Interview: Toby Keith
Tue, 28 Oct 2008 12:11:21
To call country singer Toby Keith "loquacious" would be quite the understatement. The polite, politically informed musician talks so much that our initial interview had to be rescheduled because the interview he was conducting prior to our allotted time went over by a half an hour! So, why does Mr. Keith have a lot to say?
Keith has his finger on the pulse of next month's election, plays hundreds of USO shows for the troops over in the Middle East, runs his own record label and recently topped one of those Forbes lists. You know, the magazine that's famous for its lists that estimate and rank a famous person's wealth in relation to others in their field? In the midst of all this buzz and activity, Keith found time to record his new album, That Don't Make Me A Bad Guy. We found the man to be charming. He even turned the spotlight on us and asked for our opinions, caring enough to inquire as to who we were voting for and why. It's that type of back and forth that has won Keith a legion of dedicated disciples! While Keith has always attracted attention for his outspoken stances, he continues to put his money where his mouth is musically as well. He spoke to ARTISTdirect about his latest record, building an empire and much more in this exclusive interview.
So, what's the scoop on your new album?
I went into the studio last year with 15 songs. It's always the same process. I write all year long, come up with about 25 songs and narrow them down to the 10 or 15 that I want to record. I record them and put them on the album. There's no science to 'em. I didn't go in and say, "I'm going to specifically do this stuff in a different way." I've started producing my own albums. I have done that for the last few albums, all by myself. Wearing that hat has allowed me to get my fingerprints all over the music instead of bringing songs in, cutting the tracks that day and letting the producer finish them and having me come back to sing. Now, I'm in there for background vocals, and it goes all the way across my engineer and myself. If there is anything that has changed, as far as I can see, it's the production. It's what I wanted my music to sound like. My manager has said that two out of my 15 albums are his favorites. He's not afraid to say. "I like your albums, but these two are my favorites." But, that's what he said that about this album. He said it's one of his favorites, and he's playing it over and over in his SUV. He'd have to be the most jaded person in the world when it comes to my music. He knows every word and note I've ever done, even the stuff I didn't record or release. This album has me all over it. It doesn't have anyone else's influence.
Do you cull inspiration from your time spent with our troops?
There's a blues song—a straight-ahead blues number called, "Missing Me Some You." I spent a full two weeks overseas, so I wrote from that inspiration. It's hard for the music not to come from inspiration. I met a soldier on the base, at a camp six miles from the Pakistani border. He was having a cigar, and you can't use any lights at the base at night. They didn't want lights on because of the firelights. You have a little soft blue light you could squeeze if you were going to the men's room. I was outside talking to the soldier and asked, "What is the firelight to the north?" He said, "Sir, that's the east." I said, "It's the north!" He said, "Those are the mountains." We were sort of arguing. I said, "Being an outdoorsman, I can tell you the Big Dipper points to North Star." He said, "Wow, I never even looked. The sky looks like it does at home." I said, "Of course it does." He was from the South too, so we had a nice conversation. He was deployed for 15 months and was going home in three. He dug into his battle gear he was carrying and showed me a picture of his fiancée. I absorbed all that. This soldier had the blues, so I wrote a blues song and incorporated all those thoughts in that scenario. It's not a single. Country music people won't dig it, but this one is for me. "God Love Her" is about a preacher's rebel daughter running off on the back of a motorcycle with a bad boy. The lyrics go, "She is a rebel child, a preacher's daughter, baptized in dirty water." I knew that those lyrics would make the single. I didn't think "Missing Me Some You" would pop up, and now, my people are talking about it being single. I wasn't influenced by radio research when making my album. I never approached it with the thought, "Will radio play this or that?" in the back of my head. I just do what I do and hope for the best.
“This album has me all over it. It doesn't have anyone else's influence.”
Why did you decide to run your own record label, Show Dog Nashville?
Artists start their own labels out of necessity. They can't get a record deal anywhere else, or their career is "over," so they open their own label. However, they don't have the money to fund it, so they half-ass it and go through the motions with a false sense of hoping for the best. They'll think, "Hey, I still record and tour!" Some of these labels don't have distribution or the right people running, promoting and marketing them.
It's a big undertaking that a lot of self-starters don't realize.
Exactly. Four years ago, DreamWorks came to me and wanted to re-up my deal, as I owed them two albums, and they were folding into Interscope and Geffen. I was planning to turn one in, and then I was going to tell them, "Either you're going to get rid of me and I will go and do my own thing, or I will give you this last album and retire." They called "bullshit" on me, but I was seriously going to announce my retirement. I wasn't going to keep working for this devil empire anymore. I had 25 million albums sold over five years, so whoever the new guy at the label was, he had to deal with me. The label started A&R'ing me, having music meetings. That's why I left the first time. I threw my hands up, and I could feel my wheels coming off my huge train that I built. I said, "I'm retiring or you get me away from this SOB." Then, I opened my label. Every two to four months, there's some nasty blogging and daily reports on the 'net that say I'm going to merge my label or that I'm going out of business. The thing these people don't understand is that even though I have sold 35 million records in my career, record sales are fifth or sixth on my list of revenue streams. I started my record label to promote my singles and my touring, which is my number one source of income. I was on the top of the Forbes Country Music list last year and have not been nominated in the CMA for three or four years now. I am not the "Entertainer of the Year." I don't need that $20 bronze statue! I created the label, but we don't exist to break new acts. I have gears turning with the singles and the album. I have the best staff in town. My head of promotion was at RCA. My marketing person was at Capitol until six months ago. My staff gets hit on to go elsewhere and to work for other labels. They don't have contracts with me. They can leave tomorrow with two weeks notice and they know it, but I have not lost one person to another label. They know they don't want that bureaucratic machine at a label, either. It doesn't cost me that much more to dump money into my label's machine. It's not rocket science.
What's the deal with no CMA nominations?
From 2001 through 2006, my records sat at #1 on the charts, but I've had no nominations since 2004. I quit going to the ceremony, and they quit nominating me. It's an "old guard" machine. I don't want my music used in commercials. Ford came to me and wanted to use my music on commercials because they thought they could sell more F-150s, and that's been the #1 selling truck for 50 years. My Q-Factor can be high, and I can be in demand for a major car corporation while in the country scene. Willie Nelson and I had 6-week, #1 single and didn't win the CMA! In the CMA "duet" category, they didn't have another #1 song, yet we still lost. It's the politics!
What's your favorite thing about running a record label?
We're on our own island. I got to the top of the Forbes list without industry support. I created my own empire. I'm most proud of that with the label. My empire is all synergized. I can keep my label going without ever selling another record. I have acts around town seeing me do that, but they don't have the courage to be their own island, because they're not business-minded. Or maybe, they don't have the will power. I'm starting to get calls from bigger artists, saying, "I owe my label one more album. Can we talk?" I may end up with some heritage artists on my label. We're a bigger player than we intended. I built this for me. But, maybe it is the new model.
— Amy Sciarretto