- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2005

Toby Keith

Honkytonk University

Dreamworks Records

Toby Keith comes out snorting and kicking like a rodeo bull on the opening cut of “Honkytonk University,” tipping his 10-gallon in the direction of “my boys in Afghanistan and Baghdad City.”

God bless ‘im and his red-state badge of courage.

But is there an album in here or just beers, tears and boot-scootin’ bluster?

Everyone knows Mr. Keith is the torch-bearer of traditional country music in Nashville, along with such traditionalists as George Strait and Alan Jackson. But classicism can become a parody, too, much as pop country often sounds like a tepid duplication of mainstream rock.

“Honkytonk University,” written mostly by Mr. Keith and Scotty Emerick, has its share of smokin’ Telecaster licks, red-eyed pedal steel guitar and enough lyrics to fill a cheese factory (“Do blondes really have more fun/Or are they just easier to spot in the dark?” … “Take your frown, turn it upside down”).

The great Merle Haggard duets with Mr. Keith on “She Ain’t Hooked on Me No More,” a two-stepping celebration of the salves otherwise known as whiskey and cigarettes. The result sounds like a lost AM country classic.

It’s not all sturdy, three-chord country. Check out the subtle wah-wah guitar and the breezy rhythm of “Just the Guy to Do It” — it’s country in the key of Jimmy Buffett.

Mr. Keith’s outlaw braggadocio is often a hoot, as on “You Ain’t Leavin’ (Thank God Are Ya),” a nasty kiss-off to a departing wife. “She forgot her new laptop, so I know she’ll be back/I’ll have a hot tub full of hotties icin’ down a 24-pack,” Mr. Keith sings, which either gives the lie to the stereotype of red-staters as Bible-thumping prudes or confirms the theory that blue-state marriages actually are healthier than their heartland counterparts.

But, on the biographical title track and elsewhere, Mr. Keith, an ex-semipro football player, sounds as if he’s coming to terms with middle age. A friend asks for a hand in a fight with a great big barroom biker in “As Good as I Once Was,” and Mr. Keith says, with the cautious hesitation of the still-sober and the over-40, “Dave …”

Of fame, as with football, Mr. Keith says it can’t last forever. But he doesn’t ask much of life: “As long as there’s a barroom with a corner stage and a honkytonk crowd,” he’ll get his satisfaction.

Maybe that’s why the beer-tears sound so genuine, rather than merely mawkish, on the album-closing quartet of ballads “I Got It Bad,” “Your Smile,” “Where You Gonna Go” and “You Caught Me at a Bad Time,” each about romances caught in some hang-time between bliss and breakdown.

With the winning “Honkytonk University,” Mr. Keith proves he’s more than a poster-boy patriot; he’s out to win the patronage of all who take their country music neat.

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