So…who is Toby Keith?
The answer, like many questions today, depends on who you ask. Keith means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and has been labeled the best and the worst thing to happen to country music (sometimes at the same time!). One thing Keith isn’t, however, is relevant in 2019, which prompted Sam to ask what might have happened to him on my Little Big Town retrospective:
After digging through Keith’s career, it appears that his trajectory can be traced back to my opening question, or more specifically to how Keith and his various labels have tried to answer that question over the years. While the bruising politics of the era certainly left their mark, it’s this question of musical identity that made Keith rise to those dizzying heights at the turn of the century, and it’s what eventually brought him crashing down to where he is now.
Now hurry and find your seats, for the play is about to start…
Act I: The Mercury Mess
In my last deep dive, I declared that “The partnership between an act and their label is critical for realizing mainstream success,” and Little Big Town’s lack of such a partnership is part of what ultimately hampered their success. Keith’s early career, however, demonstrated that even a prolonged relationship with a single entity can be just as unstable.
Keith famously ran into a wall of rejection when his first arrived in Nashville, but eventually Mercury Records took a flyer on him, and the bet paid off handsomely when “Should’ve Been A Cowboy” rocketed to #1 in 1993 and ended up as the most-played song of the entire decade. Three more Top Five hits followed, and his self-titled debut disc was certified platinum the very next year. It’s the sort of success that a label would die for, so obviously Mercury bumped Keith to their A-list and made him the face of their label, right?
Well….no. In fact, not only did Mercury not prioritize Keith, they dumped him onto Polydor Records when it spun off from Mercury in 1994. Polydor’s Nashville branch was then briefly rebranded as A&M Nashville in 1996, and then closed later that year just five months after Keith’s third album was released, which shuffled Keith back under Mercury’s roof. Put it all together, and it wasn’t until Keith’s fifth and sixth discs that he officially recorded consecutive country albums on the same label (tellingly, this label was not Mercury). AllMusic reports that Keith left Mercury over frustration over record promotion, and after looking over his story, it’s hard to blame him.
But let’s get back to our central question: Who is Toby Keith? Mercury’s answer appears to be “A conventional neotraditional country balladeer with few distinguishing characteristics.” The majority of Keith’s singles from this period are sad and emotional (“He Ain’t Worth Missing,” “Who’s That Man,” “Me Too,” “Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine Of You,” etc.), with only “You Ain’t Much Fun” and “”A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action” hinting at the wry attitude he would show off in later years. The result was a moderately-successful five-year stretch: Keith wasn’t Alan Jackson or Garth Brooks, but he wasn’t Lee Roy Parnell or Rick Trevino either.
Still, I wouldn’t be writing this article if Keith wasn’t looking for a better answer, and he was: He wanted to bring a bit more attitude and swagger to the table, and he recorded How Do You Like Me Now?! to do just that. Mercury refused to release it, so Keith took the album and hit the street to find someone who would.
Act II: The Angry American
That someone turned out to be DreamWorks, although they were as skittish about Keith’s album as Mercury was. When their handpicked single flopped, however, they decided to do it Keith’s way, and sent the title track to radio.
“How Do You Like Me Now?!” may have gotten overshadowed by the bombastic singles that followed it, but it marked the beginning of Keith’s artistic transformation from just another country artist to a feisty, pulls-no-punches channeler of listener grievances and aggression. (His direct, aggressive, and strikingly uncaring style is very reminiscent of our current commander-in-chief, but we’ll get into Keith’s politics in a moment.) Teenage Kyle declared this song his anthem back in the day, but Older Critic Kyle has trouble getting past just how cold and petty the song is (good grief Toby, are you going to spit in this person’s face next?). Nevertheless, the tune struck a nerve and launched Keith’s career into the stratosphere, with four of his next five singles reaching #1 (the one that missed still made it to #4).
Based on Keith’s statements, this is exactly the niche he was looking to carve out in country music. After getting yanked around for years by the suits at Mercury, he had seemingly taken control of his career, and for a three-year stretch he had both the success, the persona, and the narrative that he wanted.
In 2002, however, the script flipped, and the narrative lashed out and began to control him, thanks to a little ditty that became the leadoff single from his Unleashed album:
It’s not hard to see why Keith released the track. The United States was still reeling from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks the year prior, and people (including Keith) were still angry and desired to strike back against al-Qaeda. Dropping a thoughtful, reflective song like Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” just wouldn’t feel genuine or in character—Keith was a blunt, belligerent man who believed that violence should be returned in kind, and he was going to tell those responsible exactly what America was going to do to them. His song pretty much had to sound like this, even if it meant using language like “put a boot in your ass” that country music generally frowned upon.
Just like “How Do You Like Me Now?!” Keith’s new song struck a chord with country fans, and it reached #1 on Billboard’s airplay chart less than a month after its release. The problem, however, was that the George W. Bush administration spent the year agitating to invade Iraq over Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. When they tried to make it part of the war on terror, Keith’s massive summer single turned into a call to action, and his face was prominent stamped on the pro-war movement next to Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.
