Garth Brooks was still grabbing the lion’s share of headlines in early 1993 when a fellow Oklahoman breezed onto the country charts with an upbeat tune he’d written himself called “Should’ve Been a Cowboy.”
It was accompanied by a music video that showcased a tall, grinning, curly-haired and lightly bearded chap who looked very much like he could’ve been a cowboy — or at least the idealized movie version of one. That’s how the world first met Toby Keith.
“Should’ve Been a Cowboy” went on to reach No. 1, where it remained for two weeks, solidly establishing Keith as both a performer and a songwriter to watch.
On late Wednesday afternoon (Dec. 5), hundreds of Keith’s friends and colleagues gathered at BMI headquarters in Nashville to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of his musical breakthrough.
During most of the ceremonies, Keith stood back in the crowd with his long-time manager, T.K. Kimbrell, and former label chief, Harold Shedd.
BMI’s Jody Williams greeted the celebrants from a stage behind which beamed a giant sign announcing Keith’s “Should’ve Been a Cowboy Tour XXV.”
Keith, Williams declared, is “one of the greatest American songwriters from any genre of music” and buttressed that claim by noting that Keith is “one of the few country music members of Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York.”
Following Williams’ introductory remarks, journalist and music scholar Robert K. Oermann came forward to deliver an appreciation of Keith’s talents and impact.
“You can’t stereotype him, and you can’t put him in a box,” Oermann asserted. “He’s far more than swagger and bluster,” a reference to Keith’s string of more forceful and rowdy songs. Oermann praised the “cool melodies” in Keith’s songs and noted that during the first two decades of his career he wrote “at least one No. 1 song every year.”
Apart from Keith’s songwriting, Oermann continued, “Toby is a world-class singer” who, rather than demo his songs for the musicians who play on his recording sessions, teaches them the songs directly in the studio.
Oermann pointed out that Keith has defied convention by remaining in Oklahoma instead of Nashville while his career blossomed. He said that when aspiring country artists ask him if they need to move to Nashville to succeed, he tells them, “If you want to hunt tigers, you have to go to the jungle. Toby Keith has proved me wrong: He makes the tigers come to him.”
Kimbrell was next in line to honor Keith, first inviting the record promoters who had worked Keith’s early records to join him on stage to be recognized. “Toby has had 32 No. 1s,” Kimbrell said, “and he wrote 26 of them, 16 by himself.”
At that point, Keith, who still stood well away from the stage, shouted, “I didn’t know you needed a co-writer.”
Kimbrell said he’d managed Keith for 24 years “and he’s never said a cross word to me.” Keith has done 11 USO tours, Kimbrell said, during which he performed a total of 240 shows in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait, “never [taking] a penny for performance fees.”
Among Keith’s other charities, Kimbrell said, are the OK Kids Korral that provides daytime and overnight lodging for pediatric patients and their families, and the 2013 tornado relief concert that raised more than $2 million for Oklahoma storm victims.
In spite of all Keith’s successes, Kimbrell said, he remains very much a hometown guy. “He plays golf and is surrounded by the people he grew up with.”
Football great Terry Bradshaw, one of Keith’s golfing buddies, next came to the microphone to tell the celebrants that he was the actual writer of “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” a claim his broad grin denied. In a more serious vein, he observed, “It’s hard to believe that one person has accomplished so much in his life — and so young.”
Williams returned to beckon Keith to the stage and award him a guitar and a congratulatory proclamation for “Should’ve Been a Cowboy.” That song, said Williams, has been played on terrestrial radio more than seven million times, which, taken together, amounts to 42 years of continuous airplay. Altogether, Williams said, Keith’s songs have accounted for more than 90 million “spins” at radio which “puts him first among all the county songwriters in BMI history.”
Keith brought the notoriously reticent Shedd to the stage, reassuring him, “You don’t have to talk. Just come up and take your picture with me.” It was Shedd who signed Keith to his first major label contract after Capitol Records chief Jimmy Bowen passed on him. Keith said he still kids Bowen about this error of judgment but that Bowen is “a good guy.”
Keith said his next single was inspired by meeting and talking to Clint Eastwood during a charity golf tournament. He said he asked Eastwood, who was then approaching his 88th birthday, how he keeps going on.
“He said, ‘I get up every morning and don’t let the old man in,’” Keith said. The remark so inspired Keith that he wrote the song “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” and sent it to Eastwood, who then proceeded to include it in the soundtrack of his current movie, The Mule.
Keith will play the Grand Ole Opry on Friday night (Dec. 7) and be honored Saturday night with the Nashville Symphony’s Harmony Award.
Each guest leaving the BMI party was handed a bronze medal commemorating the event.