Album Review – Toby Keith’s “35 MPH Town”

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As Toby Keith was finally releasing his much-delayed new album 35 MPH Town, yet another one of the restaurants that bears his name was creating embarrassing headlines. Already scheduled to close on October 31st, the Rosemont, IL location of “Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill” decided to shutter early after employees started stealing liquor and memorabilia from the restaurant. It’s one of scores of locations that has either closed suddenly or never opened as promised, while hundreds of thousands of dollars in back rent and vendor bills from locations all across the country are making a pariah of Toby Keith’s name in local papers, even though Keith himself is only a partner of the restaurants in name.

But that’s about how things are going these days in Toby Keith’s world. His once high-flying Show Dog-Universal label has now emptied of talent after high profile exits by Trace Atkins, Randy Houser, and Josh Thompson. At the moment, the only artists left on the label have the last name “Keith,” and Toby’s daughter Krystal has never charted a Top 50 single. So much for challenging Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records blow for blow when the two entrepreneurs split in 2005. Borchetta now boasts a roster 34 strong, including the biggest music star in the world in Taylor Swift. Toby Keith has two artists left in his stable, counting himself.

There’s a song on the new album called “Rum Is the Reason,” which muses back through history and blames the failings of world leaders like Hitler and Stalin to their insatiable desire for alcoholic libations. It concludes, “Run is the reason pirates never ruled the world,” while Jimmy Buffett’s Corral Reefers play a calypso-style ditty. Match that up with the amount of mad patrons at a show in Indiana last year who said that Keith was too wasted away in Margaritaville to perform, and a pattern begins to emerge. “Rum Is The Reason” might be art imitating Toby Keith’s life. Oh how the mighty have fallen.

All of the singles from Toby Keith’s 35 MPH Town have pretty much flopped. “Drunk Americans,” which is the only song on the album not written by Toby would almost be poetic if it wasn’t so pathetic in how sad it seems coming from Keith (the song’s written by Brandy Clark, Bob DiPiero, Shane McAnally). At this point, Toby Keith is a relic. What talent he had was questionable to begin with, and he hasn’t ever really evolved for there. Time has passed Toby Keith by, and he doesn’t have the fluidity or desire to change with the times, or the quality it takes to be considered classic. He’d probably be out there criticizing acts like Thomas Rhett and Florida Georgia Line, but his continued ownership percentage of Big Machine means those acts are making him more money than his own music is. Toby Keith is music’s wealthiest colossal failure at the moment.

toby-keith-35-mph-town35 MPH Town sold as many copies as the fellow Oklahoma-based Turnpike Troubadours did on their recent debut week. Jason Isbell sold twice as many albums as 35 MPH Town did upon its debut. Toby Keith fans don’t want to buy his records. They want to perpetually believe it’s still 2003 when their lives still mattered. Let’s kick Saddam’s ass! No wonder the title track to this album boils down to a “get off my lawn,” message and laments how the times have changed for the worse, while in truth crime statistics have fallen sharply.

But just as much as Toby Keith is to blame for the corner he’s painted himself in, so is the public perception of him. He could personally broker a lasting peace accord between the Israelis and Palestinians, and he would still be known as that guy with the “boot in the ass” song. He comes in second only to Fox News as the go-to punching bag when you need an analogy of how dumb Americans are, and now that Donald Trump is running for President, Keith may be trumped out of that spot too. Rachel Maddow and others may have never had careers if it weren’t for Toby Keith, even though Keith was a registered Democrat during “The Angry American” era.

And despite making himself into an incredibly easy target and not doing himself any favors in the backsliding of his career and public image, 35 MPH Town is not an especially terrible album when you actually machete through all the distractions and reams of Toby Keith baggage to give it a listen. “Drunk Americans” at least tries, and the song “35 MPH Town” at least has the courage to tell the other side of rural life instead of portraying it as an endless tailgate party in a cornfield.

35 MPH Town includes a couple of full tilt rockers—“Good Gets Here” and “10 Foot Pole,” and though the horn sections felt a little extraneous (couldn’t we use that money to keep the lights on at one of the Toby Keith Bar & Grills?), these songs are kind of fun, though not country at all.

“What She Left Behind” is actually a really well-written and fleshed out tune, and it’s worth noting that while most major label acts these days rely on the “songwriting by committee” model, Toby wrote 70% of this album with just himself and songwriter Bobby Pinson. Keith also co-wrote the two other remaining tracks. “Beautiful Stranger,” which has been tapped for the record’s third single, is also a pretty good song, and is sung quite well too. “Haggard, Hank, & Her” is probably not as good as it looks on paper, but is not a bad effort at all.

But songs like “Sailboat For Sale” with Jimmy Buffett, and the aforementioned “Rum Is The Reason” are like boat anchors dragging down this effort, and “Every Time I Drink I Fall In Love” is just kind of stupid.

In 2003, Toby Keith was what was wrong with country music. When he released “Red Solo Cup” in 2011, he once again deserved that distinction. But 35 MPH Town? It’s a harmless, somewhat outdated-feeling, somewhat country sounding, innocuous mainstream country record with a few decent moments and a few stinkers. The world won’t pay much attention and they probably shouldn’t. But this album is far from the problem.

One Gun Up, One Gun Down (5/10)

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