radio via Play MPE on Oct. 28, one day before the album’s release—has its own connection to the tornado: It was the song Keith was working on as the footage from Moore shot across the iPad screen.

“Right in the middle of this song, he’d run out of the room,” recalls co-writer Bobby Pinson (“Made in America,” “It Happens”). “He’d sing his part and then was out watching the twister happen. So while this was happening, I kept [working] and going, ‘Come check this out, make sure this is good,’ but he was distracted because the wind was blowing through his hometown really hard. So it was a really interesting time doing this track.”

Complicating matters, Pinson—billed in the album’s credits as “wranglerproducer”— was taking an approach with “Shut Up” that left Keith scratching his head.

“I had this idea of slowing the track down, so we played it at 10 paces faster than we were supposed to,” Pinson explains. “Then we slowed the track down back to the tempo we wanted, and that’s what gave it that slap. That’s why the drums slap the way they do.”

Pinson took plenty of ownership in the process—appropriate, since the idea for the song originated with him. Many of Keith’s titles sound to Pinson as if they could have been bumper stickers, so when the phrase “Shut Up and Hold On” came to him, Pinson recognized it as a title he should save for his next songwriting session with Keith.

If Pinson had any doubts about it, they were assuaged when he came across an actual bumper sticker that read “Shut Up and Hold On.”

“Me and my buddies have this thing called ‘Truck Stop Shopper,’” Pinson says. “We’ll go out on the road—my band, whoever—and we’ll go into a truck stop and spend $ 5 and see who can come out with the craziest item. The winner gets all the items. This is what we do when we’re bored on the road. I was at a truck stop, and lo and behold, I found that bumper sticker and that was my prize and I won. But I had a song called that, so it’s kind of cool.”

Pinson and Keith wrote “Shut Up” on Keith’s bus during a stretch on the 2012 Live In Overdrive tour. Pinson had that bumpersticker title and perhaps a piece of the melody; Keith had inspiration.

“He took the melody and kind of ran and just made it his own,” Pinson says.

The fast-paced chorus employs a fairly flat melody, balanced out by contrasting, one-octave vocal intervals in the verses.

When it came time to record “Shut Up” in May, they purposely tackled it on the heels of “Drinks After Work,” a song that had employed a little more programming than Keith typically uses.

“While we got all the toys out, we did, ‘Get in, sit down, shut up and hold on,’ and it started leaning that way, too,” Keith says.

The tornado, of course, took Keith’s attention, so he entrusted the song to Pinson, who was itching to turn it into something out of the ordinary.

“Bobby Pinson just got obsessed with trying to see how much he could pile on top of this thing,” Keith says. “He just kept working and sending me different versions and tweaked it down. It fnally went from being one of those songs that I’ve written 20 times in my career to being something really cool that blows up in the speakers.”

There were plenty of reasons it sounded different. Keith, for starters, doubled his vocals, creating a little tension between the razor-thin dfferences in the takes. Kenny Greenberg took a pick to his electric guitar, creating a hiphop influenced, scratching sound during one instrumental break. And Charlie Judge plays Jew’s harp in the mix, adding a rural balance to a conglomeration that otherwise leans a little more heavily on tech-derived sonics.

Plus, Keith’s usual backing vocalist, Perry Coleman, was unavailable, so engineer Mills Logan called in Greg Barnhill, who came up with a raw, pleading edge on the harmonies in the bridge, which actually appears twice during the song’s three-minute ride. At the end, Logan turned the knob down on the tempo, creating a shut-down effect that survived the multiple versions they sent to Keith.

“Toby said it sounds like a 20-year-old kid mixed it,” Pinson observes. “It’s cool.”

“Shut Up and Hold On” debuted on Country Airplay this week. Keith holds out the possibility that his 2012 composition—recorded during the 2013 Oklahoma tornado—could be the opening blast on his 2014 tour.

“‘Shut Up and Hold On’ could be that song next year—when you open your tour, you come out and romp on that a little bit,” he says. “But you never know ’til you get there. I can’t predict the future. It’s not up to me what’s going to be hits and what’s not in the end. So we’ll just have to see.”

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