From Toby Keith, Nonpartisan Country

By Joe Heim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Five years after his bellicose "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (the Angry American)" on which he offered to "stick a boot in their [butt], it's the American way," Toby Keith is crooning "Love Me If You Can," a political song that considerably ratchets down the confrontational rhetoric with which the Oklahoma country star is often associated.

The quiet, deliberate song, the second on his standout new album, "Big Dog Daddy," takes on his critics in a way that seems to search for common ground, even among those with fundamentally different views.

"And before all debating turns to angry words or hate, sometimes we should just agree to disagree," Keith sings before concluding the track, almost forlornly, "Hate me if you want to. Love me if you can."

Will his haters learn to love him? Or at least like him? Give him a hug? It matters little. Whatever your politics or worldview, it's hard to argue that Keith doesn't possess the finest voice among his country music contemporaries. He also knows a good hook when he hears one, and the 11 songs on this release are peppered with clever choruses, devilish double-entendres and heavy doses of twang.

Keith wrote or co-wrote almost all of the songs, produced the album and released it on his own label. So it is very much his project, reflecting his wide range of tastes, from such Southern-fried rockers as "Hit It" to the Chuck Berryesque title track. And a cover of Fred Eaglesmith's "White Rose," about a long-shuttered gas station, owes much -- at least in terms of melody and sensibility -- to narrative folk singing (think Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans.")

Those looking for writing that reveals Keith's ornery streak, though, will have to look elsewhere -- his Web site, for instance. There he makes it clear that he's annoyed with how he's been portrayed by other celebrities and how he feels his political views have been misrepresented. He even calls out actor Sean Penn for suggesting that Keith bears some responsibility (along with Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly) for the war in Iraq.

"Now the difference between me and Sean Penn is that I've talked to 50 generals," Keith writes. "I doubt he's even talked to one. I didn't support the war in Iraq and still don't, but I'm sure I know more about it than he does."

So the squabbles haven't died out, but on this new album Keith plays down politics and plays up classic country. He covers his honky-tonk bases with "Get My Drink On," a rollicking high-speed shuffle about boozing it up to forget a woman who has left home because "I didn't treat her right." There's also the amusing "High Maintenance Woman," on which he sings, "I ain't hooked it up yet, but I'm trying hard as I can / It's just a high maintenance woman don't want no maintenance man."

The best track, though, might be "Wouldn't Wanna Be Ya," a song that upends the notion of a one-night-stand and resolves it in clever, heartwarming fashion. Hate him if you want to. But there's a lot about Toby Keith's latest CD to love.

Toby Keith is scheduled to perform at Nissan Pavilion on July 14.

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