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
“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
“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.”