If recent research into Voice readers’ country-music listening patterns (conducted by demographic analyst Alan Jackson) is any indication, I’m guessing you pretty much just think of Toby Keith as “that doofus who did that song after 9/11 about how putting boots in asses is the American way.” Maybe you’ve also heard that he tours battle zones and doesn’t play well with the Dixie Chicks. Beyond that, admit it: You’re kinda clueless, right?
Well, at least he has a public image beyond Nashville, which is more than Bucky Covington or Jason Aldean can say. And Toby’s image is clearly his own fault: When he made the Statue of Liberty shake her fist in 2002’s outrageously rousing “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” (awesome karaoke song, btw), Toby defined himself despite himself, and the self-proclaimed conservative Democrat has been trying to live it down ever since. Except when he hasn’t: He’s currently making a movie somehow based on “Beer for My Horses,” the even more despicable ode to lynching (of “gangsters”) that he sang with Willie Nelson around the same time. Add his camel-jockey cartoon, “The Taliban Song” (“Ahab the Arab” updated for the age when “Turkmenistan” is a very rhythmic word), his obligatory “American Soldier” (about how freedom isn’t free), and his soggy dishrag “Ain’t No Right Way” (implicitly anti-choice and explicitly pro–prayer in public schools), and it looks like we’ve got ourselves some Neanderthal species of nationalist numbskull.
But here’s the thing: That handful of songs (a couple of which appeared on a surprisingly funky 2003 album entitled Shock’n Y’All, har har) is pretty much where Toby’s editorializing ends, at least on record. His output is no more limited by his war-machine anthem than Merle Haggard’s was by the comparably opportunistic “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” when Nixon was president. And not many country artists since Merle have managed a creative streak like Toby’s these past few years—in fact, to my ears, his ’00s output (six albums plus change, including half of 2006’s Broken Bridges soundtrack and a few spare tracks collected on his new 35 Biggest Hits) just might stand up to anybody else’s this decade, in any musical genre.
Go ahead and attribute my fandom partly to biographical coincidence: Toby was born in July 1961, a half-year after me; we both have three kids; we’re both straight white guys who’ve done time in inland suburbia. Then again, I’ve never personally worked an oil field or a semi-pro football field, my grandma didn’t run a supper club, I’m not six-foot-four and 240 pounds, I don’t own a bar and grill in Oklahoma, and I don’t do Ford commercials. But we both apparently cut our teeth on the same Bob Seger and John Cougar LPs, so I’m a sucker for the chili-dog-outside-the-Tastee-Freez heartland-rock riffs he stuck in four songs on last year’s Big Dog Daddy, the first album he produced himself. And where I come from, “water-tower poet class of ’73” is a right pithy depiction of hip-hop’s fourth element, and calling your most ZZ-worthy boogie “Zig Zag Stomp” is a darn clever pun.
It also helps that the big lug isn’t afraid to make fun of himself—for being a bumbling husband, say, or for being a boyfriend who likes his girlfriend but loves his local bar, or for his aging-athlete body not working as well as it used to. His class resentment (in “Get Drunk and Be Somebody” and “High Maintenance Woman,” say) is totally good-natured as well. But where Toby most manifestly trounces the competition is with his singing (and, frequently, talking), which only gets smarter and warmer and more conversational—richer in both his high and low registers—as his career goes on. The song that first made me take notice, 1999’s “How Do You Like Me Now,” had him bellowing like Billy Ray Cyrus in Meat Loaf mode, but since then he’s figured out how to communicate a masculine vulnerability with an easy-as-Sunday-morning soul phrasing equal to Ronnie Milsap or T. Graham Brown, if not quite Charlie Rich (listen to “That’s Not How It Is” or “Your Smile”); his latest move is a Barry White cover with power forward turned jazz bassist Wayman Tisdale. On his best album, 2006’s White Trash With Money, Toby jumped ship from DreamWorks to his own Show Dog Nashville imprint, where green-eyed country-soul convert Lari White surrounded him with Tex-Mex accordions, Western swing saxes, Dusty in Memphis orchestrations, and Dixieland kazoos, coaxing laid-back nuances and big, blue notes out of him that made perfect sense alongside the same year’s Collector’s Choice reissue of Dean Martin’s 1955 Swingin’ Down Yonder.
So Toby’s a bit of a late bloomer: He had six regular-issue albums and a handful of country Top 10s under his belt before his ass-boot woke up the world beyond CMT. The chronological 35 Biggest Hits, for its part, starts off as cautiously (but as competently) as any good Alan Jackson retrospective—the hit about the 18-year-old getting her first upstairs apartment downtown kills me, seeing how I just helped my daughter move to Brooklyn, and “Who’s That Man” and “A Woman’s Touch” employ open space in a ghostly way. And though I hope Mercury canned whoever thought a Sting duet was a marketable concept, even that song makes for a decent divorced-dad depiction. But Toby qua Toby doesn’t really bust out until “Dream Walkin’ “/”Getcha Some”/”How Do You Like Me Now,” beginning 14 tracks in; after that, there’s no looking back. If you’re new to the guy, start with disc two, then check out a few ’00s albums before you shift back to disc one.
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.