"We rode across the border, down into Mexico/when you're running from the law/ ain't that where everybody goes/ we came to a town with a name I couldn't spell/ she gave me what I came for in that Mexican motel." - Bullets In The Gun - Toby Keith-Rivers Rutherford

Oklahoma born hell raiser Toby Keith emerged in the class of 1993 with Canadian chanteuse Shania Twain and Georgian John Brannen.

Shania surfed super waves before being dumped by husband-producer Mutt Lange and Brannen withered on the sales vine.

These days Keith runs successful indie label Show Dog with Louisiana kindred spirit Trace Adkins as his major client.

The singer also operates a chain of I Love This Bar Restaurants and is a prominent horse breeder.

He overtly supports his country's armed forces, declares war on Music Row moguls and professes to be an independent Democrat.

And Keith harvested hay from his hedonistic music as he milked sacred cows with gay abandon.

Sure, he ignites his macho persona with flag waving fervour oft ignited by Charlie Daniels and Hank Williams Jr.

But the passing of the years and major commercial success despite being ignored by awards power brokers has mellowed him and maybe brought out his feminine side.

Yo, there's also a sense of humour unleashed after a musical and movie marriage with fellow singing actor Shotgun Willie Nelson.

So it's no surprise Keith, born Toby Keith Covel, entrees his 16th album Bullets In The Gun (Show-Dog-Universal) with a narrative title track that owes as much to Texan troubadour Robert Earl Keen and Tom Pacheco.

Keith's character chances his arm and libido with a dusky dancer in a southern Arizona border town bar before mine host springs the duo.

Unlike the Marty Robbins saga El Paso the raven-haired senorita sticks the Cadillac De Ville driving bar owner in the back with a gun, forces him to open the safe and deposit the loot in a sack.

They make their getaway across the border to old Mexico where they consummate their ill-gotten gains and newfound lust in a motel before the Federales arrive.

I won't spoil the gunfire-fuelled finale because these writers keep it open ended as is the want of the best tunesmiths.

"Growing up in Oklahoma, playing shows in New Mexico and Texas and being around the real cowboy thing, I've always been a huge fan of the Wild West," says Keith, now 50 and father of three.

"We've modernised it here - the guy's not riding a horse, he's riding a motorcycle. He's lost and lonely and riding around trying to find his place in the world. And when he finds it, she's a renegade just like him. He's got that cold place in his soul, that missing piece. And she's holding it. They're soul mates. He really doesn't commit the robbery, but he loves her so much he lets her do it. She's tired of being treated bad, so that's her jailbreak. She gets out. The cards are on the table and the bullets in the gun is Wild Bill Hickok. There's no more gambling, bluffing; it's do or die and we're settling it. Well, it's that moment where Thelma & Louise at the end of the movie go forward, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid jump, and things like that. One of those moments where cards are on the table, bluff's over, how much do you love me, bullets are in the gun, can we pull the trigger or are we going to get shot? Are we going to shoot or are we going to give ourselves up? How far are we going to go?" And we wrote with that whole thing in mind. I love this song. I never thought it could be a single, but with the response we've gotten from radio, it looks like it's going to be."


"Walked downtown in my broke down shoes/ to the side street pub/ with the bar band blues/take a back seat at the front door table/ order me a Bud and a shot of Black label/close this place down once again." - Somewhere Else - Toby Keith-Bobby Pinson

Keith exploits a melancholic mood and tempo swing for Somewhere Else - penned with prolific Oklahoma born and Texas raised tunesmith Bobby Pinson who wrote two successive Sugarland #1 hits Already Gone and It Happens and previous smash Want To.

Pinson, also an RCA solo recording artist with debut album Man Like Me and indie sequel Songs For Somebody, has been a kindred spirit of sorts of Keith since arriving in Nashville in 1996.

The former soldier, now 40, once tore down the mean streets of Nashville in an ice-cream truck with blaring speakers as marketing tool for his gigs dating back to well before his first major hit by Texan Tracy Lawrence.

Since then his 50 plus covers graced radio for artists diverse as fellow Okie Blake Shelton, Texan LeAnn Rimes, Marty Stuart, Trent Willmon and Van Zant.

< Bobby Pinson

"Somewhere Else is my favourite track on the album," says Keith.

