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Toby Keith, Country Music Singer-Songwriter, Dies at 62 After Stomach Cancer Battle


Toby Keith, country music singer-songwriter, dies at 62 after stomach cancer battle

Marcus K. Dowling

Nashville Tennessean

Toby Keith, the singer-songwriter behind the 1993 country hit “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” — one of his 20 No. 1 singles and the most-played country song of the 1990s, died on Monday at age 62.

Keith was inarguably an artist as inherently beloved in Moore and Norman, Oklahoma as Elvis Presley in Memphis and and Dolly Parton in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

According to a statement on his website and social media accounts, Keith, who was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2022, “passed peacefully” while “surrounded by family.

“He fought his fight with grace and courage,” the statement added.

No other comments are immediately expected as his family has asked for privacy following his death.

His ‘gracious, courageous’ fight

Keith’s last Music City appearance was in Sept. 2023, when he appeared during the NBC broadcast of the People’s Choice Country Awards at the Grand OIe Opry.

At the event, he received the received the Country Icon Award.

Toby Keith and Tricia Lucas arrive for the People's Choice Country Awards at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn. on Thursday Sept. 28, 2023.

Keith revealed his battle with cancer in June 2022 — after a fall 2021 diagnosis — via social media.

“Last fall, I was diagnosed with stomach cancer. I’ve spent the last 6 months receiving chemo, radiation and surgery. So far, so good. I need time to breathe, recover and relax. I am looking forward to spending this time with my family. But I will see the fans sooner than later. I can’t wait.”

“I feel pretty good,” Keith told E! News at the September event.

Toby Keith remembered:Country artists mourn death of singer who ‘inspired millions’

“It’s a little bit of a roller coaster. You get good days and, you know, you’re up and down, up and gown. It’s always zero to 60 and 60 to zero, but I feel good today.”

During his acceptance speech, Keith thanked his family, collaborators, fans and God.

“I want to thank the Almighty for allowing me to be here tonight. He’s been riding shotgun with me for a little while.”

‘Don’t Let The Old Man In’

His performance of “Don’t Let the Old Man” from Clint Eastwood’s 2018 film “The Mule” was notable at the People’s Choice Country Awards.

The performer noted that he chose the song to inspire anyone watching or sharing his cancer fight.

Fellow Oklahoman and 2000s-era country star Blake Shelton offered an earnest yet humorous tribute, to which Keith retorted, “I bet you all never thought you’d see me in skinny jeans,” which he wore instead of boot-cut or straight-leg jeans because of his health.

Keith, clearly shaken by the profoundness of the moment, sang, “Try to love on your wife / And stay close to your friends / Toast each sundown with