Through the ups and downs of his tremendous success, one constant has reigned for country music star Toby Keith–his songwriting. “It’s the one thing I do a little bit of every day,” Keith said. “I just happened to become an artist, but I was a songwriter first and foremost.”
As a singer/songwriter, the two-time Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year has hit the top of the country charts more than a dozen times since his debut single, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” reached Billboardmagazine’s pinnacle in 1993. The Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) awarded Keith the Songwriter/Artist of the Decade Award (2000 – 2009) and Songwriter/Artist of the Year Award Winner for 2003 and 2004.
Over the last 20 years, he’s made repeated trips to number one with “How Do You Like Me Now,” “Who’s Your Daddy,” “Beer For My Horses (duet with Willie Nelson),” “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue (The Angry American),” “I Love This Bar,” “I’m Just Talkin’ About Tonight,” “American Soldier,” “As Good as I Once Was,” “You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This,” “Whiskey Girl,” “God Love Her,” “Made In America,” and several others. He wrote or co-wrote all those singles, but he didn’t have a hand in penning his last chart-topper, “Red Solo Cup.” Currently, the uptempo “Beers Ago,” that he wrote with Bobby Pinson, is in the Top 10.
“Talk about word play; it’s a freaking word salad,” Keith said. “It flies by very fast and has a lot of catchy phrases. It was difficult in the studio to sing the first time because it’s just so complicated to get all of the rhymes to fall inside the meter of the song. It’s about a guy that leaves town when he turns 18 years old and figures out maybe I should go back but maybe not. Can’t every really go home.”
Keith does make a trip back in time on his latest album, Clancy’s Tavern. The title is the fictional name to the bar Keith’s grandmother owned. He spent the summer there when he was a middle school aged boy. His sixth grade teacher had bragged on her young student’s creative writing, but mom expected her son to work in the oil fields.
“So I never pursued music until after I got a guitar, went to my grandma’s bar, and watched the band play. That blessing that God gave me reared its head, and here we are today.”
When he was still a teen, the Oklahoma native began writing songs and trying out the original material in his own band. ‘I didn’t know how good my songs were when we started playing them out. I’d write them and we’d play them in that little circle of friends, but you didn’t know how good they were gonna be on a large scale. The next step was to take it to a nightclub and you might sing eight or 10 that you thought were your best and they might not even get a reaction from the crowd.’
‘Looking back on that time period, I can see where I would write 50 songs and I’d get one good one,” said Keith. “Then maybe I’d write 40 songs and write a good one. Then it would only be 30 songs with a good one, and the gap just kept getting closer and closer and finally got to where anything you wrote was a pretty decent song. It took about six to eight years to get to that point.’
While Keith occasionally records other writers’ songs like Bobby Braddock’s “I Wanna Talk About Me,” Keith would rather sing his own tunes than interpret other writers’ work.
‘When someone writes their own things, to me they release their character in their music and that character shines through in all their songs,” Keith explained. “You (the listener) flip out over that character and it shows up in the attitude and delivery. When somebody just sings a song, they can’t bring that to the table. If you’re not the songwriter, you have to go somewhere and find your character and record it. I can’t imagine making an album if you don’t write it. I only found two or three things in a few years that really fit me to go on an album. I can’t imagine finding 11 or 12 every time I record. I thank God I can write them, because I think my attitude, character and personality come through in my writing. If you hear me sing one of my songs on the radio, people who know me say ‘that is so you”well it should be because I wrote it.’
His discipline, drive, and dedication for songwriting began to pay off as evidenced by his sold-out tours, million-selling albums, and dominating radio airplay. The success was built on a solid foundation of constructing his own material.
“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.”
And when the muse appears, Keith puts his priority on the writing. ‘When I get on an idea that is a great idea, it wouldn’t matter what I was doing, it would eat at me. I would spend every minute looking for places to work on that song. I’d be driving in my car with the radio off with the melody in my head.’
Keith has no idea where the inspiration springs from for his songs. ‘The person who said it best to me Mac McAnally. I asked him about where he got the idea for this song of his I like and he said, ‘I just happened to be the only one up when it came by.’ I think that’s right. So many other songwriters tell you the same thing. You hear a song and wish you’d written it. Song titles are so obvious and ideas are so obvious but you just don’t see them.’
Keith likes to write about eight to 10 songs solo each year, but totals close to 50 as he also relies on songwriting buddies to join him on his tour for creative writing sessions.
“I have three or four guys I write with who come out on the road,” he said. “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.”
When two good writers put their heads together, Keith admits they won’t settle for anything but the best.
‘When we’re writing, we fight each other for words. I like to sit back and absorb life and when it comes time to write it all comes up, so that keeps me with fresh ideas that fit me really well. The toughest part of writing a song is the great idea. It’s not a matter anymore of hoping to write it -once you’ve had success and have had hits. Especially if you’re an artist, you know what the public expects, so you stay somewhere around your groove, and you know when you hear the great idea that you’re gonna nail it.’
During a songwriting session, his first concern is to develop the nucleus of the song. ‘The chorus to me is the gist of the song; that’s where the idea is delivered. I make sure the chorus is as good as it can be so when you take off on the verse it has to be good too. If I have an idea, I start singing the idea in my head until I land on something that feels real good with it and I’ll build a core around that and then I’ll say okay, now I know what needs to be said to get me to here, and when I get here it’s gonna be good. If I don’t ever get the chorus right, it’s no use in me writing the song.’
Keith understands the frustrations writers face, but he offers this advice for aspiring songwriters. “Finishing a song is just as important as having a great idea,” Keith said. “If you start 100 songs and finish one of two, you never learn to finish a song out. Even if it’s a bad song, it’s important to finish the song all the way because that gives you practice in closing one out. That way when you do have a good song, you will know how to close it out.’
Bill Conger is a freelance writer for various publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, GACTV.com, Bluegrass Music Profiles, Autograph and ParentLife. . He can be reached at [email protected].