Toby Keith likes to shock people.
So says his longtime friend — and now co-producer — Lari White.
She thinks shock value may be part of the reason Keith tapped her for his latest project. In fact, White teases that Keith hired her just so he could get on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to plug his story of the roughneck country star with the chick producer.
Shock value was almost certainly a factor in Keith’s writing and recording “Runnin’ Block” for the new CD. The album-closing ditty is about a guy who sleeps with an overweight woman (delicately referred to as a “jelly roll” in the song) solely so his friend can have a shot with her sister.
But when it came time to name the album, “White Trash With Money,” the first person Keith shocked was his own wife.
It seems Keith’s teenage daughter, Krystal, got into a toe-to-toe shouting match with a local “debutante,” as Keith tells the story, in their hometown of Norman, Okla. As the deb’s mother was pulling them apart, she indignantly pronounced Keith’s family “white trash with money.”
Keith’s wife was horrified. Keith was amused.
“I make a living being white trash,” he admits.
So one day he brought home the completed artwork for his new album—sporting the title his wife was certain to hate—and plunked it down on the kitchen counter for her perusal.
She still hasn’t forgiven him.
Keith remains amused.
Due April 11, “White Trash With Money” is the first album on Keith’s own label, Show Dog Nashville, following his well-publicized split with DreamWorks Records last year. It also represents a parting from his longtime producer James Stroud, the one-time head of DreamWorks’ Nashville division who is now co-chairman of Universal Music Group Nashville. (Show Dog has a distribution deal with Universal Music & Video Distribution.)
White, a songwriter/recording artist who is currently starring on Broadway in the musical “Ring of Fire,” is the wife of Keith’s longtime songwriting partner, Chuck Cannon.
After hearing her self-produced 2005 release, “Green Eyed Soul,” which Keith calls “such an impressive record,” and some production projects White had done with Billy Dean, Cannon and Keith’s daughter, he decided to try out a few demos with her in her Nashville-area studio, the Holler.
Two days and six songs into it the pair was clicking so well that it became obvious White would continue to produce the entire album with Keith.
“She’s got her own little bag of tricks,” Keith says of White’s production style. “I came away completely impressed.”
And White may or may not be pleased to hear Keith say, “I never one time looked at her as being a woman.”
What she created, White says, was a sound that is “a little more raw, less slick and earthier” than Keith’s previous work.
“Obviously Toby didn’t need [to do] anything different,” White says. “He was doing just fine with a string of hit records. But if any artist is going to have the kind of longevity they want, there has to be some evolution.”
For the project, White added an unexpected touch by tracking down noted Argentine string arranger George DelBarrio (Michael Jackson; Earth, Wind & Fire; Jeffrey Osborne). DelBarrio’s work can be heard on the planned second single, “A Little Too Late,” and two other songs.
White also put horns on some of the tracks, including first single “Get Drunk and Be Somebody.” She even had session drummer Shannon Forrest play cardboard boxes on a few others.
She also encouraged Keith to stretch out a bit as a singer. “Toby typically comes in and sings the song three times,” she says. But on this project there were songs where White urged Keith to try additional takes with different melodies. “He was really into it. I think he trusted me because I am a singer,” White says.
Scott Lindy, director of country programming for Sirius Satellite Radio, says Keith’s new album “will mark more evolution of sound and growth for Toby than any in the past. There is much of what Toby fans probably expect -— good-time party songs. But there are also songs of social commentary.”
As for Stroud, Keith says their split was about evolution, not any personal friction. “James made every record… that established my career.” But sometimes when you work with someone for a long time “you just run out of tricks.”
Keith remains open to working with Stroud again, or having one of his Show Dog acts work with the noted producer in the future.
Keith wrote “Get Drunk and Be Somebody,” a top 10 track on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart —- and most of the album —- with his bandmate and frequent collaborator Scotty Emerick, who was the first artist Keith signed to Show Dog.
(Keith and Emerick like to joke that they might one day write a sequel to “Get Drunk and Be Somebody,” with the follow-up focusing on waking up with a hangover, then getting drunk again in an effort to be somebody else.)
For several years Keith has enjoyed a well-earned place as one of country radio’s top-tier artists.
On TV, Keith will perform April 10 on the CMT Music Awards, April 11 on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” April 12 on “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson” and will tape an episode of “Ellen” April 17. He is also expected to make the rounds of the TV morning shows, and was recently featured in a profile on the Biography Channel.
Keith’s most recent album, “Honkytonk University,” released in June 2005 by DreamWorks Nashville, has sold 1.5 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Thirteen years into his career, and with 10 platinum or multiplatinum albums and 15 No. 1 singles to his credit, Keith has little left to prove. But just try telling him that.
He has thrown himself earnestly into the role of record-label executive, signing Emerick, Rebecca Lynn Howard, Lindsey Haun, Flynnville Train and a duo comprising former Little Texas member Tim Rushlow and his cousin, Donny Harris. (Sarah Johns, one of the first artists Keith signed and one of the opening acts on his Big Throwdown II tour, is no longer on the label.)
Haun is Keith’s co-star in his upcoming feature film debut, “Broken Bridges,” in which she plays his daughter. She also fronts what Keith calls a “thrash band” in Los Angeles.
As for Rushlow, Keith says he told him, “‘I’m not going to sign you unless you bring me something that makes me forget about Little Texas.’ I didn’t think he could do it, [but] he brought me 10 things that were great.”
Outside of his label venture, Keith is in business with Harrah’s on a successful chain of restaurants named for one of his songs, I Love This Bar & Grill. Three have opened and are doing well, and three more are planned for this year.
In “Broken Bridges,” due for release by Paramount later this year, Keith plays a major character he describes as “an old country songwriter that drank himself into a career coma.”
Keith calls his first movie-making experience “a complete joy.” He says he knew he would be “comfortable in front of the camera,” thanks to the many videos and TV commercials he has filmed. But he adds, “I surprised myself that I did as well as I did.”
He plans to do one or two films per year, including an upcoming one he wrote based on his hit song and video, “Beer for My Horses,” which he describes as being about a “fish-out-of-water cop.” Show Dog will release the soundtracks to all of his Paramount films, including “Broken Bridges.”
Keith recently wrapped the first leg of Big Throwdown II, and will hit the road again in August for about 50 more shows.