november 2008

Hello, Dierks. Hello, Trace. This Is Toby. Eat My Dust.

By David McGee


Toby Keith
Show Dog Nashville

Despite the album title That Don't Make Me a Bad Guy, Toby Keith is not holding a referendum on his public image in this new long player. The title track, which kicks off the festivities, is about him trying to convince a gal that he's worth a second look, despite what she may have heard. It's a funny kind of a come-on, a pickup line really, and Keith does a great job of heightening its humorous aspects with his mock-serious appeals. It's the first but not the last skirt-chasing song here, but at the end, he's a different man, in "I Got It For You Girl"-tender, giving, open hearted, even sensitive (not a word often applied to Toby Keith), in an honest, affecting, unambiguous love song. Thus the beginning and the end of That Don't Make Me a Bad Guy; what happens in between those cuts is, to speak in the vernacular, pretty awesome. It's a record built for big places-arenas, stadiums, festivals, what have you. Produced, as well as written by Keith (or mostly co-written, to be accurate, with Bobby Pinson as his chief collaborator), its sound is state of the art sonic overdrive, roaring and howling, crisp and searing, impeccable definition of the instruments, the muscular baritone voice clear, unencumbered and packing a solid emotional wallop in your earphones or, better yet, in the car (this is one powerhouse road record-put it in and crank it up-it'll blow you away).

Fans of Toby the rough and rowdy will get their fix right off the bat. The first three songs-the title track, "Creole Mama," "God Love Her"-storm the barricades of volume and energy. These guitar-driven hard country assaults with thundering bottoms are pitilessly aggressive in execution but yet lyrically rich portraits of, respectively, the fellow trying to woo a reluctant gal; a Louisiana heartbreaker whose charms come with a dollop of added danger for a man who's already got warrants out on him; and the object of Keith's affection, a preacher's daughter "born in Dixie/washed in the blood/raised on the banks of the Mississippi mud/She always had a thing about following in love/With a bad boy" who chooses something other than the straight and narrow path her parents had envisioned. In all of these songs, please note, Keith casts himself as the "bad boy"-nay, revels in being so. The roaring, soaring guitars and pounding drums are straight '80s arena rock in style (save for a noticeable bit of early '70s Stones-like drive in "That Don't Make Me a Bad Guy"), but it could be argued that if '80s arena rock had had more going for it lyrically, if its practitioners could have sung with Keith's authority and conviction instead of screaming, well, maybe it wouldn't be the critics' punching bag it is now (and just for the heck of it, in a totally gratuitous aside, Jon Bon Jovi ain't no kind of country singer, no kind of way).

okieThis kind of opening trifecta is not unusual for Keith, who likes to come charging out of the chute and, if one may use a political reference, appease his base at the start. But stick with this album and its larger aspirations will impress you. For all the braggadocio and posturing in the first three songs, the next three go to a different place altogether. The power ballad "Lost You Anyway" finds Keith admitting to his own failings in a relationship that got away from him (and the churchy organ burbling up in the mix is quite an effective touch, as is the tantalizing George Harrison-like lead guitar heard oh-so-briefly); its lyrical twin is a more baroque power ballad near the end of the album, "She Never Cried In Front of Me," another instance of Keith confessing the damage he'd done to someone he loved, with a roiling backdrop of guitars, drums and strings mirroring his abiding regret. Even better is "Missing Me Some You," a phrase destined to enter the lingua franca, from a song rooted in the Memphis/Muscle Shoals axis: slow, surging, bluesy, with a Cropper-esque lead guitar, a wash of horns, a female gospel-tinged chorus and that sanctified organ again, all supporting a powerful blues-based vocal by Keith, who had heretofore never ventured quite so deep into this form but adapts to it like breathing, delivering all the anguish and yearning of his narrator, a soldier pining for his girl back home. The acoustic-based ballad "Hurt a Lot Worse" is a rare moment of vulnerability in the Keith oeuvre, as he broods over a love affair's imminent end, singing the verses in a subdued, aching tone before rising to an anguished cry in the choruses, which build and wail as the song progresses. Later, in the irresistible "You Already Love Me," he employs an acoustic guitar and mandolin intro to frame an upbeat story in which he celebrates his good fortune in being loved by a woman "who could do better than me, maybe," as the song struts jubilantly along in a fleshed-out arrangement heavy on banjo, steel and brush drums-it's a moment of pure, unbridled exaltation and there's no subtext evident beyond that conditional "maybe."

Released on October 28, That Don't Make Me a Bad Guy beats to the marketplace (by one and four months, respectively) new albums by a couple of Keith's chief competitors in the hundred percent more man category, Trace Adkins and Dierks Bentley. This is an irrelevant fact. He's done something special here, and it doesn't matter what anyone else delivers. This album is masterfully conceived in its technical elements and arrangements, played with conviction and subtlety, and thoughtfully considered in its storytelling; however, these attributes would be for naught were it not for Keith's deeply invested vocal performances suggesting a heightened level of emotion in play. Deep feelings cut deep. Alone among many a good Toby Keith recordings, That Don't Make Me a Bad Guy has the feel of something more than a mere Album of the Year. It's destined to be an enduring classic, any way you cut it.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024