Country Dude Licks, 2003

Toby Keith tests the army’s latest super-secure landline technology.

MERLE HAGGARD Like Never Before

Merle has no doubt made more beautiful, more political, and jazzier albums, but maybe not all at once, and probably not in the past quarter-century. This one’s two pinnacles might be the best Gulf War II song and best Patriot Act song yet—the former with a melody my ninth-grade daughter compared to Rancid, the latter with the only Bob Wills-style yah-hah yelps here, and both so disillusioned I assumed the fife-and-drum march about tying yellow ribbons “in your hair so folks around the world will know we really care” was sarcastic until Hag claimed otherwise in Billboard, and I still say he lied. More jazz and/or beauty are available in the swinging road-fatigue pun on his name, the scat-jump where Epitaph’s label prez plinks trash-can ivory, the Willie duet about Woody’s dead Philly lawyer (last done proper by Stampfel and Weber, 1981), the sweet closer where Mr. Muskogee plans a date in the city where hippies wore their hair long and shaggy, and empty-nest and breakup numbers more poignant than you’d expect.

TOBY KEITH, Shock’n Y’All

The two macho wah-wah funkers (one sharing several words with REO Speedwagon’s “Time for Me to Fly”) opt for horns over guitars and thereby ooze closer to early-’70s Lighthouse/Looking Glass minstrel-rock than to Skynyrd. A warmly condescending and possibly pro-Palestine “Ahab the Arab” cartoon called “The Taliban Song” pronounces both “big boner” and (somewhat more melodically) “Turkmenistan.” The “These Boots Are Made for Walkin” homage can’t match Shania’s. The Army recruiting ad ignores AWOLs and self-inflicted gunshots while bombasting like Meat Loaf. The critic slag is a snappy cathouse-piano woogie, but its “$20,000 after taxes” and bluegrass put-downs would be more amusing if less laid-back. Usually, though, Toby lays back at least as expertly as Jay-Z, who has an oddly similar release schedule. The hilariously blasphemous Jesus number, ’80s-AOR-chorded tough-girl ode, Margaritaville-calypsoed frat-band lookback, and outlaw drawler about Willie’s deadly herb all movingly balance muscle with vulnerability. And all the barfly subspecies taxonimized in the great opening track (more than in David Allen Coe’s “Long Haired Redneck,” even!) somehow manage to not kill each other. Instead, the whole dang saloon has a party in the background, and the singer lets his band get real gone at the end. And that ain’t the only time.

NASHVILLE WEST, The Legendary Nashville West Album

Four square sessionmen, including two future Byrds and a former Hollywood Argyle, help lure country toward rock (and not just ’cause the drummer’s barbershop-quartet mustachio anticipates Bun E. Carlos) in an El Monte, California, club in 1967: a couple-each Cajun originals, fast-fingered 40-second instrumental originals, blues-stomp covers, violent-revenge covers, prison covers (including one from Merle), and crossover covers (“Ode to Billie Joe” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” both festeringly voluptuous). Vocals suggest why they mostly played on other people’s records; guitar tapestries suggest what other people wouldn’t let them do. The hardest- rocking song was written by Chuck Berry.

Village Voice, 2 December 2003

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