Toby Keith rides controversy all the way to the top
Controversy is the best thing that ever happened to a 41-year-old Okie named Toby Keith,
who is scheduled to bring his controversial songs and his love ballads to a performance today at the P-G Pavilion in Burgettstown.
A former rodeo hand and oil rig worker, Keith sang in the western clubs before going to Nashville, Tenn., in 1992. After some songwriting and hard work, he landed a record deal and joined the many cookie-cutter hunks getting radio play with harmless, pop-sounding songs.
But his "Should've Been a Cowboy" stood out and became the anthem for the Dallas Cowboys. Keith read the handwriting on the wall that clearly said he couldn't be ordinary. So he recorded "How Do You Like Me Now?," a mildly rockin' story about a guy who idolized a girl who laughed at his ambitions.
That one got plenty of public attention. And then Keith hit again with "I Wanna Talk About Me," a rap-sounding protest about a gabby, self-centered girlfriend. Nashville traditionalists were unhappy about bringing rap rhythm into country music.
But Keith's most recent controversy was his response to the 9/11 attack on America - a song called "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)."
The song got him barred from doing a Fourth of July TV show on ABC as had been planned. This time, the controversy sent song sales soaring and Keith was a new superstar.
And so, he was asked to tell his success story on Country Music Television's "Live, Uncut & Unleashed" show in July.
How did it do?
"You know you're doin' OK when Merle Haggard calls in to request a song and your producer asks you to add an extra 30 minutes," he says.
He says Haggard asked why Keith didn't sing "Fightin' Side of Me," Haggard's protest song years ago about Vietnam protesters. So Keith sang it.
"Haggard came before me as the original angry American," he says.
Keith's current album, "Unleashed," contains yet another target for controversy - a duet with Willie Nelson called "Beer for My Horses." Some words of the song suggest that law enforcers put a few more in the ground.
"Justice is what I'm after." Keith says.
It might be easy to suspect that Keith is a rompin', stompin' rebel like Hank Williams Jr. But he has made no strides in that direction. So far, he's a polite, slow-talkin' Oklahoman with an easy smile and a family.
"I never set out for my music to be controversial," he says. "But I will say that after 10 years of making records, I've finally got the pulse of what fans want to hear from me."
Toby Keith, who will play tonight at the P-G Pavilion in Burgettstown, writes about music critics in the liner notes of his new CD: "I have been praised by the critics and slammed by the critics. ... With great success you tend to lose some of the supporters you had while you were a lesser-known singer/songwriter. They build you up, then try to tear you down."
If Keith's defenses were up when putting out "Unleashed" (DreamWorks), he needn't have worried. For the third time in 34 months, Keith has unleashed a solid album, and this is the most musically cohesive one yet.
The singer's defensiveness, of course, likely stemmed from mixed reaction to the song that prompted this CD's speedy release. (Last year's "Pull My Chain" yielded three Top 10 country singles and might have been mined for another if "Unleashed" hadn't arrived.) The controversial song - a fist-shaking reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks - caused a little ruckus, then promptly soared to the top of the country singles charts. "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," with its "bombs away" policy, is never going to sit well with a lot of people. Yet, musically, the track is Keith in top form. The self-penned lyrics are succinct and tell a story. The music rocks with a country twang. And as for Keith's 'tude• Well, as the song says: This big dog will fight/When you rattle his cage.
The same attributes apply to "Who's Your Daddy," the current radio single. The lyrics - a sugar daddy's seduction speech - would be more unsettling if the music wasn't so bouncy nor the singing so confident.
Keith wrote all or part of every track on the album, and revisits the "angry American" motif in "Beer for My Horses." In it, the singer, frustrated by the crime rate, muses about the good old days of vigilantism. No song that winks at lynchings should sound so good, but "Beer" is a duet on which Willie Nelson turns in some fine vocals.
The CD does lighten up, most notably on the tequila-flavored "Good to Go to Mexico," the sweet "Huckleberry" and the red-neck declaration of "It Works for Me."
More importantly, this album avoids a quirk of "Pull My Chain" and 1999's "How Do You Like Me Now?!" While the momentum of those gung-ho discs stalled on the lesser tracks, "Unleashed" doesn't suffer when Keith puts the brakes on the tempo. A trio of lovelorn laments holds up OK, while the happier slow-dance tunes - especially "It's All Good" and "Rock You Baby" - are downright sway-inducing.