Toby Keith has become one of country music’s go-to guys when it comes to masculine, patriotic, rapid-fire lyrics, and those songs have made him a hero to people across lines of age, sex, and political lines across the country and beyond. His signature style is threaded through his work, and he’s written a great number of his hits: of his 44 singles and 20 album releases, only six of those he didn’t write.
The title track from American Ride is not much different from its predecessors, except for some startling non sequiturs like “Look, Ma! No hands!” that detract from the parody of American life the song is supposed to be. At least, I think it’s supposed to be.
Here’s the thing with Toby Keith: he writes great songs, and he’s one hell of a singer and a damn hard-working entertainer… but… American Ride almost feels like it’s barreling out of control with an equally hard-working and now passed out drunk driver behind the wheel. It’s all over the place, careening from fist-pumping patriotism in the title track to a touching ballad about the loss of a friend, to the funny (is it supposed to be funny?) “Ballad of Balad” that chronicles the life of an enlisted soldier who “blows up those sons of bitches.”
It’s lyrics like these, and the underlying theme of the toil of the Everyman, that has made Keith so popular. That, and a little song called “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).” With songs like “How Do You Like Me Now?!” and “I Wanna Talk About Me” Keith captured the hearts and minds of America’s heartland, and he spent the ‘90s as country’s solid Everyman with a consistent string of hits. His 1993 debut self-titled album had his first chart-topper “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” which set the stage for Keith’s upcoming years of prolific songwriting and record releases.
Keith has released an album every year since 2005, each including his pattern of rambunctious machismo and earnest, heartfelt ballads. American Ride has that same mix, with the aggressive mockery of the title track mingling with the smoldering “Are You Feelin’ Me” and the achy “Woke Up On My Own.”
But only the most rabid of fans will be able to handle “Every Dog Has Its Day,” with lyrics such as “fat dog, skinny dog, little itty bitty dog, hot dog, kurd dog, weenie dog, bird dog, hound dog, cow dog, bow wow wow dog, wonder dog, barkin’ dog, chasing’ parked car dog” and the grating chorus, “See every dog has it’s day dog, when the big dog throws him a bone/ one moment in the sunshine when your ducks lined up in a row/ lucky dog get a big ol’ bed, stray dog gets the porch/ every dog has it’s day dog, but today dog just ain’t yours.”
The rapid-fire, catchy lyrics of “Every Dog Has Its Day” and “American Ride” epitomize the fabric of Keith’s songwriting and have been stitched onto the consciousness of his fans. His admiration for hard work and dedication is evident in “If You’re Tryin’ You Ain’t.”
The centerpiece of the album, though, and a song that’s being talked about here in Nashville by insiders and DJs alike is the heartbreaking “Cryin’ For Me (Wayman’s Song),” which tells the tale of Keith’s friend Wayman Tisdale’s death after a long battle with cancer. Keith wrote it for his friend’s funeral but was unable to sing it.
“I wrote this for (the funeral), but I could not get through it,” Keith says on his website. “I ended up doing Willie’s ‘Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground’ because I wasn’t attached to that. It was weeks before I could make it all the way through the song. It was tough on me.”
Tisdale was a basketball player professionally but also had a successful career as a jazz bass player. Keith’s lyrics reflect both the shared passion the friends had for music and how difficult the sudden death of a kindred spirit is.
“So play it sweet in heaven/ ‘Cause that’s right where you want to be/ I’m not cryin cause I feel so sorry for you/ I’m cryin for me.”
And it’s endearing, honest writing like “Wayman’s Song” that keeps Toby Keith fans faithful to him: the man writes, and performs, from his heart. He always has. And while life for many Americans feels like it’s being ripped apart at the seams with job loss, foreclosures, family strife and Swine Flu, it’s comforting to know there’s a man out there like Toby Keith who has the songwriting chops and natural talent to remind us that not only do we live in the greatest country in the world, but we should be damn proud of it.
Keith has sold more than 30 million albums and has been among the top all-genre touring artists for 10 years. His songs have been honored by BMI for 63 million broadcast performances and counting, which Keith says is “the one number of them all that gets me.”
So it’s safe to say: Toby, you keep writing, and we’ll keep listening.
Download this: “Cryin’ For Me (Wayman’s Song)”, “Are You Feelin’ Me.”