Toby Keith’s $300,000 Gamble on Willie Nelson

Toby Keith has good stories to tell and no reason not to tell them. The singer recently reflected on his long list of No. 1 hits, including a couple that he was told would never work.

“I Wanna Talk About Me” is an example. Talking to Taste of Country Nights, Keith shares that in those days (the early ’00s), radio airplay came so naturally to him that he’d record an album and dictate which four songs would become singles. All three singles from Pull My Chain reached the top of the charts, but it wasn’t without a fight from his record label, Dreamworks.

“The promotions staff just came up on my bus and said … ‘We wish you wouldn’t go with this song, we think it will tarnish your career,” Keith recalls of “I Wanna Talk About Me.”

“After arguing for about five minutes, my manager looked at them and said, ‘Don’t make yourself look stupid on this.’”

The song became a five-week No. 1 hit in late 2001. That bought him very little latitude. Eighteen months later, the singer wanted “Beer for My Horses” as the fourth single from Unleashed. It’d follow “Rock You Baby,” the only interruption to a three-album streak of No. 1 hits.

“They said, ‘We don’t think Willie can get played on the radio. We want to move on to the next album,’” Keith remembers, referring to Willie Nelson. “I said, no, we’re waiting. We’re gonna put this out. We’ve already got a $300,000 video … And it was a six-week No. 1.”

Even during a time when music videos were routinely big-budget affairs, $300K was expensive. “Beer for My Horses” was something of a mini-movie that finds Keith playing a homicide detective alongside Corin Nemec (Parker Lewis Can’t Lose). They bring in Nelson to help crack the case, and eventually, they do. The older country singer plays a retired but cagey veteran brought back in to profile the killer. It was filmed in Los Angeles.

In fairness, Nelson’s best radio days were 15 years behind him by that point, but the song created a resurgence of interest in his music and career. The following January they’d find themselves doing press prior to the Super Bowl in Houston. Several years later, there’d even be a Beer for My Horses movie, starring both men. That film didn’t receive as warm a reception as the song or music video, but the entire experience proved Keith’s point.

Earlier this month, Keith released a new album called Peso in My Pocket. It was his first in six years after releasing nearly an album a year for over a decade. The reason for the long break? Keith says that the pandemic stretched it out a little bit, but above all else, he recognized he’d lost his grip on that dependable radio airplay.

“So we just sat still a minute and said, ‘OK, we’ll just wait until it comes back around,'” he shares. “During COVID, people with big catalogs started getting lots of streams. I think the programmers saw that and came and asked us to put an album out. I said, ‘It’s a lot of work, man, if you’re not gonna play it.’”

So far they have played it. “Old School” is Keith’s new single and his highest-charting song in eight years.

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