TOBY KEITH: Writing Amid Controversy

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Toby Keith has written the majority of his number one records, including the enormously popular “How Do You Like Me Now” and the recent controversial “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American).”

The latter song was written a few days after the September 11th terrorist attacks in honor of his father, who was a soldier in the ‘50s. The singer says his father always flew a flag to show his patriotism. “I had lost him in a car wreck six months before the attacks took place, so I wrote my feelings down,” Keith continues. “I never really intended for this to be a song. It was originally entitled ‘Angry American.’ The whole point of the song is that we’re still allowed to be angry.”Toby Keith has written the majority of his number one records, including the enormously popular “How Do You Like Me Now” and the recent controversial “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American).”

The latter song was written a few days after the September 11th terrorist attacks in honor of his father, who was a soldier in the ‘50s. The singer says his father always flew a flag to show his patriotism. “I had lost him in a car wreck six months before the attacks took place, so I wrote my feelings down,” Keith continues. “I never really intended for this to be a song. It was originally entitled ‘Angry American.’ The whole point of the song is that we’re still allowed to be angry.”

Despite the fact that some folks felt the song too strong -the most objected line was “… ‘cause we’ll put a foot up your ass, it’s the American way’ -Keith says, “I sang it for the U.S. troops and their endorsement was the only one I needed.”

Keith’s self-penned hits include “You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This,” “Shoulda Been A Cowboy,” “He Ain’t Worth Missin’,” “Who’s That Man” and “You Ain’t Much Fun (Since I Quit Drinkin’).”

Like his heroes before him, including Charlie Daniels, Elton John, and Merle Haggard, Keith is a singer/songwriter who feels strongly about recording his own material and he doesn’t mind putting his beliefs on the line to do it. It’s not do much that he doesn’t think anyone else can write a great song, it’s just that he thinks he can write the best great songs for himself.

“When someone writes their own things, to me they release their character in their music and that character shines through in all their songs. You (the listener) flip out over that character and it shows up in the attitude and delivery. When somebody just sings a song, they can’t bring that to the table. If you’re not the songwriter you have to go somewhere and find your character and record it. I can’t imagine making an album if you don’t write it. I only found two or three things in a few years that really fit me to go on an album. I can’t imagine finding 11 or 12 every time I record. I thank God I can write them, because I think my attitude, character and personality come through in my writing. If you hear me sing one of my songs on the radio, people who know me say ‘that is so you’…well it should be because I wrote it.”

As a youngster, Keith was part of a group that sat around on the weekends playing guitar and trading songs. “Other people would play a song and say they wrote it, and I’d watch the reactions of the other folks in the group and they always seemed impressed,” Keith relays. “So I thought ‘I can do that,’ so I started trying to write songs. I was a teenager at the time.”

As time went on, the Oklahoma-born songwriter helped put together a band and they started doing his original material. At that young age, he learned a valuable lesson about songwriting.

“I didn’t know how good my songs were when we started playing them out. I’d write them and we’d play them in that little circle of friends, but you didn’t know how good they were gonna be on a large scale. The next step was to take it to a nightclub and you might sing eight or 10 that you thought were your best and they might not even get a reaction from the crowd.”

“Looking back on that time period, I can see where I would write 50 songs and I’d get one good one. Then maybe I’d write 40 songs and write a good one. Then it would only be 30 songs with a good one, and the gap just kept getting closer and closer and finally got to where anything you wrote was a pretty decent song. It took about six to eight years to get to that point.”

Keith says he didn’t consciously become an avid fan of singer/songwriters, but when he went back and looked at the tapes he listened to in those years when he was first starting out, he was amazed.

“I didn’t know what it was that I liked in other people’s music, I just knew who I liked. I went back and found some cassette tapes from when I was a teenager, about 100 tapes that listened to in the car. One common thread through them all, every artist, Bob Seger or Elton John of the Eagles or Haggard or whoever, the common thread was they were the singer-songwriters. I literally had two or three tapes out of 100 that were not singer/songwriters, so there was something common there that touched me and made me buy their product. Charlie Daniels, Alabama, Eddy Raven, Billy Joel -anything that was in there -it was people who had written their own songs. It was amazing to me. I didn’t know what I was doing at that time, I just bought the tapes.”

Listening to those tapes, Keith subconsciously learned what made a good song, and it carries over into his writing today. A writing session for him starts for him starts with an idea from which he develops what calls the core of the song.

“The chorus to me is the gist of the song; that’s where the idea is delivered. I make sure the chorus is as good as it can be go when you take off on the verse it has to be good too. If I have an idea I start singing the idea in my head until I land on something that feels real good with it and I’ll build a core around that and then I’ll say okay, now I know what needs to be said to get me to here, and when I get here it’s gonna be good. If I don’t ever get the chorus right, it’s no use in me writing the song.”

“If you look and ‘How Do You Like Me Now!?’ you can see that if you’ve already got the chorus then you’ve got to set the song up to explain why you are saying how do you like me now. So I’ve got to take you back to a time when the girl wouldn’t listen and she said I’d never get anywhere, and I just start working from there.”

When Keith co-writes he might work on a song a little differently, depending on who he is writing with and what their writing style is.
“If it’s a guy or girl I’m not used to working with, we’ll try two or three different ways. If it’s someone I can trust and have written with them before, they know you’re there for the best song that can be written.”

The two guys Keith has written with the most are Scotty Emerick and Chuck Cannon. When asked what made Scotty and Chuck good co-writers, Keith was quick to answer, “Scotty is so fresh and he’s a very persistent songwriter. He’ll come out on the road and stay two or three days and every five seconds on down time he picks a guitar up and starts doing melodies and things and he brings fresh melodies that make you want to write.

“Chuck’s just a pro -he’s written so many great songs, you’ll never go wrong with him. At one point we had written, I think, nine songs and six of them had been singles. One had been an album cut and one was Shane Minor’s single, another one his wife put on her Lyric Street album.”

Keith said that when tow good writers work together they won’t accept mediocrity in their work. “When we’re writing we fight each other for words. Chuck writes ever day; I don’t. He keeps really in tune. I like to sit back and absorb life and when it comes time to write it all comes up, so that keeps me with fresh ideas that fit me really well. The toughest part of writing a song is the great idea. It’s not a matter anymore of hoping to write it -once you’ve has success and have had hits. Especially if you’re an artist, you know what the public expects, so you stay somewhere around your groove, and you know when you hear the great idea that you’re gonna nail it.”

And great ideas eat away at you, according to Keith. “When I get on an idea that is a great idea, it wouldn’t matter what I was doing, it would eat at me. I would spend every minute looking for places to work on that song. I’d be driving in my car with the radio off with the melody in my head.”

And where do those great ideas come from? “I really don’t know where they come from,” Keith replies. “The person who said it best to me Mac MacAnally. I asked him about where he got the idea for this song of his I like and he said, ‘I just happened to be the only one up when it came by.’ I think that’s right. So many other songwriters tell you the same thing. You hear a song and wish you’d written it; song titles are so obvious and ideas are so obvious but you just don’t see them.”

Keith doesn’t hesitate when asked for advice about songwriting. “The best advice I can give writers is what worked for me, and that is to finish every songs you start, just for the practice. Finishing a song is just as important as having a great idea. If you start 100 songs and finish one of two, you never learn to finish a song out. Even if it’s a bad song it’s important to finish the song all the way because that gives you practice in closing one out. That way when you do have a good song, you will know how to close it out.”

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