Success can be a tremendous distraction, certainly for the successful and, in many cases, for those who would try to tell their story. For a number of reasons, Toby Keith is a prime example of both, but in very different ways. Recently and again named country music’s top-earning country star by Forbes, the Oklahoma-based entertainer receives tremendous notoriety for presiding over a vast and growing enterprise of sold-out tours, chart-topping albums and singles, a rapidly expanding restaurant chain, a signature beverage and more.
At the same time, a small fraction of songs in his prolific catalog lead some to fervently politicize him despite a generally apolitical public stance. Whatever the causes, too often the descriptions applied to Toby Keith obscure the fundamental root of his success: Songwriting. Fortunately, time has a way of clearing those clouds, leaving hope that someday he will be known primarily and rightly as one of the finest popular songwriters of any era in any genre. That outcome is only possible, however, precisely because he has never lost that focus, never been distracted by the ups or the downs.
When his career could barely be called that, Toby Keith wrote songs. Struggling with a former label and fighting to regain a grip on his career, he wrote songs. Peppered with unwarranted criticism, he wrote songs. Showered with praise and awards, he wrote songs. And in many ways, it all goes back to a woman named Clancy, a club she owned and a grandson whose teenage summers there sparked a flame that has yet to even flicker.
The title track of Clancy’s Tavern (2011) is almost a prequel to Toby’s 2005 hit “Honkytonk U.” “It’s the same grandmother,” he explains. “‘Honkytonk U’ talked about my mother putting me on a Greyhound and sending me to live with my grandmother for the summer, and how things took off from there. This one is more about the bar and what I saw there. The actual name of the place was Billy Garner’s Supper Club, but her husband teased her and nicknamed her Clancy because she ran a tavern. Every line in the song is true. This isn’t fiction.”
Like each album before it, Clancy’s Tavern documents the continuing and seemingly inevitable growth of Keith’s skills as singer and producer, certainly, but even more as a writer. Consider the songs you won’t hear on Clancy’s Tavern: “Blue Enough (To Break A Heart in Two),” “Another She Ain’t You,” “Didn’t Forever Get Here Fast?” and “Rattle Can Red.” Well, they’re actually not songs, just bits and pieces of lyrics from an artist whose gift for language and melody is so well-developed that his songs beget ideas and phrases that in themselves could be fully formed songs.
“That comes with writing your whole life if you stay after it,” Toby says. “Sometimes when I write with guys who’ve been around longer than me they’ll say, ‘You’re gonna have to give me a bit to get my chops up.’ They might feel slow for the first day or two while they try to get in the groove. But I write all the time. I’ve never quit writing since I was fourteen - haven’t eased up one day. If I took off next year, stayed home and did nothing, I would still be writing.”
Call it discipline, passion, obsession or all three, but that consistency is perhaps the greatest not-so-secret key to Keith’s multi-faceted success. It makes the tours, albums, and related endeavors possible. “If you were a homebuilder and looked at the houses you built when you were 20 and looked at the ones you build today, you’d see they were much better - even than ones you were building five or six years ago. As a songwriter, your system gets better. Your vocabulary gets bigger. Everything that would help a songwriter increases. Plus, you live longer and have more time to stumble on good ideas.”
Keith’s creative process is well documented. In addition to his habit of recording song ideas on his phone, his co-writing efforts are ingrained in his annual schedule. “I have three or four guys I write with who come out on the road,” he says. “There’s an occasional person who comes once, but Rivers Rutherford usually comes out a couple weekends a year. Bobby Pinson and I are together probably 50 days a year. Scotty Emerick still comes around about two weekends and we do the two weeks together overseas on the USO Tour and have time to write there. Actually, ‘Chillaxin’ was written on a bus during a two-day stop in South Korea on our way to Afghanistan.”
Each year’s batch routinely yields more songs than Keith can use. Three of Clancy’s Tavern’s cuts – “Club Zydeco Moon,” “I Won’t Let You Down” and “I Need To Hear A Country Song” - were written for 2010’s Bullets in The Gun. Three songs from the 2011 writing sessions will appear on Keith’s next album.
“For the last decade, we’ve put out a single from a new album when we go on tour in the summer,” Keith explains. “The album comes out in October, you get a couple more singles and we start over.”
