- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Toby Keith
American Ride
Show Dog Nashville

If tea party-era America needs an anthem, it could do worse than Toby Keith’s “American Ride,” the rollicking title track of the country mainstay’s new album, out today.

The song evinces an equal-opportunity, Howard Beale-like disgust at modern America’s carnival of consumption, but, like the tea partyers, “American Ride” is unmistakably a creature of the right. Its targets include Mexican immigration and the secularization of Christmas, and for good measure, Mr. Keith shrugs in the face of environmental alarmism (“Both ends of the ozone burnin’/funny how the world keeps turning”).

Mr. Keith says he waited a spell before recording “American Ride” (written by Joe West and Dave Pahanish), and the shelf time shows. For one, when’s the last time you heard about the ozone layer? For another, plasma TVs are on the ashbin of consumer-electronic history. At this point, too, I have to strain to gin up much indignation about the lady who sued McDonald’s because her coffee was too hot.

Incidentally, it sounds a heck of a lot like Shania Twain’s hit “Any Man of Mine.” So never say Mr. Keith is lax about recycling. (Exhibit No. 2: the track “Woke Up on My Own.” You can sing the Beatles’ “Something” on top of it. I urge you, professional and amateur alike, to try it at home.)

In the spirit of moving on, why parse a 2½-minute country song? The 11 tracks that follow “American Ride” ditch the cultural commentary and demonstrate why Mr. Keith has remained at or near the top of the country charts since his 1993 debut: an irresistible sense of humor and an unfailing gift for homespun storytelling.

“Every Dog Has Its Day,” “If Had One,” “You Can’t Read My Mind” — these are quintessential, instantly likable Keith-isms. At first glance, they lean pretty heavily on pop-country cliches and often blind you with Nashville production shine. But Mr. Keith seems to keep his eyes and ears close to earth; he watches life, hops on the tour bus, takes notes, sips a beer. The resulting fables inevitably leave you thinking to yourself, “Ain’t that the truth?”

Mr. Keith drifts into choppier waters on the psych-blues workout “If You’re Tryin’ You Ain’t” and “Cryin’ for Me (Wayman’s Song)” with its echoes of Weather Channel jazz.

And let’s face it: He just doesn’t boast the kind of vocal range to truly pull off ballads such as “Are You Feelin’ Me” and “Tender As I Wanna Be,” but he nonetheless croons with vibrato-laden conviction.

Mr. Keith saves the triumphant for last with “Ballad of Balad,” inspired by the singer’s many USO trips to Iraq. It’s a Merle Haggard-worthy anthem told from the point of view of a soldier wowed by an Army recruiter’s “It’s not a job, it’s an adventure” sales pitch only to find out that his posterior (not Mr. Keith’s word) would soon be shot at.

The tune accomplishes everything that, say, Bruce Springsteen’s protest does not: It tells the truth without spewing anti-patriotic fumes.

In fairness, Mr. Springsteen’s beef is with civilian authority. Mr. Keith skips that confrontation and simply takes the war as he finds it.

But which song could you imagine real, live U.S. troops reveling in — “Ballad of Balad” or the Boss’ “Last to Die”? And which, therefore, qualifies as true compassion? The question answers itself.

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