Building an unparalleled musical legacy, a vibrant career at the top levels of entertainment and a business empire worthy of a Forbes cover isn't easy, but it's not complicated either. In Toby Keith's case, there's genius in the simplicity. His new album Drinks After Work is another perfect example of how a big project like an album not to mention a seemingly boundless and diverse brand can be boiled down to a few timeless truths about hard work and good times. Exceptions prove every rule, however, and Keith is certainly not immune to life's harsh realities when the spotlight dims and storm clouds rise as they did unmercifully in 2013.
The balance of the album celebrates life's peaks, however, and that's no accident as Keith's music has increasingly become a reflection of his live shows. He and his tight band of co-writers Scotty Emerick, Bobby Pinson and Rivers Rutherford do most of their work on the road, grabbing guitars and putting words to music during downtime between concerts.
"People ask why we write so many songs about drinking and partying," he says. "Well, when were writing, thats what were doing. Were out on the road working, but were festive. If we were stuck in a cabin for a week hunting or something, you might write about being away from the party. But when you're on the road, you've got this crowd and youre presenting a party to them, its really hard not to get caught up in that and keep it fun. I like having a lot of that on my albums; when they turn it on, I want them to smile."
And smile they have, propelling Keith to rarified air as one of the most successful songwriter/artists of all time with more than 80 million broadcast performances of his work and 32 No. 1 singles. Arguably, he's the most successful self-contained artist in country music history. And that popularity isn't limited by borders as he's toured packed European venues twice in the last few years. He's also preparing for his first tour of Australia, where he is the most-requested American country performer, recently enjoyed several high profile awards nominations and has had four hit albums in the country.
The process that has led to those hits and chart-topping albums wasn't in place from the beginning of his career, though it certainly was foreshadowed by his debut. Written solely by Keith, "Should've Been A Cowboy" rocketed to No. 1 and went on to become the most-played country song of the '90s. And while he continued to have number one after number one on the radio charts, it wasn't until the 1999 release of How Do You Like Me Now?! and concurrent departure from a label with which he was in constant conflict that he began to set a sustainable and incredibly successful creative course.
"We write all year," Toby explains. "And after about 13 years of doing it this way, it's gotten where I know going in that I'll have enough good songs to choose from. I'll spend a week with Rivers, two weeks with Bobby and two weeks with Scotty. Then I'll write some by myself. So you end up with an album-and-a-half's worth of uncut stuff ready to sort and stack. Im always way ahead."
From the album's opening thump of "Shut Up And Hold On," Keith and co-writer Pinson evoke an arena show feel. The audience appeal is palpable, and the title track only furthers the vibe with perhaps the freshest, most unique sound from Toby in years. The only track he didn't write, the song was an unlikely stab at something very different. "[Label exec] Mark Wright was really high on this 'Drinks After Work' thing, and I didnt know if I could cut it or not. Its really out of the norm for me, but I told him I'd give it a run and it bloomed in the studio."
The classic Toby turn-of-phrase in "Little Miss Tear Stain" "is never still a good time to call?" the throwback barroom shuffle of "Last Living Cowboy" and the completely unsubtle "Show Me What You're Workin' With" keep the fun rolling. Even the coming-of-age ode "Before We Knew They Were Good," "Whole Lot More Than That" with its arresting couplets and the wry "I'll Probably Be Out Fishin'" are likely to have concertgoers raising red Solo cups in salute.
Plumbing less exuberant musical depths are the steel-drenched broken heart ballad "The Other Side Of Him" and a Toby Keith-first tribute to farmers titled "Hard Way To Make An Easy Living." But those songs only hint at the raw emotions that accompanied the making of this album.