“Not too many people can say they’ve got every spoke in the wheel turning in the same direction. But I do.”
As Toby Keith discusses the current state of his musical affairs, he literally has every spoke in his tour bus wheels turning straight for Los Angeles. He’s somewhere on a Utah highway in the middle of a string of shows, his first ones back after taking the winter off. His next gig is the grand opening of the Crazy Horse Saloon in Irvine, Calif., but first he has plenty of time to take in the scenery on the long ride ahead of him.
Much like the vast difference between Utah’s mountains and flatlands, Keith has both enjoyed the view and battled the rocky times in his career. But now with a new manager, a new booking agent and a new record deal on DreamWorks, he feels like he’s reaching another peak.
“You’re on a record label, and they have 15, 16 acts over there. Everybody has to fight for position,” Keith says of his tenure with other labels. “With James Stroud being my producer and being president of DreamWorks, he knows what kind of music I make. He believes in it, and it’s perfect.”
Indeed, something seems to be working on How Do You Like Me Now?!, Keith’s first release on his new label. The title cut, a hit in the Top 15, was written with frequent co-writer Chuck Cannon about four years ago. Keith says it was one of his favorite catch phrases, but no one was brave enough to cut it.
“At the time we wrote it, it was just so unhip to sing about somebody else in that negative way,” Keith said. “Then all the girls started coming out with man-bashing songs, and I think everybody was kinda ready. Everyone who talks to me about it says, ‘I was so ready to hear a song like this!’ They were tired of ‘Okay, I’ll go fetch the log and put it on the fire, honey.’”
Keith decided if no one else was going to take a stab at it, then he would. Luckily, his friend Stroud, who has been producing Keith since 1997′s Dream Walkin’, agreed.
“James just happens to be the kind of guy who’s real edgy and real cool,” Keith said. “He was like, ‘I think you’ve developed an accepted attitude at radio that I think you could get away with this.’”
An attitude is certainly a prerequisite to sing a song that basically says “take that” to naysayers. Keith admits he was “a little ornery” in high school, but he says the storyline is pure fiction and isn’t really aimed at anyone in particular.
“It was more a generalization of anybody who says you can’t do something,” Keith explains. “When you really believe in your heart you can get there and you do, it’s nice to be able to look back at the people who said you shouldn’t do it and tell ‘em, ‘how do you like me now?’”
Attitude with a sense of humor seems to sell for Keith. The sexual overtones of “A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action,” the tragic comedy of “You Ain’t Much Fun,” and the tongue-in-cheek delivery of “Getcha Some” are quintessential Keith. Somehow he has managed to consistently make his slightly conceited wit palatable to the fans. He’s cocky, and they like it.
“‘Getcha Some’ died at 20, but it had a tremendous impact. It sold 600,000 or 700,000 units in 11 weeks. That’s my goal. I’d rather have ‘em all die at 15 or 20 and let all the other guys get the pats on the back and me sell the records.”
Keith says he has further proof of his sales theory with his latest record. The label released a ballad as the lead single to pave the way for the album debut. It appears the fans wanted something else.
“We came out of the box with one called ‘When Love Fades,’ and it got up to about 32. The day we released our album, radio stations started playing the other one ["How Do You Like Me Now?!"]. We were at 62 on the chart, which was the worst debuting album I’ve ever had, and in six weeks of being on the charts with this one, my album sales hit the Top 20, and this new single is at 13, so you can’t argue with success like that.”
Clearly, Keith is keenly aware of the business side of the music industry. But even though he knows what sells, he also knows what makes him happy as a songwriter. He tries to walk the tightrope of pleasing the fans and pleasing himself.
“The second you start really becoming a mature songwriter, you’ll stop hitting the commercial zone as much,” Keith said. “When I first came out, it was just automatic that my singles were going to be added and my singles were going to go up the chart. But about the fourth or fifth album, stuff like ‘Tired’ or ‘A Woman’s Touch’ started struggling because they just weren’t commercial.”
Those non-commercial tunes like “Tired” — a heartwrenching, working family’s lament — are Keith’s favorites, and he says even if they don’t zoom up the charts, they fill his writer’s soul. The praise he gets from fellow songwriters fills the gap.
“When you write songs and people come up and say, ‘Man, I wish I’d wrote that,’ then you know you’re doing good. When you start to impress songwriters is when you quit getting airplay on the good stuff. But I try to make a nice blend of it all.”
While Keith’s writing skills have earned him kudos from his fellow tunesmiths, he has yet to receive much recognition from the industry. He has a platinum debut album and four gold records, but to date he hasn’t won any major awards, a situation which he attributes to his dictated label hopping.
“I’ve done six albums, and every time I did an album I was stuck on a different label,” Keith explains. “I mean, I was on Mercury, then I was on Polydor, then A&M, then back on Mercury … it hurt early on.”
In fact, Keith says all the shuffling in the early days when he broke out of the gate running hurt his chances at award nominations.
“I’ve got one song that was probably the most played of the ’90s ["Should Have Been a Cowboy"] and sold a million records on that first album, and due to all the jumping around I was doing, we never even got a nomination for ‘new’ anything. Not one nomination anywhere. You can’t go back and pick those up because you get one shot at it. But I’m still here, and a lot of the guys who were getting those awards don’t even have record deals.”
He does indeed have a new deal, and Keith is not wasting his time worrying about what could or should have been. He’s got plenty of shows to do, a new phone commercial with football hero Terry Bradshaw, and a new TV movie coming out. He’s just finished playing himself in Hazzard Goes to Hollywood, a CBS Dukes of Hazzard reunion show which will air in the spring. He’s also meeting with L.A. casting directors about another movie that they would shoot in the fall.
“It’s a movie that they’ve been talking to me about for three years, and the scheduling never worked to do it,” Keith said. “I think they’ve got it tentatively titled Burning Bridges, and they’ve got somebody named Van Damme, and it’s not Jean Claude. It’s the other one.”
If he does this movie with “the other” Van Damme, Keith says he’ll cut down his touring schedule in the fall. But despite his recent acting gigs, he doesn’t plan to turn in his tour card anytime soon.
“Acting is something that they have to come get me for it. I’m not the kind of guy who flies to L.A. once a week and reads for parts.”