My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘Unleashed’

KeithunleashedBy 2002, you couldn’t find a male country singer bigger than Toby Keith. He was routinely topping the charts turning over multi-week numbers ones with each radio offering. But it was also during this time he lead by his ego and lost of some of his better judgment. That fall made a mockery of himself with the Country Music Association, blasting them for making him the belle of the ball with a front row set and prime exposure, only to lose each of the six awards for which he was nominated.

Two of those nominations were for the lead single from his seventh album Unleashed. I first heard “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” when Keith debuted it in April at the CMT Flameworthy Awards (now the CMT Video Music Awards). When he got to the line, “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way” I was cheering. I really enjoyed the fire in that one line.

Thirteen years later, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” is nothing more than a bombastic document capturing an era in country music. The brash attitude of the track worked well with Keith’s persona, but caught the ire of Natalie Maines, who called the track ‘ignorant.’

I still can’t believe I ate up the second single, the horrible chart-topping “Who’s Your Daddy.” Keith’s ego exploded as he failed to mix humor, brash, and country-rock on a song that had very little redeeming value. Radio was surprising cool to “Rock You Baby,” a bland power ballad that was the only slower song released from Unleashed. Given Keith’s prominence at the time, I was very surprised when it stalled at #13.

The final single was the Willie Nelson duet “Beer For My Horses.” I quite like this song, although the production has worn thin through the years. The song is a battle cry for justice, detailing despicable actions that deserve repercussions:

Well a man come on the 6 o’clock news

Said somebody’s been shot, somebody’s been abused

Somebody blew up a building

Somebody stole a car

Somebody got away

Somebody didn’t get too far

 

We got too many gangsters doing dirty deeds

We’ve got too much corruption, too much crime in the streets

It’s time the long arm of the law put a few more in the ground

Send ’em all to their maker and he’ll settle ’em down

“Beer For My Horses” went on to spend six weeks at number one, becoming Keith’s longest consecutive stay at the top. Nelson, who was 70 at the time, became the oldest male artist to score a chart topping single.

Keith had a hand in co-writing all twelve of the album’s songs, including two with long-time collaborator Chuck Cannon. “Good to Go to Mexico” is a catchy yet far too lightweight mariachi drenched number about making a permanent escape to paradise. They succeed on the splendidly sweet, “Huckleberry,” a plucky love song in the vein of Bryan White’s ‘Rebecca Lynn:’

Baby I’ll be your Huckleberry, you don’t have to double dare me

If the storm gets wild and scary count on me to be right there

You’re so extra ordinary sweet like maraschino cherries

We’ll grow up and we’ll get married

I’m gonna be your Huckleberry

Five more of the album’s tracks found Keith co-writing with his close friend Scotty Emerick. “It’s All Good” begins with poignant commentary, by ends up as an immature tale of two lovers. “Losing my Touch” is a nicely restrained ballad about the inability to shine in a relationship. “Ain’t It Just Like You” has a by-the-numbers lyric about the end of a relationship, but the melody is a bit too progressive for my liking. Even worse is “That’s Not How It is,” a slice of pure pop that goes nowhere melodically. Thankfully the pair wrote “It Works for Me,” a pure country shuffle about being with not having the newest or shiniest possessions. It’s one of the strongest tracks on the album.

The final song is the steel drenched waltz, “Rodeo Moon,” which Keith co-wrote with Chris LeDoux. It’s a great song (with beautiful harmonies by Lari White), in both Keith’s and LeDoux’s versions, but I feel like they need far more restrained vocal performances and a softer waltz melody.

I remember buying Unleashed the day it came out. I rushed to the store because I knew by the afternoon it would sell out. Looking back, I was a bit too eager to own what turns out to be a sonically disjointed album aimed at appealing to a wide array of country music fans. While most of the album is filler, I did enjoy “Huckleberry,” “It Works for Me” and the duet with Willie Nelson is a modern day classic.

Toby Keith is one of the most naturally talented country music vocalists of the past twenty or so years. More often then not, though, he fails to put his gifts to good use on quality material. There are a few notable tracks, but on the whole Unleashed just isn’t worth the effort.

Grade: B-

5 responses to “Album Review: Toby Keith – ‘Unleashed’

  1. luckyoldsun October 17, 2015 at 3:28 am

    I was amazed at the time that Keith’s paean to lynching, “Beer For My Horses” made it to No. 1.

  2. Erik North October 18, 2015 at 2:19 pm

    I think what I dislike so much about Mr. Keith is that his whole behavior and attitude are that of a…well, is Bully too strong a term? Not only does he seem to hate losing (but then again who doesn’t?), but apparently he also doesn’t know how to lose gracefully either. And he also dishes out abuse (especially on Natalie Maines), but can’t take any legitimate criticism any other way but as a personal affront against either his artistry or his patriotism. When you act that way, you tend to have as many enemies (if not more so) as you do supporters (IMHO).

    • luckyoldsun October 19, 2015 at 1:19 am

      The one thing I’ll say in defense of Toby Keith is that he came in the crowd of post-Garth “Hat Acts”–i.e. Mark Chesnutt, Joe Diffie and Sammy Kershaw (who didn’t wear hats, but were still part of the group), Tracy Lawrence. They were all “nice guys” with no public personality to speak of. Toby said his record label told him he should try to be the next Vince Gill!. Unlike the other ones, Toby decided to let his real personality out. It may be arrogant and even mean, but at least it’s real. And Toby’s still standing, while those others are long-gone from relevance.

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