I'll admit, I have mixed feelings about Toby Keith... On the one hand, the guy's an overbearing, muscleheaded jerk, on the other, it looks like he may be one of the best hard-country singers to come out of Nashville in the last couple of decades. I know it's not "cool" for an alt-country fan to say nice things about Top Forty artists, but it turns out that when Toby puts his mind to it, he's one helluva great honkytonker... Of course, there's a bunch of crap that he's recorded as well... So here's a quick look at his work, with an eye towards the real-deal twang that Keith seems to be getting into more and more the bigger his career gets...


Toby Keith "Toby Keith" (Polygram, 1993)
(Produced by Nelson Larkin & Harold Shedd)

Wow... talk about your humble beginnings. Now, see, here's the deal: I'm going to say a bunch of mean things about Toby's first few records, and that's going to tick off his diehard fans. Then, waaaaaaay later, a few records from now, I'll do an about-face and praise his performances on some of his post-millennial smash hit albums, which will make me lose cred with the indier-than-thou crowd. Oh, well. What can I say? Toby Keith turned out to be a really good singer... he just wasn't one when he made these iffy early albums. So, here we go... Toby Keith, who seven years later would become the blustering, chauvinistic top-charting king of country, starts his career with an indifferently produced set of so-so tunes, liberally laced with warmed-over '50s rock'n'soul licks, much like T. Graham Brown and fellers like that. I guess Toby's vocals were okay, but the production is really lackluster -- the label was barely even giving the guy a chance. (Nonetheless, he scored four Top 5 hits on this debut, which probably says more about the sorry state of country in '93 than it does about the strength of this album...) Don't get me wrong: I think Toby has proved himself to be a pretty strong singer, but this was a fairly sketchy album. Negligible.

Toby Keith "Boomtown" (Polydor, 1994)
(Produced by Nelson Larkin & Harold Shedd)

Another iffy outing made when Keith was still a minor leaguer in search of a sound. He had hits -- this disc had four Top 20 tunes, including "Who's That Man," which hit #1 -- but the production was pretty thin, and his voice hadn't really matured enough to fill the gaps. Still, you can sense where he was headed, and though these tracks didn't really wow folks back when they first came out, in retrospect, you can see how they fit in with his later success. Granted, "You Ain't Much Fun (Since I Quit Drinkin')" is a fun song, but mostly this is a close-but-not-quite kinda album. Worth checking out of you're a big TK fan, but it's not on a par with the records that were still to come.

Toby Keith "Christmas To Christmas" (Polydor, 1995)
Again, not his best album. Recorded towards the acrimonious end of Toby's stint with Polygram, this disc has some pretty standard-issue, lackluster arrangements, and, boy, did he sound like Jimmy Buffett back then. It's nice that many of the songs were new, but they also tend to be fairly overwritten and on-the-nose, like the homelessness tearjerker, "Santa I'm Here," an issue song with its heart in the right place, but a snoozer as a pop tune. Not that great, really. (By the way, if you like Christmas records, more are reviewed in my Hillbilly Holiday section.)

Toby Keith "Blue Moon" (Polygram, 1996)
(Produced by Nelson Larkin & Toby Keith)

They finally firmed up Toby's sound and got him on more solid footing... He sounds a lot surer of himself, even if the material is pretty bland and unremarkable. The production sounds solid in a factory-made, wall'o'sound, Music City kind of way. Of course, it also seems to have a lot of noise packed into every conceivable aural crevice, just so they wouldn't take any chances that your ears could form an opinion of their own... the strategy is to keep you too busy to actually think too much about the singing or the songwriting. I suppose for the most part it's an effective tactic, though there are an awful lot of shrill, emotionally empty guitar solos with pointless, note-heavy riffs, and little in the way of soulful, interpretive playing. For his part, Keith holds his own, but it's a workmanlike performance, and there's very little to hint at the more relaxed, ballsy persona he'd settle into by the decade's end. In short, everybody's just going through the motions, and while they do better here than on his earlier albums, this still ain't nothing to write home about. I kept my copy, but only out of professional obligation.

