Toby Keith’s passion for writing stays strong with “Hope on the Rocks”
The Oklahoma country music superstar is the recording artist, producer and primary songwriter on his new album.
“She said the boys usually do about half a page and they hunt a bear and they shoot the bear and they make a rug out of it and then they survive a winter somewhere. And it’s a half a page and they’re done and they go and play quietly in the back of the room. The girls do romance stuff and getting married on white horses. 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 oilfield 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 just by 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 an astounding 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.
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, where 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 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 you to pay a ton of money — 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. But at it’s like at this point in your life, you’re like, you know, I suffer so much creatively when I take on those big projects that the money’s never worth it. You know, it doesn’t matter at the end of the day because I haven’t needed money in a long time,” 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. The deluxe edition includes four bonus tracks, including a remix of “Red Solo Cup,” the rare hit the superstar didn’t pen for himself.
“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, and he constantly uses his smart phone’s voice recorder to make notes about potential lyrics or even hum a groove he may want to use. 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.