"As a songwriter, it's really clever, wordy and has a lot of craftsmanship and I really love those kinds of songs. I can just picture that guy walking downtown in his broke-down shoes. I've seen people walk 'til they wore that place off the back of their heels. He takes a back seat at a front door table then we flip it in the second verse and the neon light he'd been trying to get to becomes the front porch light. He's lonely and cold, eating his cold TV dinner. He's a Cubs fan, and they lose all the time, too. So he's the biggest loser in the world. As light as the song is, it's a serious issue. A very different song for me."


"New tattoos and farmer fans, rodeo and NASCAR fans/ Dallas Cowboys football on TV/ when the storm starts getting bad and you hear those sirens humming/ grab a six pack and a lawn chair, there's a tornado coming." - Trailerhood - Toby Keith.

Keith milks the comedic quality of preparation for a tornado in a trailer park with his videogenic white trash spoof.

The singer sets up the scenario with vignettes about trailer park denizens and chosen communal activities - playing Texas Hold Em and watching TV sport and scantily clad pick-up truck washers, fuelled by moonshine lemonade with a "Christian, blues, country, folk and southern rock" aural cushion.

But the punchline, of course, is how to deal with the frequent tornadoes.

Well, have another six-pack - a luxury not afforded to Australian farmers and other rural and urban flood victims.

"I was riding my motorcycle and had a couple of dudes with me," Keith recalled.

"We were in an old neighborhood out in the country where I used to live. And there's a trailer park out there. Somebody said, "Hey, let's go eat." We're starting to turn around and I realise they've put railroad tracks in and blocked the street I wanted to take. So I was going to say, "Let's go in the trailer park" or, "Let's go in this neighborhood and turn around." But instead I said, "Let's go in this Trailerhood." And one of the guys said, "The old Trailerhood, huh?" I lived in one for a couple of years when I was 19 after I moved off my parents' farm. It was a real nice, gated trailer park with a pool. I had a lot of fun. There were always guys drinking beer, always a poker game and kids playing ball in the streets. Everybody in my area is a Dallas Cowboys fan, so they're always getting together to watch the games. Then you just go white trash on it with the tattoos, farmer tans, NASCAR and rodeo. Everyone knows trailer parks take a beating from tornadoes, so when you talk to people in L.A. they want to know how someone could live in one. What they don't understand is that tornadoes are exciting. Unless it's bulls-eyed right for you, everybody is outside watching them go by. So I brought all these thoughts together and wrote it by myself over Christmas break. I told the guys when we cut it that I wanted to be real original and organic with it; the bass drum going and the bass right there in a simple, marching band kind of feel."

The hilarious video features Playboy model and Cyber Girl Nikki Ryann who bared almost all in a two-day video shoot at a Nashville trailer park.


"Two weeks notice would have been real nice/ I could have put this broken heart on ice/ belly full of whiskey all laid up in bed/ gearing up for what lays head." - In A Couple Of Days - Toby Keith-Bobby Pinson.

Salient sequencing is important for Keith - the separation song precedes the rebound resurrection.

"Someone will call you and say, "Hey, can you help me move?," says Keith of the third of six songs he wrote with Pinson.

"And you'll tell them you've got some stuff on your plate, but to hit you back in a couple of days and you'll let them know. So the idea was to tie that into a breakup. The girl leaves you and calls back the next day to check in and see how you're doing. Are you allright? Hell, he has no idea. He's still in a stupor. You just hit me with this yesterday, so call me back when the swelling goes down. I've had my ass whipped, I should know something in a couple of days. So attaching that idea to something didn't quite fit is the clever little twist we put on this song. That phrase ordinarily isn't something you would ever apply to the end of a relationship."

So what about the resurrection song Think About You All Of The Time served with a side dish of revenge?

"This is another one I wrote over Christmas break," Keith revealed.

"I absolutely loved the melody, but the idea is probably something I've said or heard and it stuck with me. I can't remember where or why, but I just thought it was funny to say, "Yeah, you're gone and I don't miss you too much, but I think about you all the time."

Which is basically the same thing. He's willing to admit he heard she's in town with a handsome man, but says he didn't catch it all. He caught it second-hand. Well, of course it was second-hand if you heard it from somebody. There's a lot of that kind of doubling back in the song. I wrote one years ago that went, "We'd still be together, but she left me." Well, of course! Those kinds of things crack me up."


"Every time the clouds get low and the sirens start to blow/ I get a sweet little déjà vu/ about Thunderbird and me and you." Kissing In The Rain - Toby Keith-Bobby Pinson.

