Toby KeithThe Nashville Songwriters Association International recently named Toby Keith the Songwriter/Artist of the Decade -- a title of which he's especially proud. After his 1979 high-school graduation in Moore, Okla., Toby could have pursued a career in the oil fields like his father, but the dream of singing and songwriting got in his way.

Toby has written some of the biggest country hits of the past two decades, seeing 19 of his songs reach No. 1 on the charts. So when did Toby first discover he had a knack for creative storytelling?

"In sixth grade, my homeroom teacher called my mother in for a conference," Toby tells The Boot. "Friday afternoon was an arts-literature [time] for two hours in the evening. Everybody would bring their favorite music, and the next Friday they would do creative writing. And she would say, 'For the next two hours, you guys write any kind of story you want. It can be true, it can be fiction, it can be whatever. And when you're done, you can turn it in and just go quietly to the back of the room while the others finish.' Some of the people would write for five minutes – half a page – go turn it in and go play. I would sit there and write page after page and get on some kind of wild story. I would just roll with it."

Toby recalls that his teacher called his mother to tell her he had a special gift and that his parents should help him pursue it.

"My mom told my dad," the singer recalls, "and my dad was like, 'Yeah, right! He's going to go work in the oil fields just like I did, and he ain't going to be no artsy-fartsy writer!'"

When Toby was "about eight or ten," his grandmother, who owned a nightclub, bought the youngster a guitar.

"I would try to learn chords and sit in with her little band in summer time," Toby remembers. "Sometimes they would let me get up and just plunk around with them. They probably never did have me plugged in. When I got about 15 or 16, I started trying to write songs, and fell in with a little writing group about the time I graduated. Right off the bat, I could tell I was blessed, and I had more skills than this writing group I was in. I just started breaking in and showed them a few early things I was writing. These guys had been writing for years and they were a circle that got together and wrote. I presented these songs, and they were all in amazement. They said, 'Wow, you're pretty good at this!' I didn't know. I had nothing to compare it to."

'American Ride,' by the way, is the only song on Toby's latest album which he didn't write or co-write. The new CD is sitting pretty at No. 1 on the album charts this week, with more than 90,000 copies sold in its first week.