Toby Keith "Dream Walkin' " (Polygram, 1997)

Toby Keith "How Do You Like Me Now?" (Dreamworks, 1999)
(Produced by James Stroud & Toby Keith)

Good question. I'll get back to you on that...

Toby Keith "Pull My Chain" (Dreamworks, 2001)
(Produced by James Stroud & Toby Keith)

Filling the unrepentant tough-guy, total stud, good old boy niche that apparently must be filled in these days of touchie-feelie, chick-sensitive Nashville power ballads, Toby Keith plays the part of the sleazy but self-assured 'real man' that gals at bars just can't resist. Whatever. There are lots and lots of rock-tinged electric guitars and soul-derived organ licks that signal Keith's not-just-country leanings. The album opens with his strident ode to the one night stand -- the gal lucky enough to land this buckin' bronc of a man is subsequently treated to the cartoonish narcissism of "I Wanna Talk About Me," which is perhaps the most obnoxious testosterone-soaked tune of the decade. It also happened to be the album's huge Top Ten hit, which is a sad comment on the state of pop radio. I know, I know -- his swaggering sexism is partly tounge-in-cheek, but it's still not that interesting.

Toby Keith "Unleashed" (Dreamworks, 2002)
(Produced by James Stroud & Toby Keith)

This is Toby Keith at the height of his fame -- the most notable track (at the time) being a September 11th-related patriotic macho revenge fantasy, called "Courtesy Of The Red White & Blue," in which Toby promises to shove a SCUD missile up where the sun don't shine... Whoo-hoo. That's tellin' 'em, dude! The rest of the album matches this swaggering attitude with yet more sexual bravado ("Rock You Baby" and "Who's You Daddy?") and the inevitable Jimmy Buffett-ish tropical vacation song ("Good To Go To Mexico..." Don't these southern rock'n' redneck dudes ever want to go see the Uffizi?). Perhaps the biggest hit off the album was his duet with Willie Nelson, "Beer For My Horses," which sings the praise of the lynch mob. All in all, not my kinda country. Sorry -- I just don't like arrogant, obnoxious, loudmouthed braggarts. So sue me. But, apparently, millions of commercial country fans did -- this was one of the biggest albums of the year when it came out.

Toby Keith "Shock'N'Yall" (Dreamworks, 2003)
(Produced by James Stroud & Toby Keith)

I almost hate to say it, but Toby Keith has really kinda matured and mellowed into a really fine, first-rate country singer, more self-confident and relaxed than just about anyone else in Nashville these days, worthy of Waylon comparisons and the whole deal. Of course, that's only half the story -- the rest of the time he's still bein' a big jerk, sticking his chin out and daring someone to take a poke. This disc typifies that divide: the album opens with "I Love This Bar," an improbably long and deliciously boozy single, a tune worthy of Moe Bandy, back in his salad days. The simple approach works equally well on "Don't Leave, I Think I Love You," which is one of the best, catchiest country songs I've heard in years. He really won me over with "If I Was Jesus," which has a half-blasphemous premise, but is a really funny song, with well-delivered lines. Things bog down, though on other tracks, particularly songs in which he's trying to prove a point. It starts with "American Soldier," which tries to affect an Ernie Pyle-like affinity for the military rank & file... a nice sentiment, to be sure, but the song is hopelessly clumsy and on-the-nose; similarly artless is the live rendition of "The Taliban Song," which is one of the most poorly written political songs ever made. Finally, there's "The Critic," in which Toby takes pot shots at guys like me -- music critics -- making fun of our crappy cars and teeny-tiny paychecks, as if being a millionaire proves he's a great musician. The trouble is, Keith is pretty good, and he's wasting his time recording petty, un-clever snipes like that... and our time as well. My rating? Two great songs, some other stuff that's okay but didn't move me, and about half an album that's kind of just wasted space. Oh, speaking of being wasted, Toby's stoner anthem, "Smokin' Weed With Willie" is pretty funny, too... Just hope it doesn't get that Nelson boy in trouble!

