NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Gospel music star Amy Grant approached country singer Toby Keith at a recent music-industry event and offered congratulations on his success.
"Then she said, 'You sure have a lot of issues with women,"' Keith recalled. "And then she said, 'There's something about that I like."'
Keith, a singer-songwriter, is nudging country music back to the macho swagger of Hank Williams Jr. Although the Oklahoman has recorded his share of mushy love songs over the years, his confidence soared in 1999 when "How Do You Like Me Now?!" became a No. 1 hit.
The song, a spiteful shot at a woman who rejected him long ago, broke a cardinal rule of modern-day country music: Don't even take a chance of offending women over 35, the target audience of many country radio stations.
On his new album, Pull My Chain, released Tuesday (Aug. 28), Keith does it again.
The first single, "I'm Just Talking About Tonight," tells of a man and woman meeting. When she starts discussing long-term plans, he reins her in by saying, "I'm not talking about hooking up and hanging out/I'm just talking about tonight."
The catchy song went straight to the top of the charts. Keith says it's about the different priorities men and women have, and the difficulty that can cause in communicating.
"Some people call it 'The Quickie Song,"' Keith said. "But we didn't write it to be that way. ... I'm not trying to get away with anything. I write about life, and I sing about life, and I don't overanalyze things."
Keith, 40, worked as a semipro football player, a rodeo hand, and in the oil fields of Texas and Oklahoma before starting his music career. Instead of moving to Nashville like other hopefuls, he built a regional audience by leading the band Easy Money, which toured the Southwest.
"I came to Nashville with six songs and played them for the old Capitol (Records) regime in 1991 or '92," Keith said. "Some little ... jerk spun through my life's work in about six minutes. And he said, 'You might be a singer and you might have a future there, but you can't write."'
On the tape were four songs that eventually became hits: "Should've Been a Cowboy," "He Ain't Worth Missing," "Wish I Didn't Know Now" and "Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine on You."
Keith signed with Mercury Records, and his first major-label album was released in 1993. The company was trying to promote eventual superstar Shania Twain at the time, but Keith made it first with his smash hit "Should've Been a Cowboy."
He released a series of albums that spawned hits, but grew disenchanted with the label, where he felt overlooked after Twain's massive success in 1995. He didn't win any industry-voted awards, which often depend on campaigning by the label.
Record executives tried to push him in a pop direction, and he scored a hit duet with Sting in 1997, "I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying."
"They were trying to get me to compromise, and I was living a miserable existence," Keith said.
"Everybody was trying to mold me into something I was not."
He moved from Mercury to Polydor to A&M and back to Mercury, all under the PolyGram umbrella. In 1998, he recorded an album and played it for Mercury executives. They turned it down, except for the song "Getcha Some," which they used on a greatest hits package.
Keith called Mercury head Luke Lewis and asked to be released from the label.
"I said to him, man to man, we don't see eye to eye," Keith said. "And I've got to go provide for me and mine. ... I cut a little deal to take my music with me. I brought it to DreamWorks, and had album of the year with it. Same stuff."
At the Academy of Country Music Awards in May, a triumphant and defiant Keith accepted two major awards: best male vocalist and best album for How Do You Like Me Now?!
"I've waited a long time for this," he shouted. "Nine years!"
But waiting for the recognition was worth it, Keith said, if that was the price for doing things his own way.
"You have to go do what you do best, and not what somebody else tells you," he said. "You've got to fight the system a little bit. ...
"Very few people make it down that middle of the road. There's too much traffic. You've got to go off and cut your own trail."