Toby KeithToby Keith is as outspoken about his admiration for new business partner Mark Wright and his feelings about the music business -- and his place in it -- as he is, for instance, on the subject of the war in Iraq. So it's no surprise that he began a press conference in Nashville last week with the declaration, "We are here to settle all the rumors about ShowDog-Universal's merger." He also took the opportunity to announce that Trace Adkins was the first artist signed to the newly-created company, which combines his ShowDog Nashville label with the Universal South record company.

Toby explained that the merger will give artists at ShowDog opportunities unavailable to them before, and will give him the chance to work with other artists, as well. "They made me an offer that, as Roger Miller would say, I cannot understand," he joked. "They gave me every single thing I could have asked for and more, including master [recordings] and ownership -- things that would have been a deal breaker. I would not have given up the freedom I had at ShowDog to go back into a corporate record deal."

Toby added that veteran producer and record-label executive Mark Wright brings some of the corporate and political savvy that had not been present at ShowDog in the past. "What I was looking for was a little more power, somebody who can do politics in this town. I don't do it, and the artists deserve that. If they want to be on awards shows and other things that require the political part of this, Mark gets out and rubs shoulders. I'm not that guy, and that was the thing we were missing."

"Toby has a good vision as far as artists, and a good musical vision. He knows the marketplace and where it's heading," Mark said. "The merger gives us the opportunity to give our artists more opportunities, because when you have a superstar like Toby Keith, you have more opportunities to do thing with your new artists."

Toby stressed that while he has an office building in Nashville he has never had an actual office there and doesn't intend to move into one now. "I write songs for and with some of the greatest songwriters on the planet. That's what I do, I create music."

The singer went on to say that Mark's involvement would give artists access to a wider range of songs and allow the label to sign more new artists. "I have to admit, some of my artists have come to me and asked how they were going to be able to get on awards shows and do other things they want to do, when I rail against the industry so hard. It never worked for me to have to focus my energy somewhere else besides the creative, but we do need someone who can do that for the other artists on the label. They deserve that and sometimes I do stand in the way."

The artist roster for the new label combines both labels. In addition to Toby and Trace, the ShowDog-Universal label currently includes Joe Nichols, Randy Houser, Phil Vassar, Carter's Chord, Mica Roberts, Trailer Choir, Baylie Brown, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Eli Young Band, Andy Gibson, Jennifer Hanson, Shooter Jennings, Jonathan Singleton & The Grove, Ashley Ray, Angela Wolff and Kevin Costner & Modern West.

Fans can expect new music from a number of the label's artists this year including Trace, Jonathan Singleton & the Grove, Trailer Choir, Carter's Chord, Ashley Ray and Baylie Brown.