I have spent a lot of time in the beachside communities of Miami, Florida, and Ocean Grove, New Jersey. Although they’re both situated on the water, the lifestyles of their inhabitants couldn’t be more different. Miami is overflowing with bars and parties; Ocean Grove is a dry, church-going locale. And while listening to Toby Keith’s newest record, 35 MPH Town, I was surprised to be reminded of each in turn — despite the fact that these seaside places are seemingly quite different from the 35 MPH southern towns that inspired the title of the record.
Toby Keith sings to his millions of fans as if we are all his best friends sittin’ around at the local saloon. His songs are approachable, non-threatening, hilarious and honest. Drawing inspiration from Keith’s ability to wear his heart on his sleeve, I will do the same while relating some of my favorite tracks from his album to my experiences with booze — and those two very different beachy places.
On the album’s opening track, “Drunk Americans” (written by Brandy Clark, Bob DiPiero and Shane McAnally), Keith sings about how there is one place where “we don’t give a rat’s ass/if your belly’s too fat or your wallet’s too thin” or “if you’re a Democrat or Republican” — at a bar! “CEOs, GEDs, DUIs, FBIs, PhDs,” it doesn’t matter who you are; in Keith’s world, drinking alcohol is the common denominator that unites all Americans.
The song is easy to like. There is a chorus of people singing along in the background. You can almost see them raising their glasses. It reminds me of what karaoke in Miami sounded like: “And we all singin’ wrong/but we all sing along,” Keith proclaims.
A while back, I spent a long weekend in Miami soaking up the sun, playing shows with my band for Art Basel and gettin’ into trouble. In that city, alcohol was included in most activities. Dinner and drinks were followed by after-dinner cocktails, which were followed by mimosas in the morning, which were followed by vodka tonics in the afternoon, by the water. It was like a scene from The Wolf of Wall Street — complete with a swim-up bar. I didn’t have to be game to go home with someone; alcohol scored for me. But in my experience, drunken fun, like in “Drunk Americans,” was more complicated than Keith’s lyrics, “We’re happy to be here and that you can see/we’re just all drunk Americans” — especially when it involved men.
I remember walking into Sand Bar on North Miami Beach with one goal in mind: finding Mr. Right. I sat at the tiki counter and scoped out the men, searching for the one that looked the most dignified, successful and well put-together. Meanwhile, I was getting shitfaced on margaritas. Countless experiences like that one came to mind when I first heard “Good Gets Here,” in which Keith sings: “I’m good for a laugh, good for a beer/Baby, I’m good until good gets here.”
“Good” is what I would start out looking for when I hit the bars in Miami and then, eventually, I would get drunk and impatient and lower my aim, from the cream of the crop to the bottom of the barrel: dudes that were only “good for a laugh, good for a beer.” “I’ve been lookin’ for someone to call mine,” I would think in hopeless desperation, just like in the song. Then I would hook up with the human equivalent of Keith’s lyrics: “Girl, if I ain’t it/I’m a pretty good waste of time.”
As an alcoholic who had to quit drinking to get my life back on track, I feel more sensitive to, and aware of, the fact that the majority of the songs on 35 MPH Town are about getting drunk. “If I don’t wake up inside you/It don’t mean I didn’t like you/Just means that I’ve had time to sober up,” Keith sings in “Every Time I Drink I Fall in Love.” I giggled listening to that song, because it reminded me of a night that I had too much to drink and this guy with whiskey dick fell asleep on top of me while we were having sex. But I giggled because that was my past, not my reality today. I can appreciate Keith’s unfiltered sense of humor now, having had some space from practically living the events in his songs. After breaking up with alcohol in 2014, I’m not stuck in a cycle of dating dudes that are only “good for a laugh and good for a beer” anymore. Which takes me to…
Ocean Grove, New Jersey
Despite singing several songs about partying, Toby Keith reveals his softer side on the title track. The song describes a mother telling her son about the changes to their hometown, bemoaning the loss of what it once was. “You just wouldn’t believe it/Kids growing up without Jesus,” Keith sings the mother’s lament, “There’s a lower higher power in this thirty-five-mile-an-hour town.”
I don’t hear God referred to much in the music that I listen to — much less the name Jesus. And I also don’t spend that much time in cities whose day-to-day life revolves around the church. But this past summer, I spent my birthday weekend in Ocean Grove, whose city center is an enormous Methodist church. I was reminded of this city when I listened to “35 MPH Town,” now a year and five months sober.
In this dry town where religion is literally at the center, the beach is closed on Sunday mornings until church services are finished. Strolling along the boardwalk in the morning, I could hear the sound of a choir singing in their praise pavilion mingling with the cheers of a nearby middle school volleyball tournament. Signs were posted all around the city advertising the church’s family ice cream social. In Ocean Grove, God and family are included in most activities. And, unlike in Miami, booze is noticeably not included. Dinner was followed by ice cream, which was followed by coffee and jogging in the morning, which was followed by my sister and I setting up our chairs at the beach in the afternoon and talking for hours. It was like a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life.
When I reflect on my stay in Ocean Grove, “safe” is a word that comes to mind. I felt safe. Ocean Grove was the opposite of the decaying town in Keith’s song where “no one hits the front porch lights/to get the kids to come inside/’cause the streets ain’t safe/for a bike to ride down.” And now, listening to Keith’s song, I start wondering if perhaps Ocean Grove, with its family-oriented activities, is what an idyllic 35 MPH town used to be like — at least in the mother’s mind.
I wasn’t expecting to be reminded of my time in Miami and Ocean Grove while listening to a country music album. I wasn’t expecting to go so deep into my own experiences, either. But upon reflection, I relate to Keith’s unfiltered honesty about debauchery and messy relationships and his yearning for simpler times – he is not claiming to be perfect, just as I am far from perfect. We are both striving to celebrate our love for the good life — even if we’re still waitin’ until “Good Gets Here.”