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Toby Keith


With "Should've Been A Cowboy", Toby Keith rode onto the country music horizon with the assuredness of a seasoned veteran. Perhaps it came from cutting his teeth on a string of one-night and one-week engagements in the honky tonks of Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana. Perhaps it came from the slow, methodical business approach that he's taken, such as buying a bus and finding a good manager before he took strides to find a record deal. But for whatever reason, Keith has shouldered the rigors of impending stardom with a grace shown by very few of today's crop of emerging young talents.

What's even more staggering than the success of his self- titled debut album is the new plateau that he is reaching with his sophomore effort, BOOMTOWN. On the strength of his first album, which launched two Number Ones and two Top 5 hits, Billboard named Keith the Top New Country Artist of 1993.

And now, BOOMTOWN eclipses his first album both in terms of performances and the songwriting. With BOOMTOWN, Keith achieves his goal of further building his credibility as a solid country singer while also establishing himself as a strong country songwriter.

"I had my whole life to write the first one and a year to come up with the second," Keith says. "It used to be that if I had a good idea, I could work on it until it was done. If it took years, that was OK.

"This time, if I had a good idea, I had to really work hard and get it done right, because there are no opportunities to waste," he says.

Viewing his career with a pragmatism like this is rare, but Toby Keith seems to be one of those artists who just gets it. Listening to the way he leans into the songs on BOOMTOWN, his instinctive sense of knowing when to push a line hard or pull back to an almost whisper, it's obvious this is a vocalist whose warm, mature baritone is a unique mixture of strength and subtlety.

And his writing is just as powerful and concentrated. To hear him sing the project's title track is to hear a voice that knows one must make the best of even desperation, as a boom goes bust right beneath him.

"I lived that song, watched it happen in Elk Town, Oklahoma," he says. "Elk Town went from being Small Town USA to Boomtown overnight, as they brought in 1,500 oil rigs and started pumping.

"For six years, you had corporate people coming in from Houston and Saudi Arabia," he says. "They built a Hilton, put a bar on every corner -- there was even prostitution. Everybody had money, even people who were living under overpasses, because there wasn't enough housing for everybody.

"Then the wells ran dry," he says. "The rich people got rich by saving their money. The fools who got it and spent it were broke. The Hilton couldn't maintain itself, so,it was sold for 10 cents on the dollar and is now a Mom and Pop hotel, even though it looks like a Hilton. And the guy in the song, well, he watched it come and he watched it go. He's switched over, moving real estate or whatever. It hasn't cost him anything, so he's trying to make another boom for himself out of the bust."

Keith comes by his credentials as a blue-collar poet honestly. He grew up on an Oklahoma farm and worked for a rodeo during his summers in high school. In addition to working on the oil rigs in Oklahoma, where he worked his way up from roughneck to operational manager, he has test-ridden bulls and broncos for rodeos and played two seasons for the Oklahoma City Drillers, a farm team for the now defunct USFL. When the USFL folded and the oil boom went bust, Keith decided to focus his time and energy on his music. A hard day's work is something Keith knows firsthand -- and he brings that sense of reality to his music.

By 1988, Keith and his band, Easy Money, had broken out of the competitive Texas-Oklahoma dance club circuit to play more lucrative gigs at bigger clubs. He purchased a Silver Eagle bus and recorded several of his original songs on an independent label, which were good enough to receive praise in Billboard.

He began making trips to Nashville, handing out tapes to anyone who would accept. By chance, one night he met Harold Shedd, who is now president of Polydor Nashville, and he had a mutual friend give Shedd a tape. To Keith's amazement, Shedd called him a few days later, flew out to one of his Oklahoma City shows and offered Keith a deal the next morning over breakfast. Shedd and Nelson Larkin produced TobyKeith.

Again teaming with producers Nelson Larkin and Harold Shedd, the trio has fashioned an album that will hit the airways with even more bang than his first album, which saw "Should've Been A Cowboy" and "Wish I Didn't Know Now" reach No. 1, "Ain't Worth Missing" hit No. 2 and "A Little Less Talk (And A Lot More Action)" move into the Top 5.

"We just went in and tried to do something better," Keith says. "I hope I've matured as a writer and an artist. And if that's the case, then it should show up.

"The difference this time, too, is that we've all done this before. The first time, the pickers came in and I haven't proved anything yet. There's no special reason to really go for it. They were all very professional and played great. But this time it seemed everybody was excited to be a part of this, and they really played some amazing stuff.

"Part of it may be that we all had a sense of each other," he says. "They'd been part of making the last one happen, so they wanted to bring even more to this record. All I know is that when the guys were coming in for overdubs, a bunch of them asked for tapes of different tracks to take home with them. I can't think of a better compliment."

Looking back to the basics seems to be the backbone of Keith's steady rise. While some rising artists succumb to the celebrity aspects brought about by success, Toby Keith still believes it's all about the music, and finding some truth in the songs he sings.

"You don't have to live 'em, just step back, flip the coin and imagine what it would be like," he says. "Take 'Who's That Man.' I looked at it from a hypothetical angle. I hate to think about it so bad, I can't even fathom how terrible it would feel to have someone else raising your kids. That to me is unimaginable. But I tried to put myself in that place, and that's where the song came from.

"And it's important being able to say what you'd say, especially if the song is light-hearted. With a song like 'Big Ol' Truck,' that's my sense of humor. It's just fun, but it's the way I'd say it."

Taking pride in what he does is something that's always marked him, even when he was working 70-hour weeks running casing on a drilling rig. Back then, he and his friends were playing at local honky tonks for beer and tips. But when the money started rolling in, there was only one thing to do: reinvest in their little band, which was called Easy Money. "We took everything and just kept buying cool gear with that money," he says. "That way we always knew we'd sound better than before."

The notion of building to success underscores Keith's whole program. And despite the success of his first album, which is approaching platinum status, Keith believes the real work is still ahead. And that's OK.

"Look, I don't just do ballads and I don't just do rockin' stuff," he says. "To me, it's about showing people everything you can do, because it always comes down to the fans."