Please Stop Belittling Toby Keith

He may be the greatest artist of the '00s. Don't tell the Dixie Chicks.

Getting loud—even a bit blowhard—was the first step. But for years now, Toby's sincere ballad side has been catching up with his funny rocking side. Even in a genre where vocal aptitude is a prerequisite for career longevity, masterful voices and discernible personalities (especially personalities with hot beefcake sex and a sense of humor and a chip on their shoulder attached) don't always coincide: Shooter Jennings might match Toby in a war of wits, but he can barely sing a lick, while Toby out-sings squeaky-clean goody-goodies from Travis to Jackson to Strait. And on top of that, though he's been known to borrow winners from wooden-voiced wordsmiths like Paul Thorn or Fred Eaglesmith on occasion, Toby's also the rare Nashville star who seems to do most of his own writing.

And again, dude can write. I admire his move-over-small-dog- a-big-dog-daddy's-movin'-in shtick, and how he does way more songs celebrating one-night stands than somebody married 24 years should be able to get away with—and how they don't come with angst or a moral attached. He's the kind of burly old teddy bear who'll stash his sleeping bag (and dog bowl?) behind your couch and finally remember your early-November birthday in December, when he shows up with a ribbon tied around your present—"Brand New Bow" beat "Dick in a Box" by eight 2006 months. And if he's playing wing man for a night, he'll take one for the team, even if it means sleeping with the fat girl.

OK, that one, "Runnin' Block" (great football metaphor, huh?), is indefensible—or it would be, anyway, if its chorus melody wasn't so amazing. Like "The Taliban Song," it's one of the "bus songs" that Toby sometimes tacks on at the end of albums—a disingenuous escape hatch he uses when he feels like pulling your chain. Not surprisingly, they're usually among his livelier tracks. So when do we get a whole disc of those? Soon, I hope, unless the r&b album comes first.

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