The Songwriters Hall of Fame inducted Toby Keith two years ago and the Academy of Country Music gave him the Poet's Award this year – exceedingly high songwriting honors amidst a career chock full of them. And with good reason.
The list of writer-artists in any genre who have achieved or exceeded the collective airplay Keith has amassed is quite short. Artistic and commercial achievements aren't the reasons he writes, however. Neither are awards. No,
songwriting isn't something Toby Keith does. Songwriting is who he is.
Sure, there are songwriting appointments and a few close collaborators who join him on the road when an album's coming together. But there's also an unending torrent of lyrics and song titles being stored on his cell phone.
Ideas and melodies are surfacing in everyday conversation, rising up from an old memory or jumping out during a round of golf. In fact, the only time Toby Keith turns off his songwriting is when he's asleep or incapacitated
– and even then a song might result. (That story comes later.) And so it is that throughout his career he's written songs for reasons that have nothing to do with advancing his career. He calls them bus songs.
"As long as I've been writing, there's always been that one you had some fun with, but knew it wasn't for anything else," he explains. "You're sitting around, somebody's got a little groove
going and somebody says something funny or risqué off the cuff. And the song just peels out pretty quick. Everybody's laughing and you're really having more fun writing than the song is good."
Don't tell that to Keith's fans. Bus songs have become among the most beloved tunes in his catalog precisely for that spontaneity and humor. That affection stretches back to an appearance on the syndicated Bob & Tom
radio show. "They asked if we ever write songs we don't want to record," Keith says. "Either that time or the next time on the show, we sang a song called 'Star Kissed' and 'Weed With Willie.'
They put it up on their website and a few days later called us back to say it was one of the most downloaded things they'd ever had on their site."
That was just the beginning. "We started doing those songs in concert and it just grew from there. They got no radio airplay, but everywhere we sang them, the crowd had already found 'em." Soon, Keith was adding a
bus song to his albums as a "curveball," further cementing
their place in his canon. All the while, new bus songs were being written.
"There's plenty we can't even put on a record at all – so bad you can't hardly play them anywhere," Keith admits. "Eventually, though, you had enough that don't go too far and people can laugh at.
I had them all piled up and somebody asked if I'd ever thought of putting all the bus
songs out as one album. I had 'Shitty Golfer' and 'Wacky Tobaccy' that I hadn't done anything with, so I was able to add a couple new ones."
"Shitty Golfer" originated at Keith's hometown golf club as he was debating the merits of tournament handicaps with his golf pro. "I was explaining to him that I thought the two-man system was unfair and some
guy in the club popped off, 'Hey, do you need a cry towel? Just go get in the hole.' He was drunk, of course. I asked him if he was a good golfer and he said, 'I'm a scratch.' So I asked if he was on TV and
he said he wasn't. So I told him, 'The good golfers get
on TV, so you're a shitty golfer like the rest of us.' Then I went home and wrote the song because I am a shitty golfer. We all are ... unless we're on TV. I just wrote it because it needed to be
written." And not, clearly, with any aspirations of radio airplay.
Likewise, "Wacky Tobaccy" sprung from a random conversation. "There's an old dude I know who comes out to the race track a lot and he said that phrase one night," Toby says. "I hadn't heard that
term in years, but I remember my dad saying it. There are so many new cool
words for weed that somewhere along the way that became a real throwback. But what a slogan. Somebody needed to write that, so I thought about how my dad might have used it, and that's the
first verse. Then we rhymed up all the things we've heard it called and I thought, there's a good bus song."
Several bus songs were products of Keith's frequent USO Tours including "Call A Marine" and "Runnin' Block." "When you land a helicopter in the desert and you're sitting around a forward operating
base with 30 soldiers for an hour, I'm not under the belief that every
single one is a country music fan, or a Toby fan," he says. "But it is a bunch of guys and I'm thinking to myself, 'Well, offer them something.' So I ask if they've ever been somebody's wingman,
but you get set up with a bad date? His wasn't so bad but yours weighed 300 pounds?
