One of the most durable and diverse country artists in history, Toby Keith acknowledged 50 million airplay performances as a songwriter this week at a Nashville party. He graciously thanked country radio with a private concert at the Country Radio Seminar's (CRS) Music City Jam on Wednesday night (Feb. 28), bringing along famous friends like Montgomery Gentry, Crystal Gayle and Bobby Bare.
Comprised mostly of programming directors and personnel, CRS boasts a notoriously difficult crowd. At most Toby Keith shows, everybody sings along without much needling. However, when he encouraged the audience to sing along to the chorus of "Get Drunk and Be Somebody," it ended up sounding more like an instrumental break.
That's not Keith's fault. He worked the stage as hard as ever, though this time he was in the basement of the Nashville Convention Center and only 200 or so people came up to the front of the stage while everyone else hovered by the makeshift bars or at the dining tables. He rolled through many of his biggest hits, starting off with "Honky Tonk U" and "Stays in Mexico." He also trotted out a few artists on his Show Dog label, including sister act Carter's Chord, rebel rousers Flynnville Train and singer-actress Lindsey Haun ("Broken").
He had a few surprises up his denim sleeve as well. It's unlikely that anybody expected Bare to show up because the veteran singer rarely performs anywhere these days. "All right, we're going to pick this show up a bit now," the veteran singer deadpanned. He strummed his way through "Detroit City" and "Marie Laveau," letting the audience catch its breath and providing a chance for Keith to hang with one of his heroes, who delivered the songs with grace.
Later on, after a few more of his own hits, Keith turned heads by suddenly crooning the first lines of the sweeping 1980s duet, "You and I," and grinned ear-to-ear when Gayle strolled to center stage to sing her part. He then stepped back so she could perform "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue," then persuaded her to stay for "Makin' Up for Lost Time," from the Dallas TV show and originally a duet with Gary Morris. Gayle gushed that she was excited and honored to be invited by Keith. He returned the compliment by calling her his favorite female country singer.
Keith capped the night by bringing out Montgomery Gentry for some harmonies and hard liquor, and together they knocked out a superior version of "Can't You See," followed by the big finale, "Beer for My Horses."
The previous evening (Feb. 27), Keith held court at the BMI offices to celebrate the fact that the songs he's written have been played on the radio 50 million times. Only a handful of BMI songwriters can claim that distinction, including John Lennon, Elton John, Barry Gibb and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds.
Keith recalled the day he met BMI's Clay Bradley to join the performance rights organization in the early 1990s, a year or two before Keith ever had a hit record.
"It was 9 o'clock in the morning, and he said, 'It looks like you've been up all night.' I said, 'It's the only way I could make the meeting!'" The room roared with laughter. Keith also thanked former Mercury Nashville label chief Harold Shedd for signing him to his first record deal at a breakfast meeting -- one that Keith had again stayed up all night for -- following a showcase in an Oklahoma nightclub.
Shedd was present for the party at BMI, joined by producer James Stroud, songwriting collaborator Scotty Emerick, manager T.K. Kimbrell and "I Wanna Talk About Me" songwriter Bobby Braddock. Guests munched on bite-sized fried bologna sandwiches, cornbread, white and pinto beans, mashed potatoes and peach cobbler. Outside, two huge, black Ford trucks adorned with the Harley-Davidson logo were stacked with cardboard boxes plastered with photos of Keith's album covers, including his next one, Big Dog Daddy, due June 12 on Show Dog Records.
Keith's magnificent tally began with his 1993 single, "Should've Been a Cowboy" -- ultimately the most-played country song of the 1990s.
"The first time I heard it [on the radio], I was going to Bowling Green, Ky., and I was with Shania Twain in the back of the bus," he said, attracting catcalls and suggestive whistles from the audience, plus a few laughs. (Twain and Keith signed with Mercury around the same time and toured together early on.) "Those are good memories. We left Nashville as a bunch of greenhorns and went up into Kentucky and flipped the radio on. 'Should've Been a Cowboy' came on and it changed my life. ... Fifty million has been phenomenal, and I thank all of you people."
Played back-to-back, 50 million songs would add up to a staggering 285 years. "Should've Been a Cowboy" has received 3 million spins since then, according to BMI. "He Ain't Worth Missing," "Wish I Didn't Know," "Who's That Man," "You Ain't Much Fun" and "How Do You Like Me Now?!" have all been played more than 2 million times. Titles surpassing the million mark include "Big Ol' Truck," "Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine on You," "A Woman's Touch," "Me Too," "Dream Walkin'," "Country Comes to Town," "You Shouldn't Kiss Me Like This" and "I'm Just Talkin' About Tonight."
In more recent years, he has continued to rack up hits: "Who's Your Daddy," "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," "I Love This Bar," "Beer for My Horses," "American Soldier," "Whiskey Girl," "Stays in Mexico," "As Good as I Once Was," "Honky Tonk U" and "Big Blue Note" have all won BMI Country Awards. He was named the BMI Country Songwriter of the Year in 2001, 2004 and 2006 and has been the most-played country artist for four consecutive years. He's currently climbing the charts with "High Maintenance Woman."
Prior to another grateful nod to BMI, Keith wrapped up his remarks simply and with conviction. "I know I've got 50 million more in me," he said, "and I'm not going to quit."