Toby Keith’s ‘Gun’ Is Locked and Loaded
Toby Keith releases his 15th studio album, 'Bullets in the Gun,' this week, once again giving fans what they clamor for -- more of his incomparable storytelling and inflexible attitude. The Ford Truck Man has made his living with songs that touch the inner core of the working man -- sharing his hopes, dreams and shortcomings, as well as giving voice to those not-so-politically correct notions that many people wish they could say, but don't have the guts to.
Since first arriving on the scene with his self-titled debut in 1993, the tried-and-true singing cowboy refused to play by the Nashville rulebook, instead forging his own path and garnering more success than he ever could have realized while working in the oil fields of Oklahoma. After hitting the top of the singles charts numerous times -- 'Should've Been a Cowboy,' 'You Shouldn't Kiss Me Like This,' 'How Do You Like Me Now,' 'I Wanna Talk About Me' and 'Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),' just to name a few -- Toby opened his own record label, Show Dog Nashville. After proving successful on his own, he merged the label with Universal South last year to form Show Dog-Universal, signing friend and tour mate, Trace Adkins, to a deal.
The many facets of Toby Keith include the world of acting ('Broken Bridges,' 'Beer for My Horses'), as well as horse breeder and restaurant owner of the popular I Love This Bar and Grill chain. Perhaps one of his favorite roles, other than Dad, is as the coach of his 13-year-old son Stelen's football team for the past several years.
The Boot recently caught up with Toby in a Nashville studio to chat about the new disc, songwriting and his band of Banditos. Toby also revealed a new, somewhat unlikely hobby, as well as the most fun thing he's ever done in his career.
It's been 17 years since 'Should've Been a Cowboy,' was a hit, and here you are, 15 albums later with 'Bullets in the Gun.' How do you feel your songwriting has evolved?
It's about the same as always. I write all year and when it comes time to make an album, I get my pile of songs together, put my session guys in the room, pick up an acoustic, start playing my songs and we start from scratch right there. Once in a while a song will straggle in from another year, but most of the time it's just songs that I wrote during the past season. That's my homegrown home-breds, and I run and race them. Those [songs] are my horses. Some years are gonna be better than others, but it's what I did last year and it's what I live with. The results are sometimes great and sometimes so-so, but I'm blessed with the career I have and that's the way I do it every year.
The title cut could certainly be made into a movie. What inspired it?
[Songwriter] Rivers Rutherford was on the road with me a year ago in Buffalo, and we were trying to figure out what are we going to do next. I said, "I haven't written a Western themed song in fifteen years; I want to do an attitude song where a drifter, instead of riding a horse, is riding a motorcycle and make it Western theme but bring to modern day time. In the name of love, this drifter in the matter of days meets his soul mate, and she's wilder and crazier and maybe even meaner than he is. And you tell what goes on. It happens fast. He's probably been drifting all over the world on his motorcycle for years and probably encounters all kinds of different relationships, but this one was different. He met his soul mate." And Rivers said, "OK. Where are we going to go with this song?" I said, "Well, it's that moment where Thelma & Louise at the end of the movie go forward, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid jump, and things like that. One of those moments where cards are on the table, bluff's over, how much do you love me, bullets are in the gun, can we pull the trigger or are we going to get shot? Are we going to shoot or are we going to give ourselves up? How far are we going to go?" And we wrote with that whole thing in mind. I love this song.
Can you talk about the live cuts on the deluxe edition? Are they some of your bus songs?
God, let's not have any more bus songs. [laughs] First of all, I've got a side project called Incognito Bandito. It's all the sessions guys playing on all my album. I heard one of them say that he works sometimes with Delbert McClinton, and another one say he goes out with Mark Knopfler; different guys that they go play with when they're not in the studio. They're the greatest players, the sessions players. And I said, "Do you guys ever get the way I get, where you just want to go to a bar and do cover songs?" And they said, "All the time." And I asked, "Why don't we do that?" So I came up with the name Incognito Bandito. I said, "Let's put out one t-shirt that says Incognito Bandito, just a black t-shirt. Let's play bars." We know we won't make a lot of money, because the bars are not going to be as big. And for the set list, we all want to play blues and country blues. That was one qualification. And the second one is don't play songs that you would go to a bar and hear bands covering. Make it stuff that you might hear on classic country, blues or oldie stations. The first song that came out was 'Sundown' by Gordon Lightfoot. Everybody loves that song. You probably wouldn't walk in a bar in downtown Nashville or anywhere in the U.S. and hear a band cover it. We do 'Mexican Blackbird' by ZZ Top, 'Chug-a-Lug' by Roger Miller, 'Waymore's Blues' by Waylon Jennings and 'Shambala' by Three Dog Night. You hear this fantastic roadhouse band up there playing, and we don't advertise. Just word of mouth will fill the room. It's the funnest thing I've done in my whole career. It's absolutely a breath of fresh air.
You include 'Chug-a-Lug' and 'Sundown' on the deluxe edition of this album. How did those songs find a special place in your musical heart?
