When Toby Keith was just a boy attending Southgate Elementary in Moore, his sixth-grade teacher made a remarkably prescient and then-controversial declaration to his parents: Their son was a natural-born writer.
“She goes, he is the only one left of the boys that's still writing when the girls quit and ... his creative writing is amazing,” Keith recalled in an interview last week.
“And my dad was so frustrated with her trying to convince them to make me a writer. He was like ‘My boy ain't gonna be no damn writer; you know, give him his reading, writing and arithmetic and let's go.' I remember going home in the car, he was just like, ‘There ain't no way. There ain't no way he's gonna make a nickel (as a writer). He's gonna get out like I did in the oil field and he's gonna work like a guy's supposed to work,'” the country music superstar added, laughing.
“I'm not upset with my parents. You can't tell in the sixth grade that you're supposed to tell your kid, ‘Go and be a creative writer.' But it reared its ugly head when I turned 15 ... my grandmother had the bar, I had a guitar, I was around people that were playing in garage bands. ... And the two went hand in hand. And all the sudden you look up, and you're one of the most successful ever in your genre. Or in any genre.”
Indeed, the Clinton native, who will mark his 20th year as a recording artist in 2013, has notched more than 75 million airplay performances, according to BMI. He will undoubtedly add to that number with the debut of his new album, “Hope on the Rocks,” which was released Tuesday on Show Dog-Universal Music.
Doing it his way
The singer-songwriter's father may have been wrong about his son's success as a writer, but the late H.K. Covel instilled a blue-collar work ethic in his son. Fans can almost set their calendars by Keith: Every fall, he releases an album of new material for which he is the recording artist, producer and primary songwriter.
“That's just the way I do it. It's not that I set out to be different. That's just what I run with,” he said by phone from Norman, which he calls home.
“I write all year, and at the end of the year I put an album out. And if sucks, it sucks, and if it's good, it's good. I just let it lay where it lays. It doesn't stop me from doing another one next year.”
Keith, 51, is so content with his writing and recording cycle that over the summer he turned down one of the most coveted gigs in the entertainment business: “American Idol” judge.
“It was very intriguing for me to sit here and go, ‘OK, one of the biggest television shows in the history of television is wanting to pay you a ton of money' ... And 10 years ago, I'd probably took two or three days to think about it or a week and then probably done it,” he said.
“In about five seconds, it was like, ‘I need to say no right now before I change my mind.' Because I know two or three weeks into that grind ... I'd be going, ‘I cannot believe that I'm stuck here working like this for money.' 'Cause my heart wouldn't be in it. So I politely declined and was very happy with my decision.”
For “Hope on the Rocks,” he wrote or co-wrote with his longtime collaborators all 10 tracks on the standard edition.
“Writing is not work. In fact, there's nothing better,” he said. “Writing is something that if the music business went completely away tomorrow — radio stations quit existing and music quit being popular and it was old hat — I would still write songs. It doesn't matter. When you've got an extra gear in your head where that's all you do, you've constantly got a little radar up. ... And when something hits that strikes that beeper, hits that radar, it's like my song skills kick right in and go, ‘Oh, OK, there's a song in that.' And then I start trying to figure it out.”
As he has discovered over the years, inspiration can come from anywhere. The new collection's first single, “I Like Girls That Drink Beer,” is dedicated to a friend's wife who orders Coronas instead of cocktails at his country club, while the title track, which he called his favorite on the album, developed after someone mentioned a former neighbor who drifted away years ago.
A couple of funny sayings his dad favored actually inspired two tracks: the playfully bawdy “The Size I Wear” and the colorful story-song “Scat Cat.”
“When somebody would sneeze, instead of saying ‘God bless,' he'd say ‘scat cat, you got gravy on your tail.' But I just incorporated it (to) paint a picture: Way out in the sticks, last of the moonshiners ... and it made it a nice tie for it. What it means or what it stands for, I don't know.”
That's a creative writer for you.