Saying “we” is no self-conscious affectation coming from Keith’s mouth. In fact, one of the more interesting paradoxes of his artistry is the extent to which he is the central creative force on all levels but also highly collaborative. His familiar family of co-writers are only part of the story. Longtime engineer Mills Logan is regularly referred to as “my ears in the studio.” Session musicians including Kenny Greenberg, who is also the bandleader for Keith’s Incognito Bandito club shows, are encouraged to contribute in a best-idea-wins environment. Even this album’s sole outside cut is testament to this almost communal approach.
“I don’t remember who played it for me the first time, but it was so stupid I just died laughing,” Toby says of “Red Solo Cup,” which was written by Brett and Jim Beavers with Brad and Brett Warren. “What’s great about this song is it does everybody the same way it did me: ‘That’s the stupidest song in the world and I can’t get it out of my head.’ I laugh every time I hear it. Sometimes it’s good for the world to hear something like that.
“When I decided to record it, I called up the Warren brothers and the Beaver brothers. They wrote it and this song is real typical of those knuckleheads. But I didn’t want to make this song my version of what they wrote. I wanted to make them part of it – record their song with them. We brought them in when we cut it, to play and sing background, so it really sounds like them.” Sure enough, every note on the track is courtesy of the four co-writers and Keith.
Another indication of Keith’s expansive mindset is the growing role of Bobby Pinson, who gets a “Wrangler-Producer” credit on Clancy’s Tavern. “When we’re tracking I’m always cutting the scratch vocal and all I hear is what’s in my headset monitors. For years I’ve had Mills Logan behind the board and really relied on him, and he does a great job.
“When I write with Bobby, he says to call him when I cut his song because he wants to be there. He does a lot of producing and he’ll say, ‘I don’t want to step on your toes or anything, I just want to be your other ears in here.’ I never mind a songwriter coming in. They were there when we wrote the song and want it to sound as good as I do. Scotty comes in when we cut one of his songs, and that kind of input really adds to it.
“And if I write a song by myself, I’d usually cut it by myself. But Bobby was around so much that I started asking him what he thought sounded good on a song I wrote. He made a suggestion, we tried it and it didn’t work. He suggested something else and it worked. He was in the control room on the talk back and I started firing ideas at him. He said he didn’t want to produce the record or get any money for it, but he’d love to have some input when he’s around. He may not show up every day, but days he’s there he might run with it. It’s pretty much two good friends beating and banging it out.
“When we did the credits I didn’t know how to label him. I know one thing: he’s a good wrangler, because that’s what he did with it. So that’s how we came up with that.”
Even the album’s chart-topping first single “Made in America” - wildly popular with fans and easily lumped into the jingoistic caricature by critics - reveals the unwavering honesty Keith brings to his music. “I’ve done so much patriotic stuff that I have people sending me and bringing me those kinds of ideas daily,” he says. “And when I hear most of this stuff it’s like, I’ve already done that. I’ve already done my warrior song - American Soldier.’ I’ve already done my battle cry - ‘Courtesy of The Red, White And Blue.’ I’ve already done my fun uptempo - ‘American Ride.’ Then Bobby showed up here a couple summers ago and said he knows I get tired of hearing it, but he had one America idea he wanted to write.
“We got to talking about how when we were kids, if your car broke down your dad could take a wrench, WD40, bailing wire and a screw driver and about fix it. We jumped on that, started writing. I just couldn’t get past thinking that my old man was that old man.” If the song rings true, regardless of the perceptions, Keith is compelled to let it lead. And that devotion to truth is also manifested in his live performances.
Four songs from the 2010 Incognito Bandito show at New York’s Fillmore are bundled with a deluxe edition of Clancy’s Tavern. Again, Keith’s honesty rears up: “He’s courageous,” bandleader Kenny Greenberg recently told a Nashville songwriter of the tracks. And the accomplished studio musician would certainly be one to know that one of the first rules of putting live music on record is to clean up the mistakes. But Keith wasn’t having it.
“People put so much work into an album to make it the best it can be, but we don’t do jack to the Bandito stuff,” Keith says. “We let them go exposed - no overdubs, no vocals, nothing. We take live tracks, Mills does a mix on them and we stick them on the album. That’s exactly the way they sounded that night, except the mix is perfect.”
He trusts the performance, he certainly trusts the songs and, ultimately, he trusts the music. For those reasons and those reasons alone, Clancy’s Tavern will be another in a long line of successes. And somewhere, Toby Keith, undistracted, is writing another song.
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 (20120, Keith is coming off yet another Number One 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.
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 ten 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.”