Toby Keith, Music Row Chief?

He has a reputation of locking horns with record company executives. Now, Toby Keith is looking to become one.

The outspoken country star made a lot of news just prior to the Academy of Country Music Awards, this time because he intimated that some of Music Row’s top talent might join him in a label venture.

Keith has been on the pointy end of several questionable record company decisions over the years, at least to his recollection. He has butted heads with record exec Luke Lewis over the years, starting with a 1993 decision to have him open for newcomer Shania Twain despite Keith having the radio hit at the time.

First off, the performer tossed some barbs around when he stopped by the Country Music Television offices to promote his latest album, Honkytonk University, which dropped May 17th. Keith wasn’t happy that his label, DreamWorks, has become a division of Universal Music Group Nashville, which also owns his former label, Mercury Records.

“As fate would have it, in the end the little independent label I’m on that’s $27 million in the hole when I walk in and it sells for $100 million four years later because of what we accomplish — who do they sell to? I go right back to the hell hole I was in at first,” he said.

The “hell hole” was Mercury, the label Keith left in 1999 because of the way it had handled his career. At the helm was current Universal head Lewis, so Keith wasn’t happy seeing Lewis steering his career again.

Universal execs decided to release a different single from the new album instead of Keith’s choice, “As Good As I Once Was,” and that was the last straw. He told the Tennessean that Music Row talent has contacted him about joining him on a new label, and feels that his experience at DreamWorks is proof that he can hold a desk job.

“I had put out four or five albums without one A&R meeting. We put out what we wanted and it worked. So why would I have to change? At this point in my career I’m not going to put up with it,” Keith said. “Universal knows where they stand. I’ve got one more album. After that, the next album is going to be on my label — period.”

The move will put Keith into the business side of music more than the artist side, and he says he’s going to concentrate on the forgotten backbone of country music.

“I’m trying to bring song back and make songwriters into artists more so,” he said. “The industry has forgot the song itself. They try to find the song and then attach it to a pretty face so it works on video.”

As far as what the future holds, Keith told the Tennessean, “My lawyer told me ‘75 percent of Music Row thinks you’ll fail. And 95 percent wants you to fail.’ I just love that.”

To Lewis’ credit, he is considered instrumental in developing many careers, from Shania Twain to newcomer Sugarland.