Toby Keith: He Should’ve Been An Actor

Prolific Singer-Songwriter Takes His Music Videos Seriously -- and Comically

Contrary to what you may have seen or heard, there are videos that prove Toby Keith was not born with a hat and a scowl. Of course, you wouldn’t know that from viewing his more recent mini-dramas. Lately, the boy’s been downright menacing. But we’ll get back to that.

Keith has done 28 music videos to date, including alternate versions of “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” and “A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action” for the NFL. He also cameoed in Cledus T. Judd’s “How Do You Milk a Cow,” a parody, as you might have surmised, of “How Do You Like Me Now?!” Instead of browsing through all 28, let’s look at some representative samples.

The country music world caught its first glimpse of Keith in January 1993 in his debut video, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy.” At the time, his record label was introducing him, along with Shania Twain and John Brannen, through its Triple Play tour. To help promote the tour, the label issued a composite tape that had the first videos of all three artists on it. It’s a collector’s item today.

Shot in the brown, sepiatone hues of early B westerns, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” gives Keith his first shot at acting. But before he gets into his cowboy scenes we first see him singing in a bar. He’s not wearing a hat, and his curly hair and well-trimmed beard bring flashbacks of Keith Whitley. Even when his mind takes him out of the bar and into the saddle, Keith plays rather than is a cowboy. He manages to look relatively sunny even when he’s outgunning the villainous villain. Brief though it was, the video demonstrated two things: Keith could sing, and he had a dramatic presence that flowed right through the camera.

Determined not to be typecast as a “hat act,” Keith did his next video, “He Ain’t Worth Missing” (1993), without wearing one. He later told an interviewer that he wanted to use the song and the video to show his musical versatility. As he heard it, “He Ain’t Worth Missing” was more Tom Petty pop than it was country. Here Keith plays the sympathetic bartender to a lonely lady. Looking crisp and comforting in his starched white shirt and bolo tie, he does most of his acting with subtle facial gestures.

Keith is the only character in “Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine on You” (1996). In spite of the moon reference, this video is set on a rainy night. From inside an obviously elegant house, Keith stands at the window and looks out wistfully as he sings to his departed lover. In another scene, he strums his guitar and distractedly writes down lyrics. At one point, he dangles a locket. (For a real mind-bending experience, watch this video back to back with “Courtesy of the Red, White And Blue (The Angry American),” in which those same hands that held the locket spray a target with automatic rifle fire.)

“When Love Fades” (1999) is another semi-operatic mood piece. Introduced by a roll of thunder and lightning, Keith stands and swivels on a small round platform under the high glass dome of an ornate rotunda. He is hatless, and the long-tailed black coat he’s wearing whips and snaps as he moves. Unlike the subtlety he demonstrated in “He Ain’t Worth Missing,” Keith chews the curtain here, pointing his finger and waving his arms in larger than life gestures of intensity. It is beautifully shot but a tad over the top for the lyrics it’s supposed to illuminate.

On the other hand, “How Do You Like Me Now?!” (1999) is a perfect wedding of song and image. This story of an apparent loser who makes it big and then rubs it in to his sexiest doubter is a high school revenge fantasy of the lowest order. And whether our late-blooming hero is taunting Little Miss(ed) Opportunity up in the stands or waving to her triumphantly from his limousine on the football field, every beat of our wounded heart pounds out the message, “Stick it to her!”

“I Wanna Talk About Me” (2001) is a comic gem and all the proof we need that Keith can handle any acting chore. When it opens, he’s leaving a fancy department store with his chattering girlfriend. Dressed in a suit and beautiful topcoat, he looks as urbane and world-weary as a British ambassador. Then, in rapid succession, we see him as a bored cop, a buzzed-out biker, a despairing surgeon and a gold-toothed, medallion-wearing pimp. In each instance, he is droned to desperation by a gabbing woman. From the way he holds his head to the way his body sags or stiffens, he’s got each type down pat. In a particularly enjoyable scene, he rallies the talk-exhausted husbands and boyfriends as they sit slumping in clothing store and transforms them into his own private chorus line.