Keith has claimed for years that he never supported the Iraq war, but in the moment he certainly seemed to lean into the persona. The biggest example of this was his feud with Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines: When she called “Courtesy Of The Red, White and Blue” “ignorant,” Keith brushed her off as “not a songwriter,” and later began showing doctored photos of Maines getting cozy with Hussein at his concerts. The Dixie Chicks ended up getting blackballed from country radio after blasting both the war and the president at a concert in England, while Keith’s reign atop the country world would continue until 2004.
In 2004 and 2005, however, things began to change:
- Public opinion began to turn against the Iraq war as it dragged on without any evidence the country had any WMDs at all. For those who were considered supporters of the movement like Keith was, it was not a good look to say the least.
- DreamWorks was having trouble behind the scenes, leading to a merger with none other than Mercury Records in 2004 and eventually closing its doors entirely in 2006. Keith has claimed that he was essentially pimped out by DreamWorks, “putting out an album every year trying to keep [them] afloat” before the label could be sold.
Once again, Keith felt like he was losing control of his career, and the Iraq debacle changed the answer to our fundamental question of Keith’s identity from “feisty, pulls-no-punches channeler of listener grievances and aggression” to “jingoistic warmonger just slightly to the right of Antonin Scalia.” If Keith wanted to reshape his narrative and regain control, he needed to take a big swing.
Act III: Show Dog Plays Dead
In 2005, Keith teamed up with former DreamWorks executive and “Country Music Antichrist” Scott Borchetta to launch Show Dog Records, Keith’s very own record label. At long last, Keith was able to call his own shots, record and release whatever he wanted, and generally control his own destiny. So how would he answer our question now?
Here’s what weird to me: The moment Keith got full creative freedom and had the chance to chart his own path…he basically became the same artist he was during his early years at Mercury. The ballads began to pile up again (“A Little Too Late,” “Crash Here Tonight,” “She Never Cried In Front Of Me”), the upbeat songs became more gratuitous and generic (“Get Drunk And Be Somebody,” “High Maintenance Woman,” “Get My Drink On,” and the toxic dump that is “She’s A Hottie”), and he generally blended back in with the rest of the crowd. The stats from his early and later years are fairly similar (and a far cry from his early-millenium peak):
|1993- 1998||1999 – 2005||2006-2011|
|Top 5s + above||11||15||7|
|Top 10s + above||13||16||11|
What makes this even stranger is that the old Keith persona was still relatively popular: Whenever he went back to that swaggering American perspective (unapologetically on “American Ride” and “Made In America,” less combatively on “Love Me If You Can”), he soared right back to #1. For Keith, however, it was more about what he wanted to do and how he wanted to be perceived.
(Also, if Keith felt exploited over having to release an album almost every year for DreamWorks, this must have been a rough era for him, because he actually released an album every year during his Show Dog era—in fact, he did so all the way from 2006 to 2013! Basically, Keith did not acquit himself very well as the head honcho, the label eventually merged with Universal South to form Show Dog-Universal in 2009, and these days he’s about the only artist of note on Show Dog’s roster.)
So Keith fell back to his kinda-sorta successful ways through 2011. What happened in 2012?
Act IV: That’s Country Now, Bro
The more deep dives I do, the more I think Bro-Country did way more damage to country music than I thought.
While Brad Paisley bargained with the trend and Little Big Town hopped on board to save their career, Toby Keith took the Josh Turner approach, and essentially threw Bro-Country off of his porch and told it to get off of his lawn. (He himself blamed his drought on the rise of “hick-hop.”) However, this appears to be less of a dispute over content (Keith had been covering the same objectifying, party-hardy tracks for years, culminating in the 2011 novelty smash “Red Solo Cup,” and continued to mine them afterwards) and more of a dispute about sound: You don’t find the drum machines and hip hop influences in Keith’s recent singles that you do in much of mainstream country now. Toss in Keith’s advanced age (he’s almost 60!), and you’ve got a recipe for a nondescript fall from grace. Keith declared that his answer to our initial question was the final one and drew a line in the sand, and country radio didn’t care enough to cross it.
At the end of the day, Toby Keith learned his lesson the hard way: When you enter the public eye, you lose the ability to define who you are. He was never happy with his given role, but try as he might, he could never quite set his own agenda.
When Keith was a safe, inoffensive singer, the world ignored him. When he started to display his attitude, the world anointed him a culture warrior and gave him a leading role in one of the defining stories of our era. He liked it for a while, but when he grew restless and tried going back to being inoffensive, the world went back to ignoring him. Finally, when he opted out of mainstream trends, the world put him out to pasture. You can work to control the narrative all you want, but it’s the consumer that decides if your answer is valid or not, and they can either crown you on a throne or throw you in a dumpster.
That’s not to say Keith was a total pawn of the system during his career. He could have been more vocal about his position on the Iraq war. He could have been less ballad-heavy and more adventurous during his Show Dog tenure. He could have bent less to the people’s will during his heyday, or more during his twilight years. Hindsight is 20/20, however, and the truth was that for all his grievances, Keith profited handsomely from a system that he fought against.
Who is Toby Keith? These days, Toby Keith is history.