"I know that stuff may not be socially acceptable, but I don't care. It's not for that. It served a purpose and got a bunch of guys in the middle of a desert high-fiving each other. We're just eating lunch, giving
them a 30-minute smile, taking pictures, handing over their USO gift
and then jumping on the chopper to the next one."
Keith's dismissal of convention aside, several songs offer insight into how he'll let the pressure off when things go too far. For instance, "Brand New Bow." "I heard someone ask my dad what he got his wife
for Valentine's Day and he said, 'I tied a brand new bow around the same old thing.' And I said, 'I'm writing that, no question.' But I thought it was funny to make the guy in the song more of a dumbass.
He's telling her happy birthday while drunk as a sort of booty call."
Likewise, "Get Out Of My Car," which was Bobby Pinson's idea. "This guy is pretty hardcore after what he wants, all the way to the very end when he gets out of his clothes and she gets out of the car," Keith
says. "You've got to make that turn where it isn't just a landslide. You
have to be able to laugh at yourself as much as anybody else."
"The Critic" is probably the collection's most pointed song. And yes, Keith had someone in mind. "She gave me an 'F' on my first album and on this Triple Play tour I was on. Then I came out with four
No. 1s and sold a million records and no one went back to tell her she was a
shitty teacher with her grading. Another guy got on me in a show review, but never talked about my music. He couldn't find a parking space, the lights were too bright and it was just, 'You suck.'
So I figured I'd write about it. After the song came out I was doing an interview with this one guy and he kept coming back to that song, so I asked if it got under his skin. He said it had and I replied, 'Now you know
how we feel.'"
Fittingly, the bus song that started it all is also the one with the best backstory. Epic, even. And it simply can't be retold too many times. "I had the night off in Vegas and Charles Barkley, who's a friend of mine,
was having a birthday party at the Rum Jungle at midnight,"
Keith says. "When he invited me he was like, 'You'll be there, right? Don't lie to me!' I promised him I'd be there. About 4pm, someone told us Willie was playing the Hacienda at eight. We went
to the show and Willie brought me up to do a couple songs. As I was walking off he said don't go anywhere, he wanted to holler at me on the bus.
"I went out there, he played me a song or two and asked to hear one I'd written with Scotty Emerick, and so we played that. Then he broke out a joint. Now, I'll smoke it, but it's never been my high. I'm
never in smoking shape and really can't handle my high very good. And
when you're dealing with Willie's stuff, you've got probably the best available to anybody. You know what you're dealing with. So I didn't smoke very much, but boy, I got shut in. I got off that bus and had
everything wrong with me you can get. I just told my folks, 'Take me straight to my room.' So on Saturday night in Vegas I laid down on my bed, alone in my room and missed everything.
"Got up the next morning and I had about 30 messages on my phone from everybody," Toby continues. "'Charles wanted to know where you were. What happened? What's going on?' Scotty called and I told him
the story. 'Well, I got on Willie's bus and I'll tell you what, I'll never
smoke weed with Willie again.'
"'By the way,' I said. 'We ought to write that.' We punched it up a little, but the song gets to the same conclusion as the real thing."
That, not coincidentally, is also how The Bus Songs got its title. Toby explains: "Someone asked if I was going to do a cut on 'Weed With Willie,' and I said, 'No, we can't cut it. That's just one you
sing on the bus with your friends after a show. It's a bus song.'"
Well "Weed With Willie" ended up being much more, and The Bus Songs are now a significant if lighthearted insight into exactly who Toby Keith is – a songwriter for all occasions. "We've probably got 35 or 40 of
these things and some of them are offensive in every way," he
says. "But they're poems and this is America, so we're allowed to do that. We love to laugh and have a great time, so these songs just happen naturally. And as long as people are grinning and enjoying themselves over
a beer, then that's okay."