Keith turns deadly serious in the video for “My List,” which was released less than three months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. This is the precursor of his other patriotic songs. The video opens with a couple in their living room recoiling from the pictures of horror they’re watching on TV. The husband goes to the window and gazes at his children romping in the fall leaves, thereby reinforcing the song’s theme that it’s the little, everyday things that matter. With the focus on the husband and father, Keith essentially plays the Greek chorus whose lyrics merely echo the action. After playing with his kids and centering himself in their innocence, the guy takes a folded American flag out of a box and hoists it on a flagpole in his yard. When a call comes in, we realize that the man is a fireman, and the video ends with him (and Keith) speeding on a fire truck toward another mission. A tag at the end of the video says, “Dedicated to those who protect and serve America every day.”

By the time “Courtesy of the Red, White And Blue” comes along in early 2002, Keith is parading his anger. Most of the scenes in the video — which opens with a waving American flag and Keith playing a guitar painted like a flag — are of Keith and his band playing for military units. There are lots of still photos of World War II soldiers. In a few scenes, Keith wears a do-rag and adopts a wide-legged John Wayne stance, just to let you know he’s serious. And if that doesn’t do it, he fires an automatic rifle for emphasis. When he reaches the infamous “put a boot in your ass” line, the audience rises us and roars as one. What could possibly follow such a rousing display of red blood and bared teeth? Only fireworks and an aerial view of the Statue of Liberty. And that’s what he gives us.

Keith’s still a bit surly in “Who’s Your Daddy” (2002), even as he cruises to his baronial mansion in what appears to be a pickup truck on steroids. It’s so big, fancy and aggressively yellow that it would put a Lear jet to shame. While he’s driving home, the young luscious we assume to be his girlfriend is making herself at home in the palace, soaking in a bath, dipping strawberries in cream and cavorting about in his shirt and her undies. We expect a sexual explosion, but when she runs to meet him at the door, we learn that they don’t even recognize each other. Keith is quick to identify the problem. His gardener has been posing as the lord of the manor again for the express purpose of snagging chicks. And who might that lascivious gardener be? Why it’s Cledus T. Judd, bumping along out back on his riding mower, wearing his boss’ shirt and singing ‘Should’ve Been a Cowboy.”

“Beer For My Horses” is really a whole movie boiled down to three or so minutes. Keith is the tough, grungy, undercover detective who’s faced with finding a serial killer. Willie Nelson is his dad, a retired profiler, who’s living the simple life back at the ranch. Keith has to lure him in for one more caper. But Nelson ain’t that easily lured. So we see Keith and his comic-relief sidekick lugging all the files and investigative tools out to “Dad’s” cabin. While the sidekick makes an ass of himself, Keith and Nelson go at it in the police equivalent of an all-nighter. Finally, Nelson fingers the likely killer, and with the sidekick dressed as a woman and acting as bait, the cops swarm in and bring the bad guy down. With order restored, father and son mount their horses and trot toward the sunset — or possibly over to the convenience store for lottery tickets. There’s so much going on in such a short time that Keith gets to act only in the broadest sense. We’re more likely to enjoy the story than any of the characters who inhabit it.

Keith is back to his easygoing self in “I Love This Bar” (2003), a video that will live in infamy because of its eye-popping cleavage-chugging scene (which is exactly what you think it is). While the bar action is frantic, the song is so low-key that Keith’s nice guy side comes out. We even flinch along with him as the beer bottles shatter on the chicken-wire barrier that protects him and his band. There are lots of memorable touches, from the gal who commands the men’s room to the guy with a severed head in his bag. You gotta love this bar — and Keith’s big, endearing grin.

In “American Soldier” (2003), Keith plays basically the same role as he did in “My List.” He’s here to observe and comment as the citizen soldier — who’s also a husband and father — goes off the war. There are simulated scenes from the Civil War and World Wars I and II to put it all in context. Those who don’t habitually equate God with country may wince when they see the World War I soldier kiss his crucifix before he leaps into battle. But overall, the video is quite effective in spotlighting the emotional tugs of war. Keith, however, is dramatically incidental to the story.

So there you have it — a video view of a genuinely complex man who still just wants to be a cowboy.