Toby Keith "Honkytonk University" (Dreamworks, 2005)
(Produced by James Stroud & Toby Keith)

I still almost hate to say it, but Toby Keith really has emerged as one of the best real-deal country singers of the 21st Century... After building his rep with all those obnoxiously jingoistic pro-war, post-9/11 chartoppers, Keith entered the upper stratosphere not only of the top country scene, but of American pop culture as well. Paradoxically, though, instead of getting cheesier and more watered down, he used his superstar fame to to shrug off the high-tech approach that had been killing Nashville country, and helped lead the return to that good old fiddle'n'steel-based twang. Although this album doesn't quite have the wild feel of his previous album, it's a more cohesive country set, with catchy songs, wall-to-wall pedal steel and plenty of solid singing. Merle Haggard joins him on a fine duet -- "She Ain't Hooked On Me No More" -- that can stand up there with practically any country classic you can think of, as does the album's other hard country gem, "She Left Me." Keith still spends a fair amount of time braggin' on himself (although it sounds great musically, the self-referential lyrics of the autobiographical title track are a snooze...) but it's becoming clear now that he's actually got some legitmate bragging rights. Having gone through the mill with the Nashville fame machine, Keith has, amazingly enough, arrived at some of the same nonchalance and classy cool that outlaw icons Waylon and Willie discovered after they dropped out of the same scene. I sure hope he can keep it up, because it sure is nice hearing Nashville records that sound this good.

Toby Keith "White Trash With Money" (Universal, 2006)

Toby Keith "Big Dog Daddy" (Universal/Show Dog, 2007)

Toby Keith "A Classic Christmas" (Universal/Show Dog, 2007)

Toby Keith "That Don't Make Me A Bad Guy" (Universal/Show Dog, 2008)

Toby Keith "American Ride" (Universal/Show Dog, 2009)
Over the years, I've become a sincere fan of Toby Keith as a genuine honkytonk hero... It took a while for me to get there, though, and Keith does a lot to dissolve that conversion on this collection of over-obvious clunkers. The flag-waving title track is just plain dumb, a rehash of the anthemic, rock-oriented patriotic filler that has become a staple of contemporary Top 40 dude-country. Don't get me wrong: I don't have a problem with America, but the songwriting itself is just plain lazy and unengaging... It's gimmicky and tired. The same is true with a lot of this record -- Keith pulls it together to summon up a few almost-interesting moments, but it's more about dipping into technique rather than any sincere feeling. I do think he's become one of the best country singers of his generation, but even big dogs have bad days. I don't think Toby was very inspired, or even trying very hard, on this one. I'm hoping for something better the next time around.

Toby Keith "Bullets In The Gun" (Show Dog Nashville, 2010)
(Produced by Toby Keith)

Y'know, I'm really not sure what to make of this record... In some ways its very ambitious, but in other ways it's really kind of disappointing and odd. The album opens with the title track, "Bullets In The Gun," a gun-violence fantasy about outlaw-lovers-on-the-run with a big, brash rock sound (those echoey U2-ish guitars, etc.) that will be familiar to fans of Keith's work from a decade ago. Likewise, he seems to have regressed to the overly-macho tough-guy swagger of his old days, a tendency that hits a low point on "Get Out Of My Car," in which Toby tells some chick to either take off all her clothes or hike all the way back home... (Yeah, I know, I'm giving him exactly the prudish reaction he's looking for, but I can't help it: it's a really lame, obnoxious, juvenile song... I'm sure Toby knows his audience, and if he wants to sit around telling dick jokes to his buddies, I guess that's his right... But I can't see many listeners coming back to listen to stuff like that a few years later...) Meanwhile, the music and his vocals have an almost aggressively un-country feel, at least compared to the sublime hard-country stylings of his masterful Honky Tonk University album -- the pedal steel is mostly gone, and Toby doesn't croon as much, but rather goes for a kind of half-spoken redneck Sprechgesang, over some unconventional, rock-oriented arrangements. Which is all very well and fine, I guess, but as a country fan I'm a little disappointed. A couple of songs deliver on the twang, notably "Think About You All Of The Time" and, on the Deluxe Edition, the four live tracks which are covers of various country oldies. Speaking of which: if he can hit a home run on a song like Gordon Lightfoot's "Sundown," why not keep swinging? Like on his last album, it feels as if Toby Keith is just coasting, when he could be doing so much more. I still think he's got talent, I just wish he'd use more of it, rather than fart around doing the same good-old-boy routine he already outgrew five years ago.

