Toby Keith Rides Tavern-Built Songs to Songwriters Hall: 'This One's the King Daddy'

Toby Keith
Richard McLaren

Toby Keith

When Toby Keith takes the spotlight on June 18 at the Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony in midtown New York, he could draw from more than 40 bona fide hits for a performance.

He might also do the unexpected and play the title track from Clancy's Tavern. The song was never a single, but Keith's discography is littered with songs centered on bars -- "As Good As I Once Was," "I Love This Bar," "Hope on the Rocks" and "Honkytonk U," to name a few -- and "Clancy's Tavern" is specifically about the bar that set up his songwriting career.

His grandmother, Hilda Marie "Clancy" Martin, ran the place -- Billy Garner's Supper Club in Fort Smith, Ark. -- and "Clancy" gives an idea of the setting: a smoke-filled joint with working-class regulars who know her by name, live bands filling the air beginning at 9 p.m., and Martin counting the receipts at the end of the night with a loaded pistol at her side for protection.

She was clearly a strong woman. And she had a strong influence on Keith's ultimate career path.

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"I'd stay with her in the summertime," he remembers. "She bought me a guitar, and I learned a few chords and put it away, and came back as a teenager and picked it back up and started trying to write songs. And here I stand at the doorway of something really special."

Something special indeed. Keith and Bobby Braddock ("He Stopped Loving Her Today," "People Are Crazy") are the newest country-centric additions to the Songwriters Hall, which represents composers across all genres. It puts them alongside such country stalwarts as Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson, but also among such non-country figures as Cole Porter, Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson and John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

While Keith is a proven hitmaker, a major live attraction and a successful businessman, this month's induction into the Songwriters Hall is "my favorite accomplishment," he says. "That's what I started out doing before I ever even went to Nashville. I just happened to trick 'em into thinking I was an artist, too."

It's fairly safe to say that Toby Keith the artist would not have reached multiplatinum success without Toby Keith the songwriter. His songs have often gone against the grain, setting him apart from the rest of the genre. The boastful revenge of "How Do You Like Me Now?!" spent five weeks at No. 1 on Hot Country Songs in 2000, a contrast from the adult contemporary flavor that dominated that year's chart-topping singles, such as Faith Hill's "Breathe" and Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance."

Keith wrote and released a bevy of songs about alcohol -- "Beer for My Horses," "Whiskey Girl," "I Love This Bar," "Stays in Mexico" -- after country had experienced a long, self-imposed dry spell surrounding the topic.

His songs have also been populated with the occasional word or image that is so unusual or unsettling it becomes a defining piece. The most famous of those moments -- when he inserted the line "We'll put a boot in your ass" in the 9/11-reaction song "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" -- created a polarizing single that still went to No. 1. In other, less controversial instances, the uncommon-to-songwriters word "roughneck" is key to the chorus in "When Country Comes to Town," "electricity" is bolted into "You Shouldn't Kiss Me Like This," and Keith boldly rhymes "Pasadena" with "basketball arena" in "Honkytonk U."

"It's not intentional," insists Keith. "I think it's from growing up and listening to Roger Miller records. He rhymed 'purple' with 'maple syruple,' you know."

Some of Keith's most provocative departures from the norm -- the "boot in your ass" reference and the lynch-mob hanging in "Beer for My Horses" -- have made him a cartoonish figure to his detractors. But to assess Keith solely on such songs is a disservice. His 2012 single "Hope on the Rocks" is a tightly knit character study of the regulars in a neighborhood bar. His 2003 ballad "American Soldier" adroitly visits the emotions and the challenges behind the uniform of a typical working-class enlistee. "Who's That Man" effectively captures a divorced father who's tortured by being replaced in his own nuclear family.

As much swagger as he has put out for the public, there's still a sensitive guy underneath it all. There has to be if he's going to empathize with the vulnerabilities of those characters during the writing process.

"I don't think I completely become that person, but I look through that person's eyes," he says. "You have to do that. If you're trying to express a feeling, it's hard to say how somebody else feels. You have to kind of think how you'd feel if you were in that situation."

Keith's image as a rabble-rouser, the guy who helps set the tone for a party, wasn't always part of his public persona. He built the early part of his career in somewhat typical fashion for the '90s, mixing story songs, uptempo numbers and ballads. But "How Do You Like Me Now?!" changed everything. He walked away from his first recording deal and bought the masters, and that kiss-off song was the first single when he arrived at DreamWorks. It launched him to a new level on the concert circuit, which soon changed the inspiration behind much of his music.

"You'd have a big tailgate party all day, and then the opening acts start about 6:30, and then you hit the stage and everybody's already up and running, feeling good, and then you go out there and you just got all that electricity," he says. "Doing that for the last 15 years puts me where I'm writing in that environment a lot, and you're inspired by that environment, so [the music] took a switch to the party songs and the more uptempo kind of thing. There's just not many ballads that come out of that."

Ultimately, the music connected. At his commercial peak, presumably in the mid-2000s, Keith was at a BMI event where Graham Nash told him the accepted rumor around the party was that Keith's songs had single-handedly accounted for 1 percent of BMI's revenue that year. Executives declined to pinpoint that percentage for Keith, but he figures once songwriters outside of country began to understand how much he was generating, it increased the likelihood that he would one day arrive in the Songwriters Hall.

That day is just a couple weeks away. But it wouldn't be a big surprise if -- after he pays homage to his grandmother Clancy -- Keith also takes a few seconds during his acceptance speech to question some prominent omissions. Miller, Merle Haggard and Mel Tillis are all missing from the hall.

"It really makes you scratch your head how they get left out," says Keith.

That doesn't mean he won't be happy to accept his own induction. Songwriting is, after all, the centerpiece of his career.

"I've got a warehouse full of awards and plaques and stuff like that," says Keith. "But this one's the king daddy."

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update newsletter -- sign up here.


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