Honkytonk University Label: Dreamworks Nashville
Like it or not and for better or worse, the 9/11 tragedy rejuvenated and even spawned many a career. From Rudy Giuliani to Michael Moore to those guys who created Jib Jab, they all owe a debt of gratitude, regrettable or not, to history. Nobody in the country music ranks has made more bankroll deposits since September 2001 than Toby Keith. While his heart seems firmly behind his work and his constant interaction with American troops appears genuine, one can’t help but imagine what his stake in this life would be without the colors red, white, and blue.
Honkytonk University is Keith’s first retreat in several years from the exaggerated patriotic themes that fueled the mega success of Unleashed and Shock’n Y’all. To his credit, the outcome is more hard line traditional country than anything he’s done. “She Left Me” is one of the hottest pickin’ tunes contemporary ears have ever heard, while the woozy rumba “She Ain’t Hooked on Me No More” pairs Keith with the great Merle Haggard for a legitimate Nashville moment. Unfortunately, the boulevard between old school country and sheer monotony is a tricky ride. Ill-advised detours like “Big Blue Note” and “Just the Guy To Do It” fall flat and leave us yearning for another “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” even if you weren’t a fan of that song.
Long-time pen pal Scotty Emerick does all he can to salvage this work. The title track and “As Good as I Once Was” are equally entertaining, and each serve as reminders that, by all means, TK still has it. Even though “As Good as I Once Was” is little more than a stepped-up retake on “I Love This Bar,” it demonstrates the kind of past-my-prime bar tale that anyone could relive after a couple pitchers of cheap draft beer. “I still throw a few back, talk a little smack when I’m feelin’ bulletproof,” Keith crows, as if he was 19 years old and in between classes at Oklahoma University. In the end, Honkytonk University is lackluster but not altogether disposable. Similar to Alan Jackson’s What I Do from last year, it represents a well-deserved break in a career that has been running full steam ahead for quite sometime.