Booze fuelled summer romances between blue-collar oilfield roughnecks and southern senoritas, who skip school to the chagrin of miffed mamas, are fertile fodder.

So Keith exploits that not so great social divide with a dose of regret and another hurricane metaphor in Kissing In The Rain.

"I usually write songs from the core out but this one started at the front," says Keith.
"Bobby and I put together such a great first verse. Those lines are exactly what we did at the lake. You can't write that memory down better than that. It's 114 degrees in July that lake is muddy and right out on the edge of town. It's where everybody goes. We'd call it "Dirty Bird" instead of Thunderbird. You'd build a fire at night and the high school kids would be out there drinking beer. We had that first verse done and were like, well, where are we going to go with it? A girl would have a more difficult time getting out there because her dad would be more strict than on a son, and we built the story from there. Bad weather is coming - tornado sirens are a weekly event out there. So the storm is coming and they're out there kissing in the rain while her parents are wondering where she is. Then we took it 25 years forward."


"Rolling down the interstate, heading out Illinois/ running about 95, listening to my engine boy, San Bernadino west coast turnaround/ I don't make no money till I set my freaking trailer down." - Drive It On Home - Toby Keith-Bobby Pinson

Keith leaves no turn unstoned in his open road odyssey, especially that staple - trucking.

It's almost as important gruel for the dish as cheating, drinking, loving, fighting, Jesus and mama.

And the credibility is enhanced when the co-writer has experience behind the wheel of a diesel bigger than your custom pick-up.

"Never have written a trucker song before, but for years I've been telling Bobby we were going to write one," Keith confessed.

"We started one time and ended up with the song Pump Jack about the oilfields, knowing there wouldn't be more than a handful of people who would even know what that is. We wrote it from our past, both of us being from that area, and we never got around to writing the trucker song. Now we've come around to it again. When we tore into it, I told him, "Man, truck driving songs make me think about Six Days On The Road, Dave Dudley and those kinds of things.' We'd just made a modern version of a Wild West song with Bullets In The Gun and I wanted to do that in a trucker song. We really got it driving and grinding. It's busy, clever and the lines hit hard and fast. Another one of those songs you hope will get heard on the radio even if it's not the most obvious single."


"I eased up off the whiskey/ me and Jesus got right/ but still you goodbye kiss me/ no matter how hard I try/ I'm down lower than I like to go/ this ain't the first time I've dug out of this hole." - Ain't Breaking Nothing - Toby Keith-Bobby Pinson.

It's song eight before Jesus gets a guernsey but the duo ensure that it's a perfect fit for their audience in Ain't Breaking Nothing.

"Bobby was in the studio and we happened to be cutting Somewhere Else," says Keith.

"This song was a ballad and we were needing two more songs for the album, but I told Bobby I didn't want to put a ballad on. I liked the song. I just didn't love the song. He goes off down the hallway like a dog with his tail between his legs, but in a little bit he came back and said, "I just turned this into a great song." He took that ballad, sped it up to mid-tempo, changed one chord and fixed the song. Something hadn't been right and it didn't fit the album, but once we started playing it as a mid-tempo, we realized we didn't have anything else like it. I've had a lot of songs through the years in this general mould, but I didn't have one yet for this album. The lyrics were well crafted and the song had been easy to write originally, so once we got the tempo fixed it put so much emotion into three minutes. There are people right now in this world who feel exactly like this."


"This old heart didn't die, it's been broke by the best/ but I made it out alive when you laid our love to rest," - Is That All You Got - Toby Keith-Scotty Emerick-Dean Dillon

Keith has been a frequent recipient of songs penned by and with Florida born singer-songwriter Scotty Emerick.

So this time he reached back to a song he wrote with Emerick, now 46, and stone country singer-songwriter Dean Dillon who hails from Lake City near Knoxville.

Dillon, now 55, has been a frequent collaborator with Frank Dycus and the late Hank Cochran.

The Dillon-Dycus team is also a fertile font for Texan troubadour George Strait who has cut more than 18 of their tunes.
< Dean Dillon

Dillon's other song recipients include Texan George Jones and the late great Gary Stewart, Vern Gosdin and Keith Whitley.

So Dillon was an ideal choice for Is That All You Got?

"We wrote that about three years ago and I'd forgotten about it," Keith recalled.

