Toby Keith was edging in on superstardom prior to the release of Unleashed -- he appeared on a national long-distance telephone commercial, after all -- but this was the record that made him a household name, thanks to the opening track "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" and the media-created controversy surrounding its release. The rabble-rousing, obstinate flip-side to Alan Jackson's "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning" -- essentially, a 9-11 song for those who thought Jackson's heartbroken confusion was for pansies, but weren't redneck enough to embrace Charlie Daniels' "That Ain't No Rag, It's a Flag" or "The Last Fallen Hero" -- "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" is, as its subtitle suggests, filled with anger, telling the terrorists (whose "suckerpunch came flying in from somewhere in the back," a rhyme so tantalizingly close to "somewhere in Iraq," you will yourself to hear it every time it plays) that they'll "get a boot in their ass, it's the American way." Keith was scheduled to sing this on an ABC special on the fourth of July (not too coincidentally mentioned in the song), when apparently Peter Jennings objected to the tone of the song and asked the network to rescind the singer's invitation, which then lead to reams of print and countless TV appearances that effectively sold Unleashed before it hit the stores.
As it turns out, "Courtesy" is a bit misleading of a lead single, as is the title, since most of this album is hardly tough macho posturing. Sure, there's some of it -- such as the absurdly anthemic "Beer for My Horses," a duet with Willie Nelson where the two of them hunt down modern day gangsters like cowboys, then drink to their accomplishments -- but most of this album is tuneful singer/songwriterism, particularly on the second side, where this album really takes off with a series of rolling, melodic, acoustic-based songs that truly demonstrate that Keith can be a sturdy, memorable songwriter. True, he does descend into cloying cuteness on occasion ("Huckleberry"), but the stretch of songs from "It Works for Me" through "That's Not How It Is" that ends the record is among his finest, and they're balanced by a couple of good moments from the first side (the silly fun of "Good to Go to Mexico," "Losing My Touch") and, of course, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue." That song may mischaracterize what's on Unleashed, but those who are brought in by that slice of flag-waving jingoism should be pleased by the sweeter fare here since, ultimately, it proves to be more substantive.