A good barometer for where country music has been over the last few years, and where country music might be headed is the wild path of Toby Keith’s song “Don’t Let The Old Man In.” Written by Toby Keith himself and inspired by something filmmaker Clint Eastwood said to him, the song was originally released as part of Eastwood’s 2018 film The Mule.
“Don’t Let The Old Man In” is a great song, and a great performance by Toby Keith, no matter how you may feel about Toby Keith otherwise. People who feel one way about Toby Keith always seem confused that anyone would ever feel differently than they do about the singer. But undoubtedly, the sentiments about Toby Keith remain diametrically opposed.
Even in 2018 when the song was first released, Toby Keith was well outside of his relevancy on country radio, and a song like “Don’t Let The Old Man In” was in no way relevant to country radio either. But they sent the song to radio anyway, and it quickly stalled at #41 in the charts.
But on the otherwise terrible People’s Choice Country Awards in September, the now 62-year-old Toby Keith performed the song after coming back from stomach Cancer and being honored during the presentation. He floored the crowd both in attendance and watching on television, and it has given the song new life.
“Don’t Let The Old Man In” is a nearly five-year-old song. But due to the fractured nature of American popular media these days, for many it’s their first time ever hearing it. Combine that with the rather stark sight of a significantly more svelte Toby Keith after his recent health woes, and the song has touched a serious nerve.
Last week, “Don’t Let The Old Man In” was sent to country radio, and this week it debuts as the most added song on the format according to Mediabase. Big Machine Records is promoting the single, and has also taken out full page ads for it. The label seems committed to seeing it through this time, which is critical to the success of any song on radio.
Could a meaningful and well-written 5-year-old song from old man Toby Keith who’s a good decade removed from radio success really become a hit on country radio? We’ll have to see. But it’s off to a very promising start, and it’s another promising sign that country radio is finally starting to react to public sentiment and popularity. Some select stations had already picked up “Don’t Let The Old Man In” even before it was being promoted there.
Toby Keith recently criticized country radio, and said he didn’t see the need to write new songs because radio would never play them. Now a song he didn’t write for radio, but for a movie is getting played all over the place. It speaks to the shifting priorities of the country radio format as it attempts to adapt to survive. It’s now looking for the songs that are resonating with the public as opposed to avoiding them for whatever the labels want them to play.
Two days before Clint Eastwood was to start filming on his movie The Mule—which incidentally was two days before his 88th birthday—Eastwood was golfing with Toby Keith in a charity golf tournament at Pebble Beach. Keith marveled that the elder Eastwood was still able to get about, let alone work. Eastwood said to Keith, “I just get up every morning and go out. And I don’t let the old man in.” Toby Keith knew immediately he had to write a song with that line.
Now “Don’t Let The Old Man In” has become one of 2023’s biggest surprise songs, and soon it could be one of the year’s major hits. Maybe there still is a place for old men—and quality songs—in popular country music.