On April 20, 1993, Toby Keith released his self-titled debut album.
A former oil industry worker and semi-pro football player, Keith was discovered after a friend of his — a woman who worked as an American Airlines flight attendant — slipped his demo to another pal of hers, music executive Harold Shedd. A record deal with Mercury Records followed, as did his debut full-length record.
Toby Keith was launched with the hit single “Should’ve Been a Cowboy.” Co-produced by Nelson Larkin and Shedd — who also co-produced Toby Keith — and written by Keith himself, the song is about a man wistful for a different kind of life; more precisely, the protagonist of “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” feels as if he’d fit in better elsewhere, in a place where he had a little more freedom, both emotionally and spatially.
“‘Go west, young man,’ haven’t you been told? / California’s full of whiskey, women and gold,” Keith sings. “Sleeping out all night beneath the dessert stars / Dream in my eye and a prayer in my heart.”
Musically, the song is relatively simple and streamlined — pedal steel and honky-tonk guitar dominate — which makes room for a catchy, buoyant hook and Keith’s twangy vocals. “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” hit No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs Billboard chart, and ended up being the most-played country song of the 1990s on the radio, having received well over 3 million spins overall as of 2010.
As Toby Keith demonstrated, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” was just one example of Keith’s songwriting talents and musical versatility. “He Ain’t Worth Missing” is an ’80s pop-reminiscent ballad, while “Under the Fall” is more upbeat, and recalls the honky-tonks where Keith cut his teeth. “Valentine,” meanwhile, is a piano-driven, pedal steel-augmented song about being lovesick — and “Ain’t No Thing” is a throwback slow dance combining country flourishes with soul accents.
Even Toby Keith‘s covers — the vintage-sounding strut “Some Kinda Good Kinda Hold on Me” and the Southern rock-oriented, boogie-woogie “A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action” — sound like Keith could’ve written them. Both songs fit his outlaw cowboy aesthetic.
Charts-wise, Toby Keith was a hit: The platinum-certified album peaked at No. 17 on the country albums chart and No. 99 on the Billboard Top 200. On the singles chart, Keith fared even better: All four of the album’s singles landed in the Top 5 of the Hot Country Songs chart, with both “A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action” and “Wish I Didn’t Know Now” topping out at No. 2.
Keith obviously remains proud of his debut, as he still plays “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” here and there in concert. In fact, to commemorate the milestone single and album, he called his 2018 tour dates the Should’ve Been a Cowboy XXV Tour. For good measure, at the 2018 ACM Awards, Keith and Blake Shelton even teamed up for a cover of the song.
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