Snicker all you want at Toby Keith's shoutout to his "boys in Afghanistan and Baghdad City" in the chorus of "Honkytonk U" -- Keith may pander, but that doesn't mean he doesn't deliver the goods. And deliver he does on Honkytonk University, his 2005 follow-up to 2003's hit Shock'n Y'all and the second album he's released since 2002's Unleashed made him into a bonafide superstar thanks to its post-9/11 anthem "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)." That song pegged Keith as a right-wing, red-state country singer, but that's not exactly an accurate designation. Not only is he nowhere near as simple as Darryl Worley, but his patriotic posturing was savvy, a good way to endear him to his core audience and broaden his base, all the while being able to keep his country pure, without a trace of pop schmaltz in its arrangements. Honkytonk University, as its title suggests, confirms that Keith is the biggest hardcore country singer this side of Alan Jackson, but where Jackson is a strict traditionalist, Keith is a rowdy modern man, building on the outlaw country of Waylon Jennings and the sound of latter-day Merle Haggard, throwing in traces of Dwight Yoakam along with a keen eye for contemporary life. He takes such time-honored themes as love, broken hearts, and drinking and gives them new life through his sharp details and sense of humor -- best heard on the wonderfully self-depreciating "As Good as I Once Was" and the absurd, over-the-top "You Ain't Leavin' (Thank God Are Ya)" -- and a strong sense of craft. He's been writing good barroom weepers and party tunes for a long time, but here, the love ballads and sad songs are just as good, and there are such nice, breezy changes of pace as "Where You Gonna Go" that recall the best of rolling, folk-influenced country. Indeed, there's a greater variety of sounds and styles on Honkytonk University than many Toby Keith records -- there's honky tonk, to be sure, but that's only the starting point -- and that variety, along with the consistently strong set of original songs (all bearing Keith's writing credits, many co-written by Scotty Emerick), makes this one of his very best records.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
feat: Merle Haggard