Line ’em up. The records sold, the charts topped and the arenas headlined. Gather the Entertainer of the Years, the multi-platinums and the multi-week No. 1s. Stack the televised performances, the magazine covers and the glowing reviews (toss in the scornful ones, too – why not?). Even the controversies – real and imagined – can pile in. All the attention, all the accolades, all the arguments fade away in the shadow of the only recognition Toby Keith ever wanted – the one that means the most. And it happened in June of 2015 with his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Understanding why that honor is so meaningful is to understand exactly who Keith is as a creator, an artist – perhaps even a person. That knowledge also informs any view of his music, including the new album 35 mph Town. Writing songs – and all of the magic, mysticism, craft and elbow grease that goes into it – is the means and the end, the flower and the root of his entire career. And at no point has that been clearer than it is now.
For one, access to songs and their role in the business of music has changed. “Used to be as the current hit went, so did ticket sales,” Keith explains. “After 15 years of headlining, I’m at the point where that doesn’t matter. I can’t tell the difference between having a ‘Red Solo Cup’ or not. I know my crowd is going to come ready to party. And it puts us in a great atmosphere for writing while we’re out on the road. It’s rewarding to walk out to my crowd and know my job is to give them something new they really want to listen to.” Whether it’s viral videos, single downloads, radio airplay or some combination of the three, fans find the music. The hits beget themselves.
Those standing-room-only shows, the long-running Ford F-Series tour sponsorship, the RIAA sales certifications, the Toby Keith signature Wild Shot Mezcal, the I Love This Bar and Grill restaurants, the USO Tours, and The Toby Keith Foundation and OK Kids Korral are all by-products, however. That’s because the whole of it can be distilled down to its barest essence and elevated to its grandest vista in the same breath: Toby Keith. Songwriter.