In the past, Washington Post music reviewers have made no secret of their disdain of country music star Toby Keith's patriotic homegrown quasi-conservatism. But now that Keith is shying away, almost apologizing for his political scuffles with the Dixie Chicks and the late Peter Jennings, the Post seems to have a new-found respect for Keith as a musician and artist. Below the fold you'll see what I'm talking about, but let's start with two prime examples of the Post's past personal swipes at Keith.
Take this November 5, 2003, review by Bill Friskics-Warren, which front-loads a begrudgingly positive review with the obligatory "I can't stand this guy's politics, but he's a damn fine musician" lede:
Toby Keith is a vexing character, to say the least. His knee-jerk nativism, casual sexism and obstreperous personality often seem cartoonish, almost as if he were a right-wing action figure, a dogma-flaunting Ugly American in a straw cowboy hat. Yet he can sing 'em and write 'em, whether that means crooning low like Merle or declaiming vociferously, like Hank Jr., about throwin' down with all his rowdy friends.
Over a year earlier, reviewer Geoffrey Himes gave generally positive marks as a musician, yet started off his four paragraph concert preview in the September 13, 2002, Post by hinting that Keith was a misogynist lug with a penchant for reactionary "tribalism" (emphasis mine):
It would be easier to dismiss Toby Keith if he weren't so talented. It's true that his latest hit, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," is the only high-profile song about Sept. 11 that shares Al Qaeda's bellicose tribalism. It's also true that other recent hits such as "I Wanna Talk About Me" and "My List" have been overbearing macho bombast. But every Toby Keith album contains a few songs whose narrative finesse and emotional subtlety remind us that he is one of the finest male country singers the post-Garth era has given us.
Fast forward to today's Washington Post Style section and Joe Heim's, "From Toby Keith, Nonpartisan Country." The reviewer jumps in with two feet celebrating how Keith has moved from the "bellicose" "Courtesy..." to fare "that considerably ratchets down the confrontational rhetoric."
Heim goes on to celebrate Keith as a vocalist with "the finest voice among his country music contemporaries," a consummate music producer who "knows a good hook when he hears one," and a dazzling artist who "peppered" his latest album's songs "with clever choruses, devilish double-entendres and heavy doses of twang."
So why the sacchariney view of Keith now? Could it be Keith has mellowed a bit, and even has expressed some displeasure with how Iraq was handled? Heim seems to think so:
Those looking for writing that reveals Keith's ornery streak, though, will have to look elsewhere -- his Web site, for instance. There he makes it clear that he's annoyed with how he's been portrayed by other celebrities and how he feels his political views have been misrepresented. He even calls out actor Sean Penn for suggesting that Keith bears some responsibility (along with Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly) for the war in Iraq.
"Now the difference between me and Sean Penn is that I've talked to 50 generals," Keith writes. "I doubt he's even talked to one. I didn't support the war in Iraq and still don't, but I'm sure I know more about it than he does."
The fact still remains that Keith is heavily patriotic and still believes in putting the boot up the terrorists a**es, at least in Afghanistan, which is more than can be said for artists the Post reviewers are more likely to celebrate, like John Mellencamp or Joan Baez.
Editor's Note: Photo of Toby Keith via TobyKeith.com. Keith is scheduled to appear on the the June 12 "Tonight Show with Jay Leno." Potential presidential candidate and former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) will also appear on the June 12 program.