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Dr. Toby and Mr. Keith 

Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & f you're of a certain age and gender -- say, a dude who went to high school in the mid- to late '90s -- and you're of a certain geographical and socio-economic background -- say, a poor-ass cowtown chock full of white kids -- then one or more of your teen sweethearts probably asked you if you wouldn't mind making out to "I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying."


You probably realized your sweetie wasn't trying to tell you something, she was just head over heals in love with Toby Keith's brand of charming, inoffensive, nearly asexual mope-twang. Pre-millennial Keith was so lovelorn, such a gawl-durned aw-shucks kinda nice guy, he had all the young girls swooning. Sugary sweet and swimming in underage fans, he was, for a time, Nashville's 30-something equivalent of Aaron Carter.


His appeal, though, extended far outside the schoolhouses. Ladies of all ages fell for his sentimentalism and sorrow. Back then, 90 percent of his songs were about love, and like 100 percent of those were either about how awesome love is or about how much it hurts to have your heart broken or how often he's been spurned. Songs like "Wish I Didn't Know Now," "Should've Been a Cowboy" and "Who's That Man" were hits that allowed Keith to ride the new-country resurgence by catering to its largest target demographic: women yearning for knights in shining armor.


Then something happened. His sixth LP, 2002's Unleashed -- fresh on the heels of 9/11 -- came strapped with a half-dozen polemics against everything from general, diffuse wickedness to gangsters to corruption. The brunt of the rage, though, was pointed at the Middle East. This was completely uncharted territory for Keith. The song "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" caused a tumult for its hawkishly nationalistic message while "The Taliban Song" from 2003's Shock'n Y'all delivered a caricatured impression of oppressed Afghanis.


Since then, he also seems to have hardened as a person. In the space of 10 months, the guy who had once said, "I just don't like to pick 'em up and lay 'em down," was now singing, "Never held a woman longer / Than I held one single dollar." Remaking an image is nothing new in country music, but seldom does it come faster between "Pull My Chain" and "Unleashed." Either Keith has changed profoundly, or it's all a gigantic front. Although he did become more tolerant of experiences involving marijuana. "Weed With Willie" tells the story of how gat-durned blazed Keith gets every time he's around country legend Willie Nelson, the two "in the fetal position with drool on our chins."


We'd have liked to talk to old Toby and new Toby together, but it's abundantly clear from the last three albums that old Toby doesn't live here anymore. So we decided to let their song-lyrics speak.





How's it going, guys? & r & Nice (Old) Toby: I'm a lonely man with a lonely life / A full-time job and part-time wife. & r & Angry (New) Toby: The headlines say that the end looks grim / And the future don't look so bright.





What have y'all all been up to? & r & N(O)T: Dream Walkin', Pillow talkin' ... playin' house with the girl next door. & r & A(N)T: Rais[ing] up our glasses against evil forces / Singing whiskey for my men, beer for my horses.





There was a fairly quick switch in your outlook after 9/11 there, Angry Toby. Why is that? & r & A(N)T: Mother Earth has changed since I was a child / The East is a beast.





"Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" came out nine months after we entered Afghanistan, and "The Taliban Song" came a full two years after the Taliban were effectively scattered. That's not very timely. & r & A(N)T: Justice is the one thing you should always find / You got to saddle up your boys / You got to draw a hard line.





Are you worried that your new lyrics will come off as jingoistic or even racist? & r & A(N)T: Ain't it funny? I think it's funny.





What? & r & A(N)T: We lit up [their] world / Like the Fourth of July.





What about those displaced by the bloodshed? & r & N(O)T: Come on back to our double-wide paradise / ... We'll throw some ribs on the barbecue & r & A(N)T: When the gun smoke settles, we'll sing a victory tune / We'll all meet back at the local saloon.


N(O)T: These days nobody seems to try / to love through the hard times.





So it's all about retribution, Angry Toby? & r & A(N)T: It's time the long arm of the law put a few more in the ground.





So is there a soft side to you anymore? & r & A(N)T: I never went out chasin' rainbows.





Sure you did, hundreds of times. & r & A(N)T: Even if I found my pot of gold / I know I'd piss right through it.





That's kind of sad. & r & A(N)T: You don't have to say a prayer for me / I just said one for myself. & r & & r & & r & Toby Keith at the Spokane Arena with Joe Nichols, Scotty Emerick and Danielle Peck on Sunday, Jan. 22, at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $45-$60. Visit www.ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.
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