When Toby Keith threatens to outfuck any pencil neck with more than eight credits toward a B.A., I slip off my horn-rims and hoot along. If I'm less sympathetic when he shows up in boots to ruin some gal's black-tie affair, that's no credit to my chivalrous nature, just a question of technique. I'd maybe high-five the stud if his approach to goosing uppity dames were a touch lighter: you know, more Groucho, less macho. But "How Do You Like Me Now" bellowed forth from the same unfortunate pit as "American Soldier," and its indignation was shot through with an insecurity unbefitting the sly, confident seducer of "Who's Your Daddy?"
Honkytonk U is a makeup course in remedial women's studies, a strategic retreat from the culture wars that notes that the ladies have grown restless on the home front. On seven of its 12 tracks, starting with the effectively rueful Merle duet "She Ain't Hooked on Me No More," some woman has left, is leaving, or will soon leave. And Keith summons a response appropriate to each scenario: "Big Blue Note" (obsessive, bemused), "She Left Me" (straightforward, philosophical), "Knock Yourself Out" (frustrated, resigned), "You Ain't Leavin' (Thank God Are Ya)" (giddy, relieved), "I Got It Bad" (vague, reserved), "You Caught Me at a Bad Time" (hesitant, sullen). But a common element unites these songs: Each is a struggle between equals devoid of class envy.
In fact, Keith's sole bid for blue-collar cred is the autobiographical title track, rumbled like a belated audition for Waylon's role in the new Dukes of Hazzard flick. And his sex life suffers accordingly. Sure, on the terrific ripsnort "As Good as I Once Was" the glad-handing demagogue who suckered radlibs into his big tent with "I Love This Bar" springs another masterfully cagey image tweakprepped pharmaceutically for twin-boinking or flexing his sore muscles to whup some big bad biker butt, Keith self-deprecates as a subtler way to boast, and don't he just know it. But if "Do blondes really have more fun or are they easier to spot in the dark?" and "Turn that frown upside down" are his best pickup lines these days, maybe he should be more anxious about his performance. Sorry, Toby, but my money's on the biker. Hell, on the right night, you might not even be a match for a lucky uppercut from some pencil neck with a degree. Maybe even a Ph.D.
Toby Keith plays PNC Bank Arts Center July 24.
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