If you went back to the first pickup I had in the cassette tape days, I had three boxes of cassettes in there, so there are probably 90 albums. There would be seven or eight Willie, seven or eight Merle [Haggard], four or five Charlie Daniels, some Billy Joel, some Elton John, some Eagles, Bob Seger, Roger Miller, a few Johnny Cash, Hoyt Axton and a couple Dolly Parton. As you go through that box, the one common denominator is that every one of those are singer-songwriters. I didn't set out and say that I refuse to buy a stylists' album. There are great stylists, but it's like subconsciously I just gravitated toward singer-songwriters. I was more impressed and amazed and a bigger fan of the ones who wrote songs no matter how famous they were. I didn't care. I like Elvis [Presley] and I think he was one of the greatest singers. As great of a singer as he was, I still think he's an underrated singer. I think people put more into his swivel hips and all of the sexual stuff that went on about his career – I mean he was a fantastic singer! One of the last live recordings he did, 'Unchained Melody,' a few weeks before he died, is one of the greatest vocals I've heard in any song ever. It's phenomenal. But that didn't freak me out and get me going like a Hoyt Axton or somebody who wasn't as famous. Hoyt was amazing to me, and there was a time when Willie wasn't famous, but Willie wrote 'Crazy'! It was just an early bond to that and, after I was grown, I'd look back and thought they said, "Oh what was in your box?" I started naming everything I had in my box, even down to my KISS tape. KISS wrote their songs. It was just some connection I had with people that would express themselves through creative writing.
You've said in the past that you're sometimes happier with some records more than others. Where does 'Bullets in the Gun' fall?
This is my favorite album in five or six years. You're always happy to get your new stuff out there. The last album, 'American Ride' – I loved 'American Ride' and the song, but I've got a little secret I'm gonna reveal. For years, I carried a little voice recorder around to collect my thoughts for songwriting, but they're like sunglasses – you lose them, then you don't have a back-up and it's gone. You might have 20 great ideas on it, but it's gone, somebody else has got it, where did it go? There's an iPhone app voice recorder, and you always have your phone with you and it's backed up every time you dock it at home. So if you lose your phone, you're only going to lose whatever you put on there since you docked it last. I can't lose them, and I started keeping these thoughts. When I started writing this year for this album, I had six or seven melodies and hooks and ideas logged in there, and it just turned me up another notch. It's the greatest thing to songwriting, for me, since they invented the pencil. It's just that big of an invention for me. As simple as that sounds, the quality of the ideas -- you only have so many ideas in a year to write -- was turned up tremendously, and it just showed through on the songwriting on this album.
The video for 'Trailerhood' is hilarious. Tell us about the shoot, because that had to be fun.
We went to a trailer park about 30 miles outside of Nashville. It was an older trailer park. The stylist had dressed up seven or eight of the cast members to play these characters. While we were shooting, I was looking around and they had the yellow tape around. We've invaded this trailer park, and it's a big deal for them to have a video shot there. They're all standing up behind the tape, drinking beer. That guy ain't got a shirt on; that kid hadn't got any underwear on; that kid is sunburned; this one over here, her shirt isn't covering her belly. I said, "Why don't you bring everyone of those guys over here, set them around this lawn chair, and let's sing the chorus together ... no actors, just those people." The director was like, "Whatever you want." So they bring them over, and when you look at the video and see them, that's the way they got up and started their day. No one went back and said, "Let me go change my shirt" or "Let me put a shirt on my kid." It's the way people live like that, and that is authentic. I lived in one when I was 22 years old and everything in that song was stole right out of that 'trailerhood' I lived in. There was a guy who three nights a week had poker, and there was a guy over here that I never saw working, he was always just sitting by that plastic pool that he had in his yard – it was about 12 feet wide and four-feet deep. I said, "Don't you got a job? Don't you ever work?" and he goes, "I teach driving school at night." I'm like, "Perfect! You drink all day and teach driving school at night. That works alright." [laughs] I just took all of that and wrapped it up and put it in that song. After we shot the people that were authentic around me, my manager looked over at the stylist and said, "Toby probably just won you a stylist award if they give those things away, because they're gonna think a stylist dressed all those people up and they're cast." That was the Wal-Martians right there, baby. [laughs]
You wrote or co-wrote every track on 'Bullets,' which we know was important to you. Did you even consider outside songs for this album?
Once every two or three years, somebody hits me in the face [with a song] that I gotta record, but it's got to be something that when you hear me do it, you think I wrote it. It's gotta be that much me, those don't come along very often. I was a songwriter before I got to town. I happened to become an artist. Somebody asked me, "When you retire some day and you're not singing anymore, what are you gonna do with your spare time?" I said, "Write songs." [laughs] That's my gig. I'm blessed; I do it better than I do anything else. I live my life everyday living and absorbing life, and everything I see is a potential song. That's the product, that's what the factory kicks out of me. Creative writing is a gift that's very difficult to teach. You've gotta have a knack for it. You can get better at anything through practice and doing it, but you have to have the gift first. It's really difficult to teach another musician that has never written a song and that doesn't have that blessed gift. It's like me watching somebody paint an oil painting and go, "I could never do that, how do you do that?" I just don't think I could ever be really, really good at it. I could try – I'm trying right now, by the way, I'm doing some oil paintings, but it's difficult for me to see how easily Bob Ross, that guy that used to teach on TV -- yeah, happy clouds, friendly trees, pretty friend over here -- he'll take that blade, and it's kind of a putty knife looking thing, and he'll cut him off a little white paint and he'll stick it up there and with such a feathered touch, he'll drag that knife down that board, and it makes the paint break like snow on the mountains. And I take a little bit of it and I put it up there and I go down it and it looks like a big white smear just comes down and I'm going, "How in the hell?" I see that in songs. When you try to teach somebody how to do that, it's like "I don't get where you ..." They just don't see it; they're just amazed by it. It's just that gift, and it's what I do everyday. Fortunately, when I go to record, I've got this big pile of songs to pick from and I'm grateful that I've got a vehicle to send them to, which is the artist side of me. But somebody would be cutting those songs if I wasn't, they're quality songs.