Even those fortunate enough to land a deal with a major label were guaranteed little more than an opportunity. If Keith was going to hit, he was going to have to hit quickly.
“When I came to Nashville, these labels were signing 200 artists a year,” Keith said on a recent phone call. “But if there’s 200 a year coming in, that means 200 others have to go. They moved on pretty quickly with a lot of flavor-of-the-month type of deals. You saw a lot of really talented singers and songwriters come and go.”
Twenty-five years later, and with a litany of No. 1 hits to his name, Keith is touring in support of his very first. In honor of his debut 1993 single, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” Keith is playing Ford Pavilion in Beaumont on Saturday night as part of the Should’ve Been a Cowboy XXV Tour.
All these years later, Keith credits “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” for paving the way for a career that would eventually spawn more than 20 No. 1 singles, four albums that peaked atop the Billboard 200 and north of 40 million albums sold in the United States.
“Man, that song kicked a lot of doors down,” Keith said. “It gave me enough breathing room to grow and have another one and another one and another one. Without it, there’s no way I’d have made it.”
Once upon a time, Keith – who didn’t find mainstream success until his early 30s – had a myriad of troubles with regard to his career. He unsuccessfully shopped demos. He played in half-empty rooms. He played for tips outside many of those same venues.
Nowadays, Keith’s musical issue is a far greater problem to have. Namely, which hit singles make the cut for each show’s two-hour set list? Keith, a musical fan first and foremost, isn’t going to devote much of the set to his newer materials. Rather, he’s going to give the audience what they paid to see.
“When I go see a bigger artist, nothing grinds on me like going to see something I was so influenced by, and all they play is their brand new album,” Keith said. “You’re like, ‘man, I came to hear the hits.’ One or two songs is cool, but there’s no way I’m going to be as affected by the new album as I am by the older stuff. We want to give the fans something they can sing along to.”
Now, if you’re familiar with Toby Keith – and, really, how could you not be at this point? – it’s likely for one of two reasons. You’re either a country music fan who is intimately familiar with Keith’s hits, from “Who’s That Man?” to “Red Solo Cup” to “Beer for My Horses,” and so on and so on. Or you’re familiar with the man who, around 15 years ago, feuded with fellow country royalty the Dixie Chicks over their opposing political viewpoints.
The controversy only fueled Keith’s record run atop the country charts. Patriotic anthems like “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” and “American Soldier,” particularly in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, both ruled the country radio charts and came at a time when Keith logged seven #1 singles between 2002-2004.
Looking back on the Keith-Dixie Chicks feud, two things are evident. One, the feud wasn’t nearly as mean-spirited (on either side) as it was viewed at the time. More importantly, the feud would be a mere footnote if it happened today because, well, it’s almost expected that our artists opine on the present state of American politics.
In Keith’s estimation, the current divide that exists in American politics may, in the end, help unite us.
“It’s overload now; we’re so divided I can’t even listen to it anymore,” Keith said. “How bad does it have to get before it comes back together again? You can already see people on both sides getting sick of it; hell, they’re getting sick of their own parties. They were already sick of the other party, and now they’re sick of their own. You can only be divided for so long before, eventually, people push more toward the middle. That’s where we’re supposed to be anyway.”
Nowadays, for the most part, Keith leaves the political talk to pundits, other artists or pretty much anyone with a social media account. Instead, he’s looking back on his career and reflecting on how 25 years of success went by so fast.
“I couldn’t have known it would end up this way, for us to be as successful as we’ve been,” he said. “All I ever did was the best I could do; I made sure nobody outworked me and I got up every day and was as productive as I could be. I hoped I would find my audience or they’d fine me. It’s a dream that it actually happened.”
Toby Keith’s show is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Saturday, June 30 at Ford Pavilion, 5115 Interstate 10 Access Road, Beaumont. For information, call 409-951-5400 or visit fordpark.com. $30-$115, plus fees.