That's one of the choices facing country music historians as they try to catalogue the artists who debuted during the 1990s. In most cases, they'll have no problem deciding which category to use; when they get to Toby Keith, however, they may discover a dilemma. Looking at the title of his latest album, How Do You Like Me Now?!, might make them lean toward the maverick designation, but once it hit stores they are leaning toward a mainstream match. Fitting Toby Keith into either presents a challenge - he's both, yet neither.
Since his 1993 debut single, "Should've Been a Cowboy," the Oklahoma native has racked up his share of mainstream success, both on radio and in record stores. He's scored six #1 Country hits (including "Cowboy") and earned nominations for Grammy, ACM and CMA awards. Still, Keith has always taken a maverick approach to his career and his music, never yielding to the "do it the Nashville way" philosophy of some Music City execs. Instead, Keith has steadfastly set his own pace, following his own artistic vision and finding his own place in the country music echelon. "Just gut feeling, I don't know any other way to do things," he says of his career outlook. The result of heeding these instincts? "My music life is perfect right now," the singer-songwriter declares.
Signing with DreamWorks Records in early 1999 was one of the keys to his current contentment. "Once in a while, the stars line up, and when they do, you can feel it," he remarks. "I've had five albums - four golds and a platinum - and I also threw a Christmas album in. This was all in a span of six years. I've been on a handful of labels, but at DreamWorks, they really rolled out the red carpet and treated me like a superstar. I couldn't ask for more than that."
For Keith, DreamWorks feels like family, beginning with his friendship with label head James Stroud. Stroud became Keith's producer with 1997's Dream Walkin'. "The friendship was established first," Keith reveals, "then came the music. We work hard in the studio, and when we're done, we expect it to be good. We expect it to work. We expect it to compete. When we're done, if James is jumping up and down like a Little League shortstop, then I don't have to go any further. We're very serious about making great music. We see eye-to-eye on that very well. When we leave the studio, I'll beat him out of money on the golf course, and we're back to just being friends again."
How Do You Like Me Now?! found Keith and Stroud seeing eye-to-eye on a dozen songs, nine of which Keith wrote or co-wrote. The title track is a rollicking, in-your-face statement about the self-confidence that lives deep down in everyone. Keith wrote the tune with Chuck Cannon, a frequent collaborator. Keith reveals: "Initially, I said, 'Here's my title: "You Never Loved Me Before, So How Do You Like Me Now?'" It's one of my catch-phrases. A lot of people become successful after they've been told they won't ever be, so people can relate to this. It can be about an old flame or a boss or a teacher -whatever it means to each individual. It was a fun song to write."
Lead radio track "When Love Fades" is a smoky showcase for Keith's vocal prowess in which he deftly captures the ache of waning passion. With "Blue Bedroom," toes will tap despite the fact that Keith is singing about a broken heart. "When Country Comes to Town" goes straight to the listener's inner-redneck with an energetic groove that's firmly rooted in the Muscle Shoals sound. "You Shouldn't Kiss Me" is a prime vehicle for expressing Keith's sensual side, while "Heart to Heart" (Stelen's Song)," written for Keith's son, is a nod to his tender, sentimental side.
Lyrically, Keith encompasses diverse themes, from the uncertainty of faltering love to the dependability of familial love. He's a born storyteller ("Die With Your Boots On") who's not afraid to expose his rawest emotions ("She Only Gets That Way With Me," "Do I Know You [Bottom of My Heart]"). Musically, Keith is often cited for his unconventional chord structures; his melodies frequently take an unexpected turn.
"I'm in the writing mode all the time," Keith states. "I just sit and wait on inspiration, and it usually comes. If it's slow, I just call up some of my great co-writin' friends, who also inspire me, and we go from there." Of the songs on How Do You Like Me Now?! that he did not write, he says: "I look for something that sounds unlike anything on the record, and I don't want anything middle-of-the-road. The three cuts on the album I didn't write are all kind of oddball songs."
Again, Keith relies on his musical conscience in making these selections: "Your gut tells you what you're gonna perform best. If you choose a song that's not right, you end up trying to be something you're not. You're gonna end up hitting a dead end - putting up a facade that people will eventually see through. You just have to do what you do."
As Keith's career indicates, he walks it like he talks it. From "Should've Been a Cowboy" to "Getcha Some" (from his 1998 hits compilation), he's followed his own road, allowing his music to evolve naturally while making sure each project is creatively refreshing, combining traditional sentiments with modern accents. "I've been fortunate to have a lot of success doing what I do," he says. "The fans have come to know that I'm gonna give 'em something just a little bit different -and they seem to like that."