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Story Behind the Song: Toby Keith, ‘American Ride’

Dave Pahanish and Joe West, the co-writers of Toby Keith‘s “American Ride,” the first single from and title track of Keith’s 2009 studio album, have known each other for more than 20 years, beginning in Pittsburgh, Pa., and continuing through their association as co-writers, artists and producers in Nashville, Tenn. The song was released in July of 2009 and hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart — Keith’s 19th career No. 1 — in October. Below, Pahanish and West tell The Boot about writing the hit.

Pahanish: It’s kind of written in the way that Bob Dylan would have written “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Joe and I just put down a laundry list of things that would personally irritate us. We would find ourselves talking about something and saying, “What about what happened this time?” or, “Can you believe that so and so happened?”

West: And some of it we weren’t really sure had happened. We started writing the song about the time we had seen that video on YouTube about that girl getting beaten up by her friends, and then the movie Mean Girls came out. It was just a lot of topical stuff.

I never felt like the song was saying right or wrong, but absurdity or just wild. One of the things we heard was this comedian saying, “Why are kids in the Sudan not lactose intolerant like American kids are?” Because of our culture, we have a whole sort of problems that other cultures don’t. So you could say we’re celebrating the absurdity.

The great thing about it is, we didn’t write it for Toby Keith; it was just a funny song, and an entertaining song. We took Dave over to ShowDog [Keith's label] to play for Allison Jones to get a record deal for Dave. We ended up playing the song for her.

Pahanish: We told Allison the only person capable of pulling off a song like this was Toby Keith. He’s the only artist who would have the inertia and size to do it.

West: I’d always heard that Toby had two iPods: one for business and one for pleasure. We heard that we were on both of them! So I guess we crossed over with Toby!

He had it a long time, and then one day they called and said he was going to cut the song. Within a week of that phone call, he was doing it live in concert. Then we heard he was going to do a video, and I wasn’t actually sure he understood everything about the song. But you can see, play by play, he had ever single thing down. It might not be as cryptic as we thought it would be, but when you look at the video, it is even more so.

Pahanish: My publisher called me and said, “Toby wants to talk with you. He wants to know if he can change “American Life” [the song's original name] to “American Ride,” which is I guess what he heard me singing on the demo. I said, “Are you kidding? He can call it “Cotton Candy Surprise” if he’ll just record it and put it on the radio!”

West: I went down to Georgia to see Toby perform live. I had never had seats so good to a concert — they were perfect! And there was a moment when he was in the first chorus, I’m thinking, “Holy s–t, this is something Dave and I did in a little room! Toby Keith is singing it, and everybody is singing it with him.” When you’ve got 24,000 people singing something you created, it’s remarkable.

This story was originally written by Vernell Hackett, and revised by Angela Stefano.

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