By Jeff Moses
By Serene Dominic
By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
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By Troy Farah
By Roger Calamaio
By Mark Deming
In the beginning of the movie Reservoir Dogs, gangleader Joe, played by Lawrence Tierney, is confused by the discourse taking place around the film's famous round table. His partners in crime are discussing someone whose name he doesn't recognize. "Toby?" he asks his fellow diners. "Who the fuck is Toby?"
Of course, Tierney isn't speaking of Toby Keith, but in 1992, when the film came out, that might have seemed like a legitimate question to the country artist, who was 31 years old and completely unknown outside of the tour circuit he was working. At the time, Keith was still a year away from the release of his first album.
Ten years later, Keith is a well-established figure in the country-music universe, where he has struggled, striven and flirted with both obscurity and tremendous success. Media-friendly yet controversial, he has embraced a career and an image that's two parts outsider -- and the rest strictly teddy bear.
Keith was born Toby Keith Covel in 1961 in Oklahoma. By all accounts, he was a good-natured rough-and-tumbler who grew up in the shadow of a gregarious and well-liked father, a former GI who lost an eye during combat training. His mother was a singer, which helps explain where at least a portion of his talent comes from. As a young man, Keith played both guitar and football, and he tried to make a career of both loves during his early years. Later, he ran a local band while working in the oil fields and might have been content making part-time music if the oil industry hadn't gone belly-up.
Instead, Keith took his music and ran headfirst into the jaws of the Nashville machinery, which, at the time, was more interested in cloning Vince Gill, according to Keith. In his own oft retold legend, Keith came to Music City with a cassette in hand, hoping to spark some interest among the learned marketers and A&R reps of Capitol Records. He was soon bucked hard from that particular mechanical bull.
Somewhere in the midst of all that, Keith began to develop a leathery yet extremely thin skin, something he wears to this day. Much of his career has been about vindication. Keith, in fact, has become famous largely for being a victim -- of being misunderstood, of being right where others were wrong. He has been known to occasionally puff up beyond recognition and declare that those who didn't accept him early on can now be found cutting grass -- but not his grass.
Aided by the efforts of an industry-savvy friend, Keith finally landed a deal with what Lester Roadhog Moran used to call Mercury Music. A corporate shell game would keep Keith hidden beneath one label shakeup after another, however. He was releasing discs on Mercury, Polygram, A&M and again on Mercury -- all beneath a single corporate umbrella, but with entirely different department personnel. He released five discs for the conglomerate, beginning with 1992's Toby Keithand ending with Dream Walkin'. Each new title brought a new team and a new idea about what would work for the guy -- he was like the central figure in a silent Buster Keaton movie -- a man standing in one spot while the world around him churned furiously.
The upshot was that this middle-managed muddle never quite let him show off the really good stuff, stuff that Keith was beginning to understand was being lost in the blitz. In spite of a platinum-selling debut album, strong hits ("Should've Been a Cowboy" reached number one on the country charts in 1993) and growing popularity, by 1997, Keith was about to become a has-been and a never-was at the same time, washed up and washed out before he ever really hit the beach.
Fortunately for Keith -- who has a clear talent for writing catchy songs and a reasonably decent singing voice -- his authentic genius lies in self-marketing. In a bold move, Keith bought the masters of his last Mercury-produced CD for "six figures" and released it under the aegis of his new buddies at Dreamworks Records. When it was released in 1999, the single "How Do You Like Me Now?!" finally put Keith among the stars.
The song is a hillbilly version of "If You Could See Me Now," and it was accompanied by a video that aimed to get some revenge against Keith's detractors. In the process of filming the video, he discovered a real screen persona that worked in his favor. He cultivated a number of camera-friendly looks and poses, as any good actor does, and went to work.
At the heart of it, Keith is product -- good, well-crafted, solidly entertaining product -- and he probably wouldn't deny it. "How Do You Like Me Now?!" no doubt will end up as the theme for a new-and-improved box of Wheaties, or perhaps Keith's two new sponsors, Coors and Ford, in the next few years. He's the end result of many subtle adjustments. After all, human brand names don't find their niche in the collective conscious unbidden; they have to be squeezed in just right. Keith is a showboater and a populist mechanic, a living example of product placement.
The most recent chapter in the Keith saga is the controversy he's generated around his dismissal by Peter Jennings and ABC News, who, at one point, asked him to perform as part of a Fourth of July news special. Though the story changes depending on who's being quoted, the gist of it is that Keith intended to perform a track from his newest CD, Unleashed. The song is called "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)" -- apparently the song required two titles in case one didn't catch -- and it deals with the rage Keith was feeling after the 9/11 attacks and the death of his father some months prior.
According to Keith, he was divided on whether to release the track at all, but popular support, management insistence and the tremendous appreciation of the GIs and military personnel for whom he'd performed the song convinced him it ought to be included on the disc. In fact, the song is the album's leading track, and a short speech that Keith gave to an appreciative audience before beginning a live version of it provides Unleashed's final moments.
The decision to cut Keith's performance may have had something to do with these lyrics: "Soon as we could see clearly/Through our big black eye/Man, we lit up the world/Like the Fourth of July/This big dog will bite /When you rattle his cage/And you'll be sorry you messed/With the U.S.of A./Cause we'll put a boot in your ass/It's the American way." ABC said that it received many boots in the mail and was the subject of an Internet petition from viewers who objected to the idea of Keith's performance. The network decided to side with the viewers and removed him from the lineup.
In spite of this snub, the song became a huge hit -- but it also created some rifts between Keith and the country-music establishment. In an interview with Reuters, the Dixie Chicks' Emily Robinson said the controversy over Keith's song "feeds people's stereotypes about country and that everybody's a redneck and ignorant, and that the way we're going to deal with something is in an uneducated way."
Keith countered that anybody who didn't like the song was a "Commie heathen," which pretty much ended the dialogue. And though "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" certainly forged a divide between those who vilified the singer and those who embraced him, it didn't do much to help anyone understand him. There's a secret to Toby Keith that no one seems to have figured out: All that country-rock-pop sound and his larger-than-life stage/TV/video demeanor masks a folksy '60s character who is as much Burl Ives as he is Hank Williams Jr. or Charlie Pride. Listen to Keith wrestle a ballad -- his voice quivers and quavers like someone going over a washboard road in a pickup truck with bad shocks. And when he gets serious, he bellows like someone struck by injustice, wanting to strike back. There's a bit of Barry McGuire in the boy.
Keith is in his zone, with novelty numbers that are cleverly written and well turned-out, full of funny phrases and great hooks. It's no wonder he's becoming a pop icon, selling the 10-10-220 dialing business with Alf and Terry Bradshaw in national commercials. He's a natural in front of the camera, appealing even to people who might never listen to a country station or a Toby Keith song. Keith claims he's been approached to act in situation comedies, and its easy to imagine him in buddy-oriented action films as well.
For now, though, music remains his emphasis. Unleashedis actually pretty sweet . . . once you get passed the glare of the anthem. It's actually a little sad, defiant in places and defeated in others. There's a duet with Willie Nelson that has some Old West charm, and Keith's latest single, "Who's Your Daddy?," is a real slice of Tin Pan Alley country honky-pop, closer musically to the '30s than to today, with more than a touch of a "Walk Right In" feel. The song would have been a good choice for Jerry Lee Lewis in his day.
The fact is, if Keith is truly unleashed, it's probably because the big dog is less vicious than he pretends.