Why Toby Keith Is Wrong About Writing Songs for Radio


Toby Keith is one of the most commercially successful and popular country performers of the last 25 years, as well as one of the most notoriously polarizing characters in country music over that same time period. His juggernaut song “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” and his 2003 album Shock’n Y’all sent his stock into the stratosphere, and colored country music as a bastion of American jingoism for decades.

But one of the things Toby Keith never gets enough credit for is for being the primary songwriter on all of his albums, and on many of his biggest hits. Similar to Alan Jackson, Toby Keith is known best as a performer, but his songwriting credits make him one of the most prolific performing songwriters in country music history, including songs that might surprise you with their depth, like the song “Don’t Let The Old Man In” he did for the Clint Eastwood film The Mule a few years back.

Like so many of the country guys caricatured by culture, the legacy of Toby Keith is a lot more complex that some would lead on, and lately he’s been receiving a lot of sympathy and support in the wake of his stomach Cancer diagnosis. Pictures of a more lean, but happy and healthy Toby Keith have been reassuring the public about his prognosis.

After taking some time out of the spotlight to fight the Cancer, Keith is now starting to battle back and appear in public again. But don’t expect a bunch of new songs from him anytime soon. After being stymied at radio with many of his recent radio singles and put out to pasture by the format, he says he’s basically done.

In a recent interview with The Oklahoman (paywalled), Toby Keith told the paper about writing new songs,

You can get it … streamed, and you’ve got your fans who’ll play it. But as far as getting airplay, what we do and what I made my hall of fame living doing, they don’t want that. So, you’re kind of wasting your time.

All those years of owning it, and being that guy where you just put it out and they’ll automatically play it, well, none of us are that guy anymore. Even the new people don’t seem to last as long: They come and go pretty quick because it’s flavor-of-the-month stuff.

In certain respects, Toby Keith’s assessment of mainstream country radio is right. Radio is an ageist, unfair, and insular environment, and even if he wrote and released a masterpiece song, radio wouldn’t play it because programmers decided many years ago the era of Toby Keith on radio is over. Radio also decided during the 2010-2020 era that anything that sounded especially “country” was pretty disfavorable as well.

It’s also fair to point out that during his commercial era, Toby Keith was a beneficiary of this same unfair system that was shoving his predecessors like George Jones and Merle Haggard aside to make room for him. Country radio is not a democracy, or a meritocracy. It is a systemically inequitable system rigged by country music’s major labels. But we’ve known about this for years, and nothing Toby Keith is saying here about that is especially revelatory.

As far as Toby Keith saying that radio these days is just “flavor-of-the-month stuff” and not even newer artists are receiving the traction they deserve, that seems like a bit of bitterness talking. Sure, one hit wonder-type country stars make to #1 on country radio and then quickly dissipate sometimes, especially male ones.

But there are plenty of artists like Luke Combs, Morgan Wallen, and even more traditionally-oriented stars like Jon Pardi and Lainey Wilson still building meaningful careers and fan bases through the country radio medium. If anything, country radio has been improving in recent years by playing more country-sounding singles and more meaningful songs, even if the format still leaves a lot to be desired.

But to say “you’re kind of wasting your time” to write and record songs if radio won’t play them seems like the wrong attitude for a host of reasons. First, if you’re solely writing songs so they bring you commercial success, you’re doing it the wrong way. Of course there are scores of people in the country industry that do this all day. But Toby Keith already has his mint and his legacy is secured, so why worry about these things?

Why not write songs because you want to, or you have something to say or express? Sure, when Alan Jackson sat down to pen all of those big hits in his day, he probably spent some time calculating what people wanted to hear. But the best of artists don’t consider the commercial application of the songs they write. They write from their heart, and often those are the songs that resonate the deepest. For every “Chattahoochee” Alan Jackson wrote, he wrote a “Midnight in Montgomery.”

And even more important to understand is that radio is not the only way to launch a song, or even build, sustain, or revitalize a career at this point. The most popular song in America right now and for a second straight week is Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond.” Not only is it a country song from an unsigned artist, it was recorded on a single mic in the middle of the woods, with the audio from the song taken from a video. It has swear words in it. Oliver Anthony wasn’t even considering radio when he wrote it.

Interestingly though, even radio has started to play “Rich Men North of Richmond.” With no label and nobody promoting the single at all, the song reached #45 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart this week, giving it some 2.3 million audience impressions. It’s similar to how the Tracy Chapman song “Fast Car” covered by Luke Combs also has become a radio smash and one of 2023’s songs of the summer despite Luke’s label initially promoting a different radio single entirely.

Radio is having to react to the will of the people now because the people have so many other options for music consumption. Like everything that happens on country radio, the transition to playing what people want to hear as opposed to what labels want people to hear is a slow one. But it’s finally starting to happen. Meanwhile, Zach Bryan who’s received no real meaningful support from country radio just announced a stadium tour that will likely sell out immediately after tickets go on sale.

Sitting back and complaining about the gatekeeping at country radio is quickly becoming an outmoded conversation. Life has moved on, and new paradigms have emerged that are upstaging the system. It has also never been more irrelevant to attempt to claim that country radio in any way represents country music. But things have shifted so dramatically recently, even country radio is having to shift with them to survive.

Most importantly though, if Toby Keith or anyone else wants to write songs, they should do it for themselves first. It’s that eschewing of the commercial appeal for a song and just singing from your heart that shot Oliver Anthony straight to #1, and the reason that artists like Zach Bryan and a slew of others are on such an incredible run. Trying to get radio play to promote your song is so 2005. So is complaining about country radio. The music has opened up, as have many other avenues for getting your music to people, and it’s time to start trying to take advantage of them.

Don’t write a song that radio needs to make popular because otherwise nobody will hear it. Write a song that radio has no choice to play because it became popular from a groundswell of grassroots support. Then, you don’t need radio. Radio needs you.

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