Toby Keith "Clancy's Tavern" (Universal/Show Dog, 2011)
(Produced by Toby Keith)

Another diverse album with Keith's mix of rock-flavored country-pop and old-fashioned honkytonk drinking songs, along with a dash of raw-meat patriotism (though the album's opening track, the good-natured protectionist anthem, "Made In America," is pretty mild compared to his Iraq War-era blasts...) It seems like Toby mostly wants to chill out and be mellow -- the live tracks at the album's end (a cool feature of his recent records) show him still pursuing a relaxed, Waylonesque vibe; highlights on the studio side include the humorous "Tryin' To Fall In Love" ("If women came a dime a dozen/I ain't got a penny/Some guys get way too much/Some guys don't get any") and "____ Beers Ago," in which the months and years of a long-lost love are measured out in empty longnecks... There could have been a little more oomph to this album, and personally I'm ready for Keith to ditch those tinny, 2001-era electric guitars that have been part of his signature sound for years: more pedal steel, perhaps? But mostly? This album's okay... It has the same kind of impact as an early-1980s George Jones record, a workmanlike album from a strong stylist with a long road ahead of him. It's kind of refreshing in today's instant-death Top 40 scene to see an artist in control of his own career who can keep plugging away and make albums that don't have to carry the weight of the world on 'em. Ernest Tubb would be proud.

Toby Keith "Hope On The Rocks" (Universal/Show Dog, 2012)
(Produced by Toby Keith)

The big, lovable lug is back... This time around Toby's sticking pretty firmly to novelty songs, and while it's tempting to just say he's coasting (because he is) you also gotta admit he's pretty good at this workmanlike musicmaking. Still, I remember back about ten years ago when I realized that Keith was actually a damn fine honkytonk singer -- one of the best in his generation -- and I can't help but feel that he could be recording songs that were grittier and more meaningful than all this neo-Hank Jr. stuff. I mean, a tune like "Haven't Had A Drink All Day" is pretty funny, material like the barroom ballad, "The Size I Wear," "Scat Cat," "Cold Beer Country," or "I Like Girls That Like Beer" are pretty been-there, done-that for Toby. I think I'd like to hear him try something new, and challenge himself a bit: the talent's there, he just needs to push out of his by-the-numbers, macho-dude comfort zone. Or not. I'm sure he doesn't really need my advice on how to run his career.

Toby Keith "35 MPH Town" (Show Dog, 2015)


Toby Keith "Greatest Hits, v.1" (Polygram/Mercury, 1998)
Wrapping things up as Keith moved to another label, Polygram issued this fairly generous best-of, which draws on his first four albums, and throws in a couple of "new," unreleased tunes taken from the vault, just for good measure.

Toby Keith "The Millennium Collection" (Polygram, 2003)
Some might accuse Universal of simply (gasp!) cashing in on Keith's inexplicable fame by coming out with this best-of while he was riding high as perhaps the most celebrated country artist of 2002. But then again, wouldn't you, if you had all his back catalog at your disposal? This budget line disc mines pretty much the same territory as the Greatest Hits collection listed above -- a generous sweep of his less-than-glamorous stint on the Mercury label in the early 1990s. If you're a big TK fan, this is a good overview of his early work.

Toby Keith "Chronicles" (Universal-Mercury, 2005)
If you want to check out Keith's early years, this box set will pretty much settle it... It's kind of an odd package, though -- it's a straight reissue, more or less, of his first three albums, Toby Keith, Boomtown and Blue Moon, just instead of regular jewel boxes they're sandwiched inside a book-style box, with the original CD liner notes floating around loose inside... No added info, no new liner notes or booklet, nothing fancy, really, other than the hardshell carboard case. You can still purchase these records individually, so I'm not sure what this box adds, other than its physical solidity and gathering them all together in one place at one time. Either way, it's a chance to check Keith out in his early years, including his first Top Ten chart hits (three #1's and a slew of #2's...) The humble roots of a future superstar....

Toby Keith "Greatest Hits 2" (Dreamworks, 2004)

Toby Keith "35 Biggest Hits" (Show Dog, 2008)

Hick Music Index

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