Did Toby Keith Really Help Launch Taylor Swift’s Career?

It’s been heartening to see the frankly surprisingly positive sentiments about Toby Keith from a majority of music and media outlets in the aftermath of Keith’s death. From Rolling Stone to The New York Times, outlets that tend to take advantage of these situations to use an individual as a punching bag did not in this case, and instead delved into the complex and nuanced nature of Toby Keith’s career and character.

Aside from a small segment of embittered [Dixie] Chicks fans (who prove their lack of knowledge on the subject by not dropping the [Dixie] from their name), most everyone is recognizing the major and important impact Toby Keith had on American culture at large. Maybe the rabid polarization of society isn’t as all-consuming as we previously believed.

But there is one point of order about Toby Keith that probably deserves to be clarified. Though in the aftermath of the death of people, you want to say positive things—and if you enter the realm of embellishment that’s probably more acceptable than in other circumstances—saying that Toby Keith was the impetus behind Taylor Swift’s career, or even a significant player, is misleading at best, if not outright false.

Did Toby Keith play a very minor role in the initial signing of Taylor Swift to her first deal as a performer? Sure. As the money man who was there to help Big Machine Records President Scott Borchetta get the label off the ground, he had some role in that process. But did Toby Keith discover Taylor Swift? No. Did Toby Keith develop, mentor, or shepherd Taylor Swift’s career? No. Was he involved in the creation of her music in any capacity? No. Did he sign her to his label? Not really.

Instead, Keith acted simply as a financial facilitator that helped launch the Big Machine label where Swift would ultimately begin her meteoric rise.

The misconception that Toby Keith helped launch Taylor Swift’s career comes from a now viral clip taken from a Channel 4 WSMV news story shot in 2005 that features a 15-year-old Taylor Swift singing and talking about her career. The pertinent part of the feature starts, “[Taylor Swift came to Nashville last year writing her own songs, singing them, and hoping someone would like them. Toby Keith did, so much so that he just signed her to his new record label. That makes them partners.”

Taylor Swift then says, “You’re in the room with him and you can feel it. There’s a power there. And you’re just like ‘Oh my God.” So I do think I will ever get to a point where I’ll see him and be like, ‘Oh my God that’s Toby Keith.'”

But notice that it’s the reporter that gives Toby Keith the credit, not Taylor Swift. Swift simply says she’s star struck when standing in the same room with the guy.

So then who does deserve credit for helping launch Taylor Swift’s career? First and foremost it is Scott Borchetta. Borchetta is the man who first met Taylor Swift in 2004 when she was signed to Sony/ATV as a songwriter and was in a development deal with RCA. Borchetta then saw her again perform at an industry showcase at the legendary Bluebird Cafe in 2005, and decided to do what nobody else was willing to do in Nashville, which was to give Taylor Swift as an actual performing and recording contract as opposed to a development deal.

Before starting Big Machine Records, Scott Borchetta was a music executive at DreamWorks Nashville, which was a label founded by David Geffen in the late ’90s. Borchetta himself was the son of another label executive, Mike Borchetta. Scott had moved to Nashville when he was 16 when his father started his own label.

Once Scott Borchetta knew that he wanted to sign Taylor Swift, what happened next was sort of a convoluted set of circumstances that can get bogged down in details. But long story short, DreamWorks dissolved in September of 2005, Toby Keith started his own label called Show Dog, and Scott Borchetta started Big Machine. But since Toby Keith was the guy with the money due to all the major hits he had at the time, he helped seed Big Machine with the money to get off the ground, and Big Machine was initially an imprint or subsidiary of Show Dog.

Show Dog and Big Machine were basically sister labels for a short period, but Taylor Swift was never signed to Show Dog. She was signed to Big Machine. Though some overlook this fact, Taylor Swift was not in fact the first signee to Big Machine. It was actually Texas country artist Jack Ingram.

Big Machine and Show Dog officially split in 2006 shortly after Swift’s first single “Tim McGraw” was released, but Toby Keith kept his stake in the company as an investor. Though we don’t know exactly how large that investment continued to be, it was sizable. Also, Taylor Swift’s father had invested $120,000 in Big Machine for 3% stake in the company. This is where the idea that Swift’s dad “bought her career” comes from.

Long story short, Toby Keith was simply a behind-the-scenes financial investor that helped launch Big Machine Records. His direct or even indirect involvement in Taylor Swift’s development and career were marginal. In fact, by enacting his pound of flesh on Big Machine through his initial investment in the label, Scott Borchetta, and indirectly, Taylor Swift were having to pay Keith well beyond any involvement, which according to some, led to animosity.

“Toby’s a really smart businessman,” Borchetta once told Forbes. “I send him checks.” Keith’s continued investment in Big Machine is one of the reasons he continuously topped the Forbes list of highest paid country entertainers well past the time that Keith was landing hits on country radio. As Saving Country Music said in its obituary for Toby Keith, his significance as a businessman in country music cannot be overstated.

The two other people who also deserve significant credit for the rise of Taylor Swift are songwriter Liz Rose, and producer/musician Nathan Chapman. Like Borchetta, both of these people believed in Taylor Swift when nobody else did, and invested significant amounts of their own time to seeing Swift’s career take off. Rose would meet with Swift every day after school to help hone her songs, though Rose insists they were always Taylor’s ideas. Nathan Chapman became Swift’s one man band, recording demos and eventually her full songs almost solely playing and producing the music himself.

The reason the now viral local news segment about Taylor Swift and Toby Keith probably singled out Toby Keith is because in 2005, Keith was one of the biggest artists in all of country music, and nobody knew who Scott Borchetta was, let alone Liz Rose or Nathan Chapman. But these are the three people who deserve the lion’s share of the credit for Taylor Swift’s ascent.

Unfortunately though, news stories tying Toby Keith to Taylor Swift’s success now abound on the internet. Some have even used this growing misconception that Toby Keith was Taylor Swift’s benefactor to lash out at Swift for not acknowledging the death of her once super important “partner.”

Journalist and political commentator Matt Couch called out Swift on X/Twitter, saying, “Going to be interesting to see what [Swift] says about Toby Keith.. Without Toby Keith there wouldn’t be a Taylor Swift.. Toby signed her to his record label and gave her, her start..”

But it’s really hard to defend that characterization. Country artist/political commentator John Rich also chimed in, “When is Taylor Swift going to share some words about Toby Keith? The man who discovered her, got her the 1st record deal? Taylor, where are you today? #TobyKeith”

But again, Toby Keith did not discover Taylor Swift. This is how the mischaracterizations of a media story can reverberate into a monster of a misconception. Maybe Taylor Swift should say something, but she’s been a little busy lately.

Let’s not entirely discount that Toby Keith did play some very minor role in the rise of Taylor Swift. Sure he did. But not in the capacity that justifies the headlines and characterizations you’re seeing online, or the vitriol landing at Taylor Swift’s feet.

Ultimately, it was Taylor Swift’s own ambition, and her own songs that caught on and helped make her a superstar.

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