Toby Keith was born and raised in Oklahoma. As he sings on his new album's first single, his grandmother owned a nightclub on the Arkansas-Oklahoma line, and it's there he first got the itch for performing the country music he'd heard in his father's record collection. Early jobs included rodeo work, climbing oil rigs and semi-pro football, but music soon became his focus. His apprenticeship was served with bar gigs and independent recording projects.
Signed to Mercury by Alabama-producer Harold Shedd, Keith introduced himself to country fans nationwide with "Shoulda Been A Cowboy" in 1993. The No. 1 smash paved the way for three more hits, "Wish I Didn't Know Now," "A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action" and "He Ain't Worth Missing," and Keith's self titled debut album went on to sell more than two million copies.
His next three albums, Boomtown, Blue Moon and Dream Walkin' generated an enviable body of hit singles. Titles include "Who's That Man," "You Ain't Much Fun," "Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine On You," "Me Too," "Dream Walkin'" and "We Were In Love." Even with this level of airplay success, Keith's career was not progressing and his relationship with the label was increasingly tumultuous.
Problems came to a head as Keith was completing work on his next album. The title track first single "How Do You like Me Now?!" was flatly rejected by Mercury and he was released from his contract. Keith's producer James Stroud was running the Nashville division of startup DreamWorks, which soon signed Keith. And though the new company was competing in a market dominated by increasingly consolidated conglomerates, the move initiated an era of explosive growth for artist and label alike.
"How Do You Like Me Now?!" became a multi-week No. 1 and an anthem for Keith's emerging status as a true superstar. Subsequent single "Country Comes To Town" and "You Shouldn't Kiss Me Like This" returned him to platinum sales status. The next release, Pull My Chain, kicked out three huge hits in "I'm Just Talkin' About Tonight," "I Wanna Talk About Me" and "My List" on the way to double platinum.
Keith's next single release, "Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)" was written in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The song became an emotional rallying cry in the war on terror, and the title was painted on tank cannons and warplanes during the hunt for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
"Courtesy" helped the 2002 release of Unleashed to a No. 1 country debut, and was followed by the hits "Who's Your Daddy?" and "Beer For My Horses," a duet with Willie Nelson. The album eventually surpassed four million in sales, and the national furor over Keith's patriotic anthem cemented his place not only as the genre's top superstar, but also as a household name.
The following year saw the release of Shock'N Y'all and its three multi-week No. 1s "I Love This Bar," "American Soldier" and "Whiskey Girl." The disc entered the all-genre album chart at No. 1 and is currently well past triple platinum. His Greatest Hits 2 collection, released late last fall, is already nearing triple platinum and established yet another hit in Keith's repertoire, "Stays In Mexico."
Along the way he became one of country's top live draws, regularly ranking as a top ticket sellers in any genre. The Academy of Country Music named him Entertainer of the Year in 2003 and 2004, representing just two of the literally dozens of peer-voted, fan-voted and industry achievement awards he has received.
The latest career retrospective marked another turning point in Keith's career, however, as the phenomenal five-year run at DreamWorks made the label an acquisition target. Now under the Universal Music Group/Nashville umbrella, Toby Keith finds himself back with the company that first signed and dropped him. And so the first studio release from his latest circumstance carries all the import of predecessors Toby Keith and How Do You Like Me Now?! Thankfully, it lives up to its lineage.
Honkytonk University is perhaps best described as a career album, in the sense that only a performer as accomplished and artistically mature as Keith could both acknowledge his past and look to the future in one cohesive release. The disc nods at different eras in his life and career on the title track, "I Got It Bad," and the Merle Haggard duet "She Ain't Hooked On Me No More." And yet he's never recorded anything quite like "Big Blue Note," nor been as boldly funny and slightly self-deprecating as he is on "As Good As I Once Was."
In short, Toby Keith has reached that hallowed place where everything he does musically seems so effortless. Except, of course, when you stop to consider how much work it took for him to get there.