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Toby Keith does it his way

Toby Keith has never shied away from controversy. Nor has he displayed a lack of confidence, a trait which can on occassion come across as unabashed arrogance. Go ahead -- ask him if he cares.

"Big Dog Daddy," out today, is pure Keith, from soup to nuts. He wrote or co-wrote the majority of the tunes, owns the record company that released it, and for the first time in his career, produced the whole thing himself. According to his writings on the subject, this is also the first time that a Toby Keith album sounds exactly the way he wanted it to, and with no major record label holding the power to sign off on the record, Keith is the only person in the chain who had to be happy with the thing. He is, as copious track-by-track notes he penned for the album make plain.

Strangely, "Big Dog Daddy" doesn't sound much different than any of Keith's previous efforts. It's straight-up modern country, which means it's pretty close to both rock and pop. The majority of the record splits the difference between Lynyrd Skynyrd-like southern rock and country-pop balladry. Keith does both equally well.

Ironically, the pair of cover tunes that are a rarity on Keith releases -- he has claimed to be stubbornly averse to tackling songs he had no hand in writing -- are two of the album's strongest bits.

"Love Me If You Can," written by Keith pals Craig Wiseman and Chris Wallin, serves as the album's lyrical manifesto. Keith didn't write it, but clearly, it speaks for him, offering a litany of his political and social views, name-checking Jesus and the father who gave him his first shotgun, and making stops along the way to offer commentary on the the troubling nature of "what kids learn from TV" and the moral ambiguity of war. Musically, the song is a slightly soggy ballad sung with a blend of "aw, shucks" sentimentality and renegade bravado.

This is Keith speaking to his base, no question, and though it's trite and schlocky, it's also exactly what his fans are looking for from him. The tune turns out to be enjoyable, precisely because it so snugly fits both the Keith and modern country music stereotypes.

Far better is a take on Fred Eaglesmith's "White Rose," a pastoral lamenting the displacement of old-school filling stations, where attendants filled your tank, checked your oil for you and gauged your tire pressure. (Keith, who slapped an advertisement for gas-guzzling Ford "super-trucks" inside the CD booklet, has good reason to be concerned with what happens at gas stations, it would seem.)

White Rose filling stations only existed in Canada, but for Keith, the sentiment is akin to the one expressed in lovable slices of Americana, a la John Mellencamp's (far superior) "Small Town."

Again, the sentimentality can be both cloying and obvious, but it's exactly the sort of material Keith excels at delivering. The musicianship, provided by cream-of-the-crop modern country session players, is simply flawless here, which is either something to celebrate or something to lament, depending on your stance regarding the "new country."

This being, nominally at least, country music, there has to be at least one song about drinking. Keith delivers in spades this time, with the Bakersfield-styled country-rock belter "Get My Drink On," which recounts its narrator's romantic plight. Yup, his woman's left him, and he intends to engage in some serious booze-aided forgetting. Sure, tunes like this are a dime a dozen, but Keith and band really sink their teeth into this one, and the production wisely places double-tracked electric guitar pickin' front and center in the mix.

The title track trades in sturdy rockabilly tropes, shuffling along with conviction -- and again, beautifully recorded, crisp electric guitars -- while Keith indulges in one of the other things he does best -- bragging. It's stupid, but fun, and Clayton Ivy's Jerry Lee Lewis-like boogie woogie piano break is a hoot.

Keith has made a break with the world of corporate record labels, which is in keeping with his oft-professed fierce individualist streak. Interestingly, he hasn't gone for some indie-minded ethic, recording-wise, but rather, replaced his former corporate bosses with a corporation he's now the boss of. So the jump -- and indeed, Keith's overseeing of the production and mixing of the album -- is not manifested musically, but merely in the rather arbitrary substitution of Keith for the Universal Records-approved producers he's worked with in the past.

None of this will matter to Keith fans, who will find plenty to love in their man's meat-and-potatoes country rock.

***

Toby Keith

Big Dog Daddy

[Show Dog Records]

Review: 2 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com.

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