Two veteran country superstars, Garth Brooks and Toby Keith, gave keynote speeches at this year’s Country Radio Seminar in Nashville, but despite having similar independent spirits, their takeaway messages were quite different.
Keith, who laid off five people at his label, Show Dog Nashville, in January, appeared nonchalant about whether his future involves continued airplay at country radio. Brooks on the other hand, has significantly staffed up his label, Pearl Records, in the last six months, and actively flattered and courted radio programmers during his address.
Both artists have amassed a string of hits since each charted his first, Brooks in 1989 and Keith in 1993. Brooks is working on another; current single “Baby, Let’s Lay Down And Dance” is currently at No. 16 on the Country Airplay chart.
Despite having signed a streaming deal last year with Amazon Music, Brooks had much more positive words about the future of terrestrial radio during his Feb. 23 address at the Omni Nashville hotel, saying it is “here forever … If I had to invest money I’d put it on terrestrial over streaming. Not knowing what the next song is but loving it when it gets there is the joy of terrestrial radio. You don’t get that with streaming.”
He also talked up the song “What I’m Thankful For (The Thanksgiving Song)” from his 2016 holiday album, drawing conjecture it might be chosen as a future single. After noting the song gets the same kind of reaction when he plays it in concert as his 1990 mega-hit “Unanswered Prayers,” Brooks suggested to the radio programmers present that they “play the hell out of it, see what happens.”
Elsewhere in his speech, Brooks thanked country radio repeatedly, praised the medium’s “art side,” and noted, “I think people are in radio because they just love music.”
During his speech the following day, Keith said he’ll keep writing the kinds of songs he likes and is comfortable with, regardless of current country music and radio trends. “If it works, it works,” he said. “And if it don’t, I don’t really care.”
At another point in the speech, Keith said of his longtime career philosophy, “I can live with it if I go down with my own ship. But if y’all are the captain, and my ship goes down, I can’t live with that.”
Keith also struck a defiant tone while speaking about his performance at the inauguration of President Trump in January, despite criticism he endured on social media as a result. “It you succumb to that pressure, it just divides us,” said Keith, who explained that every time he has been asked to serve by the administration of either political party he has said “yes.” He likened such appearances to the 240 USO shows he has performed for U.S. troops overseas over the last 11 years, saying both are a duty he’s happy to oblige. “The memories, the geography lessons, the history lessons, the friends I’ve made [on USO shows are] the reason you can look them in the eye and say, ‘I don’t have to apologize for playing the inauguration,’” he said.
Keith also claimed he privately got kudos from other artists for agreeing to perform in Washington, D.C. “A lot of people I know were committed [to play inaugural events] and backed out from the pressure, but texted me afterwards saying, ‘Good for you for going. My camp wouldn’t let me.’”