Over the past decade or so, Toby Keith has become somewhat overexposed, often making headlines for the wrong reasons, whether it was his feud with Natalie Maines, his dispute with ABC over performing “American Soldier” in its entirety or for confrontational song lyrics. I began to tune out around 2010, after the release of Bullets In The Gun, and as a result missed Clancy’s Tavern, one of his better efforts of recent years.
Catching up with this 2011 release now has been somewhat of a pleasant surprise. It is a firmly contemporary country project, but is rootsy enough not alienate most country fans, and it also lacks any awkward attempts to push the stylistic boundaries of the genre. That’s not to say that there aren’t any missteps; by Keith’s own admission, “Red Solo Cup” is the stupidest song he’s ever heard in his life (although he also labeled it “freakin’ awesome”). The Jim Beavers-Brett Beavers-Warren Brothers composition (the only song on the album that Keith had no hand in writing), is clearly not meant to be taken seriously. It’s a catchy ditty and is mildly amusing, but becomes less so with repeated listenings. Songs like this have their place as album cuts or concert staples, but they typically aren’t considered single-worthy material. Nevertheless, it landed at #9 on the country chart and #15 pop — his best showing on the Hot 100. It also sold more than 2 million copies, making it the most successful single of his career, from a commercial standpoint — further evidence that quality and commercial success are often two divergent forces.
Prior to “Red Solo Cup”, Toby scored his most recent #1 hit with “Made In America”, about a salt-of-the-earth couple from the heartland, who lament that their traditional values that are no longer in vogue. It’s not a bad song, although it lacks subtlety. It would have packed a greater punch a decade or so earlier, but by 2011 this particular theme had been overdone by Keith and others, and was wearing a little thin. “Beers Ago” a reminiscence of his teenage years written with Bobby Pinson, is my favorite of the album’s three singles. It peaked at #6 but was somewhat overshadowed by the success of “Red Solo Cup”.
“I Need to Hear a Country Song” cries out for a “three-chord, stone cold country song”, even though it sounds nothing like one itself. The upbeat “Trying to Fall In Love” is the album’s most country-sounding track, with plenty of fiddle. I’d have picked this one for a single instead of “Red Solo Cup”, although it probably wouldn’t have sold nearly as well. Also quite good is a the title track, a homage to a neighborhood watering hole and the men and women who work there. Like “Honkytonk U” a few years earlier, “Clancy’s Tavern” was inspired by the Arkansas tavern owned by Keith’s grandmother.
The standard release consists of eleven tracks, all of which can be enjoyed, though “Red Solo Cup” is the clear weakest link. The album’s deluxe version contains four bonus tracks, which were all recorded live in concert in New York City. None of them are particularly memorable, with the possible exception of Keith’s take on Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee”.
When all is said and done, diehard Toby Keith fans are going to enjoy this album, and those who dislike his politics and personality will try their best to hate it. And those who try to keep an open mind will find it to be an enjoyable, though not perfect, album.