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There's no doubt Toby Keith shocks some people. His over-the-top confidence and unabashed stance on subjects both political and social make some faint-of-heart folks as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers.
But ironically, it's the same take-no-prisoners attitude that has made Toby a hero to millions of fans.
In recent hit singles, the towering Oklahoman has sung about putting a boot in the ass of our adversaries in the Middle East, about one-night stands and about - in what possibly accounts for country music's first-ever mention - a woman's menstrual cycle. And for months he's been engaged in a high-profile feud with antiwar Dixie Chick Natalie Maines, for which Toby now says he's disappointed in himself for not handling better.
"I'm pretty embarrassed," he says, "about the way I let myself get sucked into all that."
Now comes Toby's just-released Shock'N Y'all CD - and it's certain to rattle some folks' cages again. In 11 songs he wrote or co-wrote, and one he didn't, he sings about a honky-tonk and its cast of characters, marijuana, a woman's private-area tattoo, Afghanistan's Taliban, critics who've gunned him down, badass cowboy boots, the American military and even - hang on - about being Jesus.
"I walked out of the studio this time knowing I had made the best music I could make," declares Toby. "I have control over a song's words, music and how it's recorded. I have no control over how the public will accept it. So I do my best - and then what's gonna happen is gonna happen."
What happened is this - when Shock'N Y'all debuted in early November - powered by the No. 1 single "I Love This Bar" - it went gold its first week, selling more than 585,000 copies. Talk about public acceptance! It was Toby's best sales week ever and marked the highest one-week sales total for any country artist in 2003. And Toby's previous CD, Unleashed, on the charts for more than a year and still in the Top 5, has already racked up sales of more than three million.
"It feels good to keep things crankin'," admits Toby with a grin. "It's great to deliver music to my fans."
Toby's banner year cranked along, indeed, with his 60-city Shock'N Y'all Tour, an ACM Entertainer of the Year award, an AMA Favorite Country Album win for Unleashed, advertising gigs for the Ford F-150 pickup and Mr. Coffee, and lots of TV airtime. (His interview with Dan Rather on 60 Minutes II drew more than 12 million viewers.) And Toby was the most-nominated artist at this year's CMA Awards, even though he went home without a single trophy.
His fans pushed Shock'N Y'all's first single, the singalong "I Love This Bar," to the top of the charts. "It's hard to believe that song hadn't already been written, with all the great bar songs in country music," notes Toby. "I miss those kinds of songs. Written and sung by Merle, Willie, David Alan Coe, Waylon, Billy Joe Shaver ... Those songs have gone away. Research groups or the political correctness of the industry thinks it's not cool to sing such songs 'cause they stereotype country. I'm just a country boy who sings American music, and I'm not afraid to say I like things in a bar. The success of my music proves that others feel the same way."
The CD's second single, "American Soldier," has just hit radio. "The instant some people hear the title, they're gonna think, 'Here he comes with part two of "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue," ' but it's completely different," says Toby. "There's no political statement. The first verses tell of someone providing for their family, strugglin', getting up and going to work. At the end you find out it's about an American soldier.
"I get accused of banging the war drum," he admits. "I'm against war just like everybody else is. But I felt when we were attacked on 9/11 we had to go do something about that. I know the streets of freedom are paved with blood. Just like our forefathers sacrificed their lives for the freedoms we enjoy, we have to be defiant when we are attacked as brutally as we were on 9/11."
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