Film reviews and more since 2009

A PhD at Honkytonk U: Remembering Toby Keith, His Deep Cuts, and the “Beer for My Horses” Movie

By: Steve Pulaski

🕯️ Remembering Toby Keith 🕯️

🕯️ 1961 – 2024 🕯️

Since launching my new website, some may have noticed when a popular performer or filmmaker dies, I generally try and republish some of my previous reviews in effort of remembrance (most recently, my review of Fiddler on the Roof in memory of director Norman Jewison). Somehow, re-publishing my 2.5/4 star review of Beer for My Horses didn’t seem like a fitting way to honor the legendary country singer Toby Keith. It certainly wouldn’t have done him justice in the eyes of a lifelong fan such as myself.

Toby Keith, who passed away on February 5th, 2024 after a two-year battle with stomach cancer, was one of the first artists I remember finding on my own, without the influence of my parents. I was gifted copies of Pull My ChainUnleashed, and Shock’n Y’all, considered to be his “essential” trifecta of albums, at various points in my young life. I remember the music video for “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” premiering on CMT in 2002; never has my personal level of patriotism reached that same high.

One of my favorite memories indirectly involving Toby Keith came when I was in the car with my grandmother and aunt. I was maybe seven-years-old. “I’m Just Talkin’ About Tonight” came on the radio, and I knew every word by heart. I started to sing it from the backseat. “What he’s singing back there?,” I remember my grandmother asking my aunt. “I think he’s singing about a one night stand,” she replied.

Even as I gravitated more towards hip-hop in my middle school/high school days, I still kept Toby’s music in regular rotation on my iPod, then eventually my smartphone. In college, I listened to/reviewed every single one of his albums up to his (then) latest release, 35 mph Town. When I got into country radio, I would often sneak in a song or two of his during my request hour. I couldn’t get enough of “Beer for My Horses,” even nearly 20 years after its release.

You could say I’ve listened/re-listened to enough Toby Keith to qualify for a PhD at Honkytonk U, in reference to his ninth album. A larger-than-life figure, unapologetically brash and confident on many tracks, yet so heartbreakingly poignant and remorseful on others, Toby’s catalog deserves to be explored. Listening to all his albums gave me ample deep-cuts worth sharing to country music fans/friends in my circle, including but not limited to:

  • Upstairs Downtown:” It’s a bit odd to call a top-10 hit for an artist a “deep cut,” but “Upstairs Downtown” doesn’t get the radio play nor enduring recognition typically associated with such hits. This ballad about a woman moving away from home and “getting out while the getting’s good” made me tear up when I left home. It still tugs at my heartstrings.
  • Two Pairs of Levis and a Pair of Cowboy Boots:” As hard as it is to believe there exists a country album featuring popular artists of the era recording with NFL stars (Glen Campbell and Terry Bradshaw, anyone?), it’s almost surreal to hear Toby and Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman on a song together. This is a simple ditty, and the most surprising part about it is Aikman holds his own on this duet.
  • “Double Wide Paradise:” There’s a pleasant dreamlike quality to Toby Keith’s album Dream Walkin’, made all the more special given it was released during a tumultuous and transitory time in Toby’s recording career (it was his final album for Mercury Records). “Double Wide Paradise” is one of its many gems.
  • Blue Bedroom:” A poetic, midtempo ballad about a man who has lost the love of his life and the comfort of his bedroom, which reeks of her perfume and memories of a past romance.
  • Before We Knew They Were Good:” Toby’s album Drinks After Work garnered little buzz and notoriety (by this point, his radio success had dipped dramatically), so the likelihood anyone but die-hards took note of this one is very slim. “Before We Knew They Were Good” is a deceptively clever song that takes the “too cool for school” attitude and laments the immature cockiness at the time. It has its singer reflecting on his younger years. He recalls the days he “made last all night.” The girls he “thought were just all right.” Above all, a town he now realizes was fun and worthwhile. If only he realized that in the moment.
  • Hard Way to Make an Easy Living:” Another cut off Drinks After Work, this one is a simple but vividly articulated song about the increasing challenges of trying to be at least modestly successful, particularly for farmers and those in rural communities.
  • Rum is the Reason:” One of Toby’s “bus songs” — bawdier, raunchier tunes Toby and his band played on his tour bus and included on various albums as bonus tracks — “Rum is the Reason” is a milder, Jimmy Buffett-esque tune. It humorously opines that pirates’ preoccupation with (and liberal consumption of) their favorite alcohol prevented them from ever ruling the world.
  • Runnin’ Block:” A truer “bus song” in its more irreverent nature, “Runnin’ Block” gets its name from a term describing a male wingman forced to accept the less attractive woman so his buddy can court the prettier woman. Few could make this song as witty and lyrically potent as Toby managed to do.

Initially, I had planned to re-review Beer for My Horses, the 2008 comedy based on Toby/Willie Nelson’s hit single from 2003 (and what I would call my favorite song of his). I rewatched it with my girlfriend this past weekend. Instead, I felt it would be more fitting to include it as a footnote in a longer, more substantial piece on Toby’s music and what he meant to me.

Beer for My Horses revolves around a deputy named Rack (Keith), whose sidekicks are a goofball played by Rodney Carrington and a mostly silent Ted Nugent. Upon investigating stolen fertilizer in their sleepy Oklahoma community, the three become embroiled in a scheme involving a brutal Mexican cartel, particularly when Rack’s old flame is kidnapped by the goons. Rack manages to arrest one of the cartel’s men, and uses him as a hostage as they try and rescue his sorta-girlfriend.

Needless to say, the plot of the “Beer for My Horses” music video was more substantial. As big of a Toby Keith fan as I am, I had little interest in seeing the film when it was released, for Willie Nelson — who is such an integral part of the song and the video alike — was minimized to a cameo role. That and the absence of the titular song (save for a brief inclusion early in the film and the end credits) remain my two major criticisms.

Beer for My Horses is a harmless movie. Truthfully, I think the film would’ve been better served adopting the plot of the music video, which revolved around Toby, his partner (played by Corin Nemec in the music video) and Willie (Toby’s dad in the video) trying to find the man responsible for the deaths of numerous area prostitutes. The jokes don’t always land (Carrington tries too hard when it comes to physical comedy), but the general vibe of the movie is a reflection of how it should be watched: light-heartedly, with friends, and aided by some beers and/or shots of whiskey.

When it comes to Toby Keith, I could go on ad nauseum. I’ve spent the last couple weeks revisiting his songs and albums, and am sometimes left in tears. These days, it’s the memories stirred up by the songs that get me emotional. It’s also the amount of loss I’ve had to endure this decade.

On an inspiring note, Toby’s final single was “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” a song that was prominently featured in the 2018 Clint Eastwood drama The Mule. The song was written/recorded by Toby, who used the line Eastwood relayed to him when working on The Mule as the basis. Eastwood said he maintained the level of energy he has at 88-years-old because he doesn’t “let the old man in.” The song didn’t garner a great deal of traction in conjunction with the movie, but was re-released as a single when Toby performed it in his first concert since his 2022 stomach cancer diagnosis.

If my work ethic and output fail to suggest it, let it be known that I have no plans ever to let the old man in.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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