Toby Keith Scores Surprise Hit

Songster bucks trends with 'How Do You Like Me Now.'

NASHVILLE — After five weeks and counting at #1 on the country chart, "How Do You Like Me Now" (RealAudio excerpt) is easily the biggest hit of country singer Toby Keith's career.

But for Keith, the significance of the song's vigorous performance is even greater than that. He sees it as vindication of his view that country songs can be hits without necessarily having to aim at a narrowly defined audience, determined by Nashville's powers-that-be.

"This ought to be good-enough research — for these people who need research — that if we're going to nurture and grow [the country-music format], we need to be more open-minded," Keith said.

Keith, who co-wrote the song with Chuck Cannon, said he spent a frustrating three to four years trying to get Music Row people to believe in the song. "I actually thought it would be that big of a song, but I never could get anyone excited about it. They underestimated the female audience, but the girls seem to love it."

Indeed, Music Row should be eating plenty of crow about now. With the song showing little sign of radio "burn" — the audience burnout factor toward a song — Keith said he's been told it could remain at #1 next week, as well, putting it within spitting distance of Lonestar's landmark eight-week run at the top with "Amazed."

Programming Dent

Whether Keith bests that benchmark is minor compared to the kudos and buzz "How Do You Like Me Now" is generating, for injecting a much-needed shot of testosterone in what has been an increasingly female-dominated format.

"It's significant because of this renewed push to attract more males back to the format," said Billboard country chart manager Wade Jessen. "There's a real concerted effort out there to create more programming that will be more palatable to a certain type of male."

Jessen cautioned that it's too early to declare the success of Keith's song as reflecting a shift at country radio. But, he said, it certainly indicates a change in attitude among radio programmers.

"This is an issue that's really at the top of the mind at the format," Jessen said. "There's definitely a sentiment that some programming companies have had it up to here with the female attitude and pop-country sound."

All of which merely reinforces what Keith has been saying all along.

"All I hear is that the age 35–50 female is what they're shooting for," he said. "They've got to know that we're not going to grow if we stay that close-minded. If you stay with the 35–50 audience and you wait 15 years, then your audience is 50–65. There's no way to grow if you don't continually go after the 15- to 25-year-old people.

"[They] buy a lot of records," Keith continued. "If you don't want to be a part of that, then close up shop, and in 15 years you'll be bluegrass."

Strong words, but Keith is also the first to acknowledge that female audiences have responded as positively to the song as males have.

"That's a real appeal song," Jessen said. "I would not say this is any sort of fluke; it's a record with serious teeth that a lot of people are identifying with and enjoying."

Splashy Debut

A sidebar to all of this is the fact that "How Do You Like Me Now" marks Keith's debut on DreamWorks Nashville. Keith parted company abruptly with his longtime label, Mercury, in March 1999, saying he wasn't receiving "the gung-ho effort" he felt was needed. That in mind, "How Do You Like Me Now" easily could be a catchphrase sung to his former label.

Keith admits there might be a certain amount of pleasure in his success but notes he left Mercury on good terms and maintains the parting was a mutual decision.

"I ain't that hateful about it," he said, laughing. "They did me a tremendous favor, financially, by letting me go and do things on my own. The record deals people get when they come to town are pretty lame; you've got to keep renegotiating."

Nursing his career along at Mercury for six years put him in a good negotiating position when it came time to move somewhere else, and he's reaping those rewards now that he's hit his peak. "I'm having the biggest record of my life after I've got all my T's crossed and my I's dotted," he said.