Q&A: Toby Keith On His Upcoming Album And Stepping ‘Out Of The Box’ To Reach ‘The Youth’
By Annie Reuter
Toby Keith‘s summer is shaping up to be a busy one. Currently on the road headlining the Hammer Down Tour, he’s also preparing for his star-studded Oklahoma Twister Relief Concert, which will be held July 6 at the Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, in Norman, Okla, where Keith lives. Tickets for the concert, which benefit The United Way of Central Oklahoma May Tornadoes Relief Fund, went on sale last Friday (June 21) and sold out quickly. Those who wish to donate can by texting the keyword REBUILD to 52000, which will give an automatic $10 donation to the relief fund.
Radio.com spoke with Keith late last week, and he filled us in on his brand new single “Drinks After Work,” some of the tracks that might make his forthcoming album (due out “October or November,” he said), what it means to write songs for listeners far younger than he is now, and what led him to record his monster “earworm” of a hit, “Red Solo Cup.”
Radio.com: Tell us about your new single “Drinks After Work.” It’s a different sound for you.
Toby Keith: Every once in a while I’ll step out and do something crazy if it’s a great song. In the last 20 years I’ve done that three or four times. I’ve found something that’s way out of the norm, and I would jump out and do it. This just landed in my lap, and I didn’t even know if we would get a good cut on it because it was so different. It just bloomed in the studio, and when we got done they said, ‘You have to pick a single.’ I had a deadline to meet, and I had a few things in front of me that I really liked, and I said, ‘This one sounds like summertime to me, let’s go with this.’
What details can you share about your upcoming album?
I write all year long, and somewhere around March or April I go into the studio and start cutting. I never really know what I’ve got until I get there. I don’t know if its going to make this album, but I just did a duet with Jimmy Buffett on his album called “Too Drunk To Karaoke.” That’s a crazy party song for him. I wrote a song with Bobby Pinson called “Sailboat For Sale,” and he reciprocated and sang on that one, so I’ll probably let him run his this year and then we’ll probably put mine on the next album. I’ve got a lot of stuff recorded, and then I have a bunch of stuff I have to go and record, and then I’ll pick 10 or 12 out.
Can you confirm the release date or album title?
It always comes out around October or November. The title usually ends up being something to do with one of the song titles. It could end up being Drinks After Work because that’s a big song, but it might not. You never know.
Are there any songs you’re definitely planning to be on the album?
There’s a song called “Before We Knew They Were Good.” It’s about kids growing up becoming special people in life. I always thought my grandmother raised thoroughbred racehorses. Every one of her babies can run. It was like my grandmother and her five grandchildren are just phenomenal. They’re all very successful. My brother is a big Baptist preacher in Florida. My sister is a great business person, she handles my horse farms and merchandise. Both of my cousins are very highly educated; one’s a DNA scientist and the other’s in the medical field. My grandmother was really close to me and a real mentor to me. Watching us five kids run around her house when we were little, the whole idea of this song is like that. “They were great before we knew they were good.” You just never know who’s going to grow up to be what.
There’s a song on here called “Last Living Cowboy In This Town,” which is more along the stuff that I normally do. Talking about this old man that’s in the modern day and he’s still hanging on to the last century values and fashion, and it’s comical. Other than that, there’s “Drinks After Work” and a couple of ballads that are love ballads.
Is there any particular tone or theme you’re working toward this time around?
If I sit down and just go album to album through the years, I can tell where I was in my life, what I was doing, and what I was thinking, because I put one every year. I can almost hear these little life marks like landmarks in these songs. From being a new artist to trying to step up to the next level, to going through the heartbreak of 9-11, to  years later. Doing stuff like “Red Solo Cup,” “Drinks After Work,” you can see good times, bad times, happy times, struggling times, successful times. There’s never been a theme for an album. As a songwriter I go out and write all year long.
Is there a song that means more to you now than when you first wrote it?
There are songs I couldn’t have written 10 or 20 years ago that I can write now. The bad part about that is most of your buying audience and the people that call in and request music are the younger kids. So, when you get more mature and you’ve lived a life and you start to write songs about living, you have to sing them to people who haven’t lived yet, it makes it a little more difficult to reach them. When you’re young and you’re writing stuff that they grab onto, then they pick the phones up and call the stations and download the song. People my age aren’t going to call the radio station for the most part. They’re not going to pull over on the side of the road and download the song.
When you write a song like “Hope On the Rocks” on my last album–which is one of my favorite songs I ever wrote in my life–we really struggled to get it to the Top 5. It will always be one of my favorite songs I wrote. I just thought it was a monster. Once in a while you’ll find hits that you don’t think are hits. The label will come and say radio is all over that song. And I’ll say, ‘Really? I wouldn’t plan on that being a single.’ And it will stay No. 1 for three or four weeks, and it will blow you away. So, it works both ways. When you’ve been around 20 years, it gets more difficult to reach the youth, so I step out of the box every once in a while to reach them.
Well your single “Red Solo Cup” seemed to reach them.
You know what’s funny is after it was a hit, everybody in town was talking about it. Artists were going, ‘You know, I could have done this song, it just didn’t sound like me.’ When the Warren brothers brought it to me, they were like, ‘What do you think about this?’ And I said, ‘It’s goofy, crazy, but it’s absolutely an earworm, and I absolutely love it, and I’m going to cut it.’
Unique things can happen in music sometimes that are silly like that, that just capture everybody’s fancy. My partner [Mark Wright], who’s the president of my label [Show Dog-Universal Music], he came into my studio, and he knew I was cutting it, and he’s like, ‘You’re really cutting it?’ The next day we were working on something else, and he looked rough, and I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ And he said, ‘I didn’t sleep last night.’ And I said, ‘Are you sick?’ And he said, ‘No. I couldn’t get that stupid song out of my head!’ I said, ‘I told you. It gives you an infection.’
Sure enough, when it was released I left for Europe for a month and when I got back it was a smash on pop and country and it became bigger than life. That’s the upside to doing those kind of things.