There's nothing any more remarkable about Toby Keith's thirteenth studio album than his twelfth. Or his tenth. Or his self-titled 1993 debut. As he's done for the last 16 years, Keith has gone to work playing the shows, writing the songs and recording the album that, in this case, became American Ride. Like the hard-working fans who buy his music and the soldiers he visits every year on his USO Tours, he takes his job seriously, gives it his all, gets up the next day and does it all over again. Of course, Toby Keith just happens to be doing it at the highest levels of entertainment industry success.
In fact, Keith's career is a model of consistency – and consistent excellence – that's arguably unrivaled in all genres of music. His 1993 debut was a No. 1 Billboard Heatseeker. His next four albums all reached at least top 10 on the Country Albums chart. Every album since, starting in 2001 with Pull My Chain, has reached No. 1. On the singles charts, he's scored a #1 hit every year since 1993. Across 44 single releases and 20 album releases including four hits collections, he's only released six singles he didn't write.
Every year, year-in and year-out, since 1993, Toby Keith has shown up at the very top of country music. And with American Ride, his 16th studio album, he's done it again.
"It's the same as always," Keith says of the album making process. "I do most of my writing on the road while I'm touring. As usual, I'll have guys out to write with. Most of this stuff was written either by myself or with Bobby Pinson. And each year it's my new crop. I'm probably 10 or 12 songs into writing for the next one. What we wrote last year ended up on this album, and what we're writing this year will go on the next one. We put the best 12 or so down in the studio and move on."
And it is that matter-of-fact routine that is so extraordinary. American Ride's title track is already a No. 1 smash, rising faster than any Keith release since 2001's "Courtesy of the Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)." Like "Courtesy," "American Ride" has tapped the collective consciousness of a nation in distress, this time providing music fans with a wry rallying cry. Unlike the 2001 hit, "Ride" was not written by Keith, though it sounds like it could have been.
"That's the secret," he says. "Over 16 years I've only released a handful of singles that weren't mine, but I think all of them were songs people were sure I wrote. And that's the only way I'll record something from the outside. I wouldn't do something that didn't sound like me as an artist."
Keith's songwriting is anything but in retrograde, however. He collaborates with Pinson on the smoldering "Are You Feelin' Me" and barely restrained "You Can't Read My Mind." The two cook up a little honkytonk fun with "Every Dog Has Its Day" (with John Waples), the grin-inducing "If I Had One" and the full-throttle "Loaded." And he still writes alone, offering up the confessional "Woke Up On My Own" and dialing up the romance on "Tender As I Want To Be."
His only allusion to the effort devoted to sustaining such a successful career comes on the Pinson collaboration "Gypsy Driftin'." "It can be tough beating it up on the road this long, going onstage when you're tired or sick," Keith says. "But as soon as you step out there the fans wave their flames and sing along with every song and it makes it all better. So that song's kind of a tip-of-the-hat to the people who've supported us all these years."
The straight-up Memphis blues of "If You're Tryin' You Ain't" offers a change of pace from Keith's previous work. "I was in the Oklahoma University locker room at halftime of a football game and saw four or five boys getting taped up," Keith recalls. "There's a guy there who keeps a handful of rolls of tape on his belt. I said, 'Are you tryin' to get everybody healthy?' And he said, 'If you're tryin', you ain't.'"
Another solo Keith composition, "The Ballad of Balad," was inspired by one of the Oklahoman's annual USO Tours to forward operating bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We were landing at this FOB called Balad and I asked if it was pronounced 'ballad' or 'buh-lodd.' They said it was 'buh-lodd' and I decided to write a song called 'The Ballad of Balad' about an Army recruiter talking to a slacker. I started playing it on the USO Tour last year and it was the hit of the parade."
American Ride's emotional center is "Cryin' For Me (Wayman's Song)," which Keith wrote for the funeral of his close friend Wayman Tisdale. An All-American basketball player at Oklahoma, first round NBA draft pick and 12-year player, Tisdale went on to have a very successful career as a renowned jazz bass player. "Great big charismatic smile," Toby says. "He didn't have a wall up, he was just one of the good guys."
Tisdale lost a leg to bone cancer in 2008 and struggled through leukemia, finishing his last rounds of chemo and tests early in 2009. "He called me in May on a Wednesday and left a voicemail asking if he could lease a couple buses from me," Toby says of his friend. "He had a clean bill of health and was ready to start playing dates again. I called him back Thursday and left a message telling him he could just use them. I wasn't on the road. The next morning I was doing phoners for my European tour that's coming up and got a text from my wife that said Wayman died. And I thought, no, he's been sick but he didn't die.
"Come to find out, he'd been having complications breathing. The chemo caused his throat to tighten down, his wife drove him to the hospital, they laid him down and looked at him and he died right there. Just 44-years old and one of the greatest guys. I wheeled around the house Friday and Saturday in a stupor. All I wanted to do was sleep. I got up Sunday morning, went into my office, shut the door, called his cell phone and heard his voicemail one more time. Then I picked up my guitar and wrote this song."
"I've had some loss in my life, of course my dad, but that's different," Keith continues. "I've lost some friends and acquaintances along the way, but this one for some reason was very difficult for me. The funeral was the next Wednesday and I wrote this for it, but I could not get through it. I ended up doing Willie's 'Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground' because I wasn't attached to that. It was weeks before I could make it all the way through the song. It was tough on me."
Keith met sax player Dave Koz, bass player Marcus Miller and percussionist Arthur Thompson at the funeral, and they agreed to play on the track for the album. "I brought my buddy Mark Wright to produce it because I didn't know who was going to play on it after we had it tracked." Keith produced the rest of American Ride, as he's done with all of his albums since 2006.
"This album is just another example of exactly what I do," Keith says, "The Wayman song has a jazz vibe to it and is a bit of a step out. 'Balad' is another bus song, and I haven't put one of those on an album in a few years. And the blues song 'Tryin'' is different for me. But I don't set out to do certain things with an album; however and whenever the inspiration strikes, I just go with it." And as Toby Keith goes, so goes country music. At least since 1993.
He's sold more than 30 million albums, been among the top all-genre touring artists for a decade and his songs have been honored by BMI for 63 million broadcast performances and counting. He notes, "That's the one number of them all that gets me."
Toby Keith is country music's most durable current hitmaker, and you can count it like clockwork. "I don't have to pinch myself, I know how hard I work," he says of the success. "And I expect when you work hard you'll have results." And these results speak for themselves.