“Should’ve Been a Cowboy” was Toby Keith‘s debut single, the first from his self-titled debut album. It reached the top of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart 30 years ago this week, and was the most played song on country radio of the 1990s.
The song has become one of Toby’s signature songs, and it launched his career in a way that few songs ever have.
And all because he watched a guy get rejected at a bar.
Back in the early ’90s, Toby was trying to get his start in country music but had recently been turned down by major labels in Nashville, who already had superstar male artists like Garth Brooks on their roster.
But things changed after a hunting trip, where Toby wrote what would become his biggest hit while sitting on the side of a bathtub.
In an interview with Dan Rather, Toby explains that the group was out to eat after a day of pheasant hunting when he saw a man approach a young girl at the bar and ask her for a dance – and promptly get turned down:
“We went into this western saloon, and this dude was about my age now and he was in hunting clothes. And this young girl standing at the bar, he gets up from his steak and he said ‘I think I’m gonna go dance with her.’
And they’re like, ‘John, she ain’t gonna dance with you. You’re in hunting clothes and you stink, you’ve been in the field all day.’
‘No, watch this.’ Well she turns him down.
A little bit later a young guy comes in and she’s right on the floor, and somebody goes, ‘John, you should’ve been a cowboy.’
And I went, ‘Ding ding ding ding ding.’ I was like, ‘Oh, I got that.'”
With the idea for the song in his head, Toby was eager to put it all together. But he didn’t want to disturb his roommate at the hotel they were in, so he grabbed his guitar and went to the bathroom, where he ended up writing the song while sitting on the edge of the bathtub: