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Hell Naw

Smart-ass twang-bangers Toby Keith and Robbie Fulks flout expectations and make their best albums in years

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Toby Keith

Honky Tonk University (DreamWorks)

Robbie Fulks

Georgia Hard (Yep Roc)

Playing May 24 at 3rd & Lindsley as part of John Cowan's Tuesday Night Cattle Call

Country music could use a debate show like CNN's Crossfire. Instead of right vs. left, the two commentators could face off on the pros and cons of Music Row values and alt-country independence. For hosts, sparks would fly by setting Toby Keith, the shit-kicking attitude king of modern country music, against Robbie Fulks, the fast-talking wise-ass of y'allternative.

Keith climbed from B-level country singer to arena-filling superstar by encouraging America to flex its military might in "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue," by advocating vigilante justice in "Beer for My Horses" and by dissing a high-school homecoming queen in "How Do You Like Me Now?"

Fulks introduced himself by gleefully singing "She Took a Lot of Pills (and Died)" to a Bakersfield beat, blasting the Nashville hit mill with the swinging "Fuck This Town" and poking fun at his audience in the rockabilly swipe "Roots Rock Weirdoes."

As with most provocateurs, the two tend to be defined by their antics. Their reputations depend on their outspokenness and their larger-than-life personas. Still, their catalogs prove Keith and Fulks are harder to peg than their most talked-about songs. Not only that, both have new albums that sound best when the singers are going against their prevailing images. The more they rely on straightforward songwriting and tender emotion, and the less they talk smack or fall back on brash lyrics, the better they come across.

On Honky Tonk University, Keith occasionally draws on autobiographical material, but mostly he's relaxing into an "I Love This Bar" groove—or, more surprisingly, admitting that he feels pain. The album's first hit, the Waylon Jennings-styled "Honky Tonk U," is far from the record's best song. The single uses the singer's early career struggles to set up boasts about having "sold out every basketball arena" and "I like to get down with my boys in Afghanistan and Baghdad City too," a gratuitous reference that exploits his laudable performances for war-zone troops.

As in the past, Keith's humor leans toward the obnoxious, whether it's stating "Do blondes really have more fun / Or are they just easier to spot in the dark?" or when, in "You Ain't Leavin' (Thank God Are Ya)," he admits his mistress never thought his wife would go. Even when he seems ready to dispense with the swagger, he still can't quite help himself. "As Good As I Once Was," a song set to an easy-going shuffle powered by sweet slide guitar, portrays a big-shouldered rounder who's feeling his age, yet still pulls off a ménage à trois and helps his buddy kick some drunk redneck ass. What a guy.

That's why it's surprising when Keith allows himself to play the loser on the album's best cut, a duet with Merle Haggard on "She Ain't Hooked on Me No More" in which the two singers swap tales about how they return to old bad habits after a woman they love is gone. Similarly, "She Left Me" is a high-speed romp sparked by clever wordplay reminiscent of Rodney Crowell's "She's Crazy for Leaving." The reverb-drenched "Knock Yourself Out," another song about watching his woman leave, allows Keith to show his vocal range in a Mavericks-style modern country blues.

The album ends with a trio of tunes flashing unusual sensitivity, whether it's the acoustic "Your Smile," where Keith tries to buck up an ex-lover by encouraging her to rediscover the joy he wiped away, or when he tries to explain his weaknesses to a former partner in the gentle "You Caught Me at a Bad Time." Keith's macho bombast has as much to do with country's commercial turnaround as anything else that's happened in the last seven years. But on Honky Tonk University, he takes a page from the Haggard-Jones songbook and reveals his scars, and it makes for his best album in years.

In the liner notes to Georgia Hard, Fulks explains that he's drawing on the countrypolitan songwriting of Nashville's post-Hank era, a time when guys like Roger Miller, Bill Anderson, Mel Tillis and Harlan Howard moved songs out of the backroads and honky-tonks and into middle-class struggles over making a living, keeping a marriage together and dealing with dislocation and wanderlust. Too clever and creative to be a mimic, Fulks concentrates on subtleties and songcraft to come up with his most mature, accessible work yet.

That said, fans of his outrageous side aren't left empty-handed. Fulks' satirical humor jumps up and bites in "I'm Gonna Take You Home (And Make You Like Me)," a hilarious duet with his wife Donna in which a drunk tries his best with a woman at the bar. Likewise, the wicked "Countrier Than Thou" is about "hayseed wannabes" who look at rural stereotypes as something to aspire to. Fulks, who always likes to kill people off in verse, also offers two jarringly well-detailed murder ballads.

Yet as with Keith, it's when he departs from established ways that he does his best work. The bluegrass-goes-Nashville arrangement of "Where There's a Road," the blue-tinged, Charlie Rich-inspired "Leave It to a Loser" and the Tom T. Hall-like storytelling of "I Never Did Like Planes" show Fulks sublimating his big personality into a catchy, everyman verse that represents country songwriting at its most earthbound and honest.

This isn't to suggest that Keith and Fulks should suddenly drop their grandstanding to become humble, aw-shucks artists. They are who they are not just because they're good songwriters, but because of the personality they bring to their work. Like most TV commentators, they're not afraid to air their most divisive thoughts, and people love 'em or hate 'em for it. As good songwriters, though, stepping away from their established personas allows them to explore complexities in themselves and in the world. Both have created their best albums in years by daring not to do what we've come to expect.

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