"But right after me and Scotty came off the USO tour I got an email from him saying, "Hey, big T. Found this yesterday." He didn't know it, but we were in the middle of doing the album. He was just sending it so I'd have it in my files, but it sounded like a group of songs me, Scotty and Dean had written that I'd had a No. 1 out of a few years ago. A Little Too Late. I hadn't visited that part of my life in a while, but when I write with those guys I know what it's going to sound like. So I decided to put this one on the album. You can't go wrong with me, Scotty and Dean."


"Girl you drank all my beer, and the whiskey's all gone/ I'm sitting here ready to get it on." - Get Out Of My Car - Toby Keith-Bobby Pinson

Keith may not have romantic rejection at home these days but unbridled lust and unrequited back seat love are still etched in his memory bank.

Well, that's the message of Get Out Of My Car - another collaboration with Pinson.

Not sure if CD slick honouree "My Lord And Saviour Jesus Christ" is a royalties recipient on this salacious saga.

"If you look back through my albums, you'll see what I want out of the No. 10 cut," joked Keith.

"A Roger Miller ditty; something that's going to make you go, "That son of a bitch, he has a good time!" Last album it was Ballad Of Ballad, which is the biggest song I ever wrote overseas. That thing goes over like hotcakes over there. But that's the idea. If people are still listening, they get a little extra shot of fun. I've had people review albums you could tell didn't even listen all the way through. They just looked at the titles and hated on me in print. You can tell because they don't get that twist at the end. In this song, it's in the idea that after all that, there was no way that guy was going to get it. In the end, he gets out of his clothes and she gets out of his car. Left him sitting there naked. And that's me singing those tag harmony lines. Came up with that studio - just told them to leave the mike open because I had an idea."


Australian album buyers receive the deluxe version with four bonus live tracks.

This enables Keith to cut loose and break the country mould.

For starters he and his Incognito Bandito band perform a bluesy version of the late outlaw Johnny Paycheck's prison hit 11 Months And 29 Days.

Then there's late Waylon Jennings classic Waymore's Blues, erroneously listed here as I've Been A Long Time Leaving (But I'll Be A Long Time Gone).

And there's also the long deceased Roger Miller's classic Chug-A-Lug.

On a higher note the finale is Sundown penned by Canadian Gordon Lightfoot, 72, who survived a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm nine years ago but awoke in a dentist chair recently to hear his obituary on a local radio station.

So what's the impetus for the live tracks?

"First of all, I've got a side project called Incognito Bandito," Keith explains.

"It's all the sessions guys playing on all my albums. I heard one of them say that he works sometimes with Delbert McClinton, and another one say he goes out with Mark Knopfler; different guys that they go play with when they're not in the studio. They're the greatest players, the session players. And I said, "Do you guys ever get the way I get, where you just want to go to a bar and do cover songs?" And they said, 'All the time.' And I asked, 'Why don't we do that?' So I came up with name Incognito Bandito.

I said, 'Let's put out one t-shirt that says Incognito Bandito, just a black t-shirt. Let's play bars.' We know we won't make a lot of money, because the bars are not going to be as big. And for the set list we all want to play blues and country blues. And the second one is don't play songs that you would go to a bar and hear bands covering. Make it stuff that you might hear on classic country, blues or oldie stations. The first song that came out was Sundown by Gordon Lightfoot. Everybody loves that song. You probably wouldn't walk in a bar in downtown Nashville or anywhere in the U.S. and hear a band cover it. We do Mexican Blackbird by ZZ Top, Chug-a-Lug by Roger Miller, Waymore's Blues by Waylon Jennings and Shambala by Three Dog Night. You hear this fantastic roadhouse band up there playing, and we don't advertise. Just word of mouth will fill the room. It's the funnest thing I've done in my whole career. It's absolutely a breath of fresh air.

So what's the studio music like?

Well, easy on the ear - especially with fiddler Aubrey Haynie, pedal steel guitarists Bruce Bouton and Paul Franklin, organist-pianist John Hobbs, accordionist Phil Madeira and Randy Scruggs on banjo adding cream to an army of guitarists headed by Kenny Greenberg and Tom Bukovac and bassist Michael Rhodes.

How about a trip down under to spread the gospel, according to Toby?

Maybe he could host an Age concert to kick off the duck-shooting season and return of cattle to the high country with a little global worming entrée if the creeks don't rise again.

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