Toby Keith: A Honkytonk University Honors Grad (Second of Two Parts)

Singer-Songwriter Moves Forward on Next Album and Plans for His Own Record Label

Toby Keith just released Honkytonk University, but he’s already well into the process of recording his next album. Farther down the road, he’ll be taking additional control of his career when he launches his own record label.

In the final installment of a two-part interview, Keith talks to about what it took to move his career into high gear and the early interest he’s received from other artists wanting to record for his new company.

In March, a lot of people were surprised at Country Radio Seminar when you said you were about halfway into recording your next album. What’s the status? And have you always worked that far in advance?

It’s still half. I haven’t worked on it [recently], but I’ve got six songs in the box. They all can’t be singles, and I’ve never gotten to make an album that was just 10 singles since my first one. The way the business goes, you’re only going to get three or four singles off of an album. If I put 10 — what I feel like are going to be impact-type songs with my audience — then six of them were never going to get heard, or somebody else will re-cut them at a different time. So I try to space them out. I’ve got great material that isn’t necessarily a single — little story songs and things. Once I feel like I’ve got four or five really strong singles on there, then I’ll go to some great story songs or some ballads that will probably never be singles but that my fans would absolutely love. I’ll hoard back a couple of those big … and I hate to talk about it in third person. I hear people talk about themselves in the third person, and I can’t stand that. But I’m going to do it. “Big Toby songs” is what everybody would call them, like “Honkytonk U” or “Good As I Once Was.” But you don’t want to put six or seven songs just alike on an album, and those are the ones I hit my home runs with. I am six or seven songs ahead. I’m always six or seven ahead.

You’re planning to start your own record label. Once the word started spreading, did you start getting a lot of calls from other artists who are interested in working with you?

We have a great work ethic on the road. We’ve done things our way. I mean, there’s a Nashville way and then there’s a music industry way. … And then there’s just the way that we’ve done it. We’ve stuck to our guns. I’ve lost a lot of great friendships. Some of the closest people I’ve had to me in this business, our friendships — all the way back through 10 years — is tainted just due to holding your ground. I have a principle that I’ve got to deal with when it comes to my music. So it’s tarnished a lot of great friendships. It’s ruined some awesome friendships. But I’m very loyal if somebody is loyal to me. I think it shows these other artists who have worked with me in these past that they want to be a part of that. … The other artists that come out and hang with me for very long, they sit and watch how I do it and they go, “How can I tap into that?”

So since I’ve talked about opening this label, we’ve had several calls. If we get to the point — and we will — it will change the way business is done, I think. Obviously, I think we did that with our music. I’ve been told by program directors across the country that “How Do You Like Me Now?!” single-handedly stopped the big conglomerate radio groups from pointing their antenna at the 35 to 55-year-old female. They said “How do You Like Me Now?!” single-handedly sent them back to the drawing board to go, “Maybe we were wrong. Maybe there is a male listener here, and we need to point our antenna at this demographic.” They were really ready to just dial in on the 35 to 55-year-old females. It would have been a big mistake.

I know you can’t name names, but have any A-list artists contacted you about being on your label?

We’ve been contacted by one A-list artist. Actually, one that has been an A-list artist and would probably be the first to tell you that they’re not getting the respect and the attention they deserve right now. Both the acts that I’ve been in contact with have been double platinum. It’s real easy — and I saw it firsthand — for [record labels] to pump you up and get you started. Then you run for a little while, and they move onto the next thing. And you just have to be creative for your own sake. That’s why I went and did the 10-10-220 [long distance service] commercials. I wasn’t getting nominated [for music awards]. I was having No. 1 songs, but I wasn’t selling a ton of records. A lot of that is perception. You have to break through the critical mass. But I wasn’t getting the TV time it took. The awards shows are important [because] people place you on the pecking order because of your performance on that. Well, I was getting none of that because you can’t perform unless you’re nominated. I was never nominated, so I started creating my own TV time. It’s a thing about going out and self-motivating and using your resources. I think that work ethic shows through, and these other acts are sitting where I was — needing that 10-10-220 commercial type thing.

Do you think major record labels — as we know them now — are running the risk of becoming obsolete?

My attorney came into Nashville and met with a lot of people in different businesses. He said, “Seventy-five percent of this town thinks you’ll fail, and 95 percent want you to fail.” … But the longer they try to hold me down or put off what I’m trying to accomplish, it’s gonna happen. It’s been going on in rap music for years. It’s never happened in country, and the acts that have gone on and started their own label aren’t as successful as we are right now. I have complete confidence — 100 percent, not 99 — that we will be successful at this. I don’t have any goals left to accomplish. The only thing I have left to accomplish is to go out and be the best label I can be. I’ve got a lot of music in me, and I know where a lot of wonderful, wonderful great songs are. I know where a lot of great talent is. It’s just a matter of putting A with B and equaling C. I’m driven to do it. It’s the only thing I have left to do.

Read the first part of the Toby Keith interview.

Calvin Gilbert has served as’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.