The Interesting Case of Toby Keith’s New Song “Old School”

photo: Richard McLaren

Normally a new single from a mainstream dude who hasn’t landed a Top 10 hit in over a decade wouldn’t necessarily be worth discussing, at least around this water cooler. But Toby Keith’s new song “Old School” is a very interesting case for a host of reasons, and it could spell a return for Keith to country radio.

This song isn’t good of course, though there are certainly worse ones out there when regarding the mainstream. The writers for it are none other than Maren Morris and her hubby Ryan Hurd, with Brett Tyler lending a few words as well. And when you listen, you can pretty much recognize it immediately as a Maren Morris tune with the attitude and cadence on the vocals being much more indicative of hip-hop than country.

Turns out, that’s what Toby Keith found so appealing about the track, reminding him of his 2001 #1 ode to egotism, “I Wanna Talk About Me,” which some (including Keith), give credit for being one of the first popular “country rap” songs. This new song was written back in 2014 during the height of Bro-Country, and true to its era, it’s a very list-tasic and pandering effort commonplace to country radio that glorifies small town life so affluent whites in the exurbs can be country vicariously.

But of course all of these marks against the song’s character are also what will likely endear it to country radio. In fact it’s already receiving hourly spins across the iHeartRadio network, so it will likely be one of Toby Keith’s biggest singles and his biggest debut in years right out of the chute. Whether it trails off or finds continued support afterwards depends on how it’s receive by program directors, and the sustained push of the people behind it.

That leads us to the other interesting nugget about this song. Though Keith is officially still on his “Show Dog” label—which is the name of the label he split off from Scott Borchetta when Big Machine Records was formed—this is Keith’s first official single being distributed by Thirty Tigers, meaning the distribution company many of your favorite Texas, Americana, and independent country artist utilize. They also work with some mainstream names through their Triple Tigers venture, including Scotty McCreery, Russell Dickerson and Cam.

Show Dog at one point was one of the most promising upstart labels in country, but it fell on hard times over the years, hemorrhaging talent until the only ones left on the label were Toby Keith and his daughter Krystal. Now he’s digging through Maren Morris’s slough pile for songs she rejected six years ago. Who knows, perhaps Maren’s name tied to this song will help it succeed, though Maren’s not really blowing up the airwaves these days either. Her last single “To Hell & Back” stalled outside of the Top 30, and her current single (also with Ryan Hurd) “Chasing After You” also sits outside of the Top 30 after being released nearly five months ago.

So who knows, maybe this is the deaf leading the blind. But it will be interesting to see where this song goes. Despite a flash appearance of a steel guitar at the start, “Old School” is just the type of genre-neutral and creatively-neutered song that can turn into a smash these days. Turning 60 next month, Toby’s tried everything to hold onto his relevancy in the mainstream, and releasing a pesudo white boy tractor rap radio country song written by Maren Morris is his latest hustle. Knowing country radio, it just might be a bad enough plan to work.

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