Characterizing Toby Keith's fourteenth studio album as a breakthrough may seem hyperbolic. After all, here's an artist whose music has sold more than 25 million albums in this decade alone, untold millions of concert tickets and formed the basis for an entertainment empire that includes movies, restaurants, a record label and more.
But That Don't Make Me A Bad Guy is more than just another infusion of music by which the rest of Keith's endeavors will benefit (though that will surely happen). Amazingly enough, the album is a moment of musical transcendence in which Toby Keith the recording artist brings his creativity into previously unattained balance. As a writer, as a vocalist, as a producer, Keith has developed himself into a complete music maker of the highest order. The table has no short leg. There are no holes in his game.
Certainly as a songwriter, Toby has nothing to prove. He left Oklahoma for Nashville with a handful of demos that formed the basis of his self-titled 1993 debut album. "Should've Been A Cowboy" was his first No. 1, and touched off a string of self-penned hits that form the foundation of his career: "Wish I Didn't Know Now," "Who's That Man," "You Ain't Much Fun," "Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine On You," "We Were In Love," "How Do You Like Me Now?!" "I'm Just Talkin' About Tonight," "Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue," "Who's Your Daddy?" "I Love This Bar," "American Soldier," "As Good As I Once Was," "A Little Too Late" and "High Maintenance Woman." And that's barely scratching the surface.
In fact, BMI recently honored Keith for 50 million airplay performances of his songs, a figure that puts him in company with hit makers like Elton John, The Bee Gees and John Lennon. What's remarkable, then, about Keith's 11 writing credits on That Don't Make Me A Bad Guy is simply longevity – the enduring relevance of his writing. As they say in the publishing world, the only thing harder than having a hit is having two.
All these years later, however, Keith isn't just writing songs for his album, he's writing the kind of hits that launch discs to multi-platinum certification and keep concert venues full nationwide. Bad Guy's first single, "She Never Cried In Front Of Me," elicited exactly that kind of response, rocketing to No. 1 in advance of the album's release.
Keith still writes solo, as on the stirringly blue lament "Missing Me Some You." And he also enlists a select group of co-writers, including one of his biggest influences Eddy Raven on "Cabo San Lucas," a slightly sad (though unintended) sequel to Keith's previous hit "Stays In Mexico." He also brings in prolific Nashville songwriter Vicky McGehee for "God Love Her," the story of a preacher's daughter, a runaway couple, rebellion and redemption. And as he's done with other writers in the past, Toby has tapped a creative mother load with Bobby Pinson, who has eight co-writes.
"Bobby rides my bus a lot," Toby explains. "When me and Scotty Emerick wrote all those great songs through the years, that was because he was on my bus. Whoever you're around and inspires you, you end up writing a lot of songs with. It was not unusual for me and Scott to have six or seven songs on an album, and it's not unusual now for me and Bobby to have a bunch."
For the second consecutive album, Keith serves as his own producer, and seems to have taken the experience gleaned on Big Dog Daddy to create an even bigger, more aggressive sound. Completely undete rred by the stylistic range of going from the thumping drive of "Creole Woman" and euphoric guitar work of "God Love Her" to the Latin tones of "Cabo San Lucas," Keith delivers a sonically adventurous collection of recordings.
"For years I needed a producer because I was trying to find my way," he says. "I needed someone to make sure I didn't get out of bounds for getting my stuff played. I still remember the first six or seven demos I produced and brought to town. Everyone said the songs weren't any good. But they were 'Should've Been A Cowboy,' 'He Ain't Worth Missing,' 'Wish I Didn't Know Now' and 'Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine On You.' So it wasn't the songs. I always felt that as you're finding your way as an artist you need a producer. It's a safety net.”
"As we've evolved, I really don't need to find a niche anymore. I've got my own niche. When I come on the radio people know it's me. Now I'm producing and I think I'm getting better every time I do it."
Part of Keith's development as a producer has been finding a comfort level with the team he builds around himself. "You get a great engineer, you get great people who you've trusted for years – and I do that in all my businesses. You put your ideas down and turn everybody loose. I don't keep the reins that tight. I let everybody take their time and take their shots. If somebody has some great ideas we listen to them. It's just kind of a meeting of a lot of intelligent, creative people. You keep the stuff that works and throw out the stuff that doesn't."
One of the things that seems to be working best for Toby the producer is Toby the vocalist. In fact, if there's an aspect to That Don't Make Me A Bad Guy that jumps most dynamically out of the speakers, it's the vocal performances. Even the release of the first single, "She Never Cried In Front Of Me," immediately had radio programmers and industry observers hailing it as the finest vocal of his career. They haven't heard anything yet.
Interestingly, it's not as if Keith's vocal abilities have ever been in question. Rather, the continued development, even at this stage of his career, is impressive in his sheer power, ability to convey emotion and obvious progression as a vocal technician. And it doesn't hurt that he knows when to pull back, and when to laugh at himself.
"There's a note in 'Hurt A Lot Worse When You Go' that's not in my range, so I have to sing falsetto," he says. "The line says, 'You never cut me deep.' And I go to falsetto on 'deep.' We recorded it three or four times, then I got brave and decided to go for it. I sang it straight ahead and hit it. I surprise myself sometimes with what I think my range is. So I was pretty proud of myself, and I looked in the control room to see Mills, my engineer. He goes, 'Yeah, so what? You can sing it. It's not as cool as the falsetto note. Sing the falsetto.'"
When it comes to singing, especially for an album, experience is the best coach. "Studio singing and singing live are two totally different things," Keith says. "When you've been singing live your whole life, you come to Nashville and have to learn how to sing in the studio. And if you're doing an album every other year, that lengthens the progression of figuring out how to really work in that environment. But I do think I've matured as a vocalist."
In sum, That Don't Make Me A Bad Guy reveals an artist who continues to write not just recordable songs, but top shelf smash singles. As a producer, Keith is making his most wide ranging music yet in a career that is already underrated for its diversity. And he has pushed himself as a vocalist to the point where he should perhaps be regarded as one of the best male vocalists if his era, and maybe even in the conversation when discussing country's all-time greats.
The capper is, Show Dog Nashville's label head and No. 1 artist is completely self directed. "I'm always pushing myself," he admits. "I don't need external motivation to try to move things along." Nothing exemplifies that quality better than his latest album, That Don't Make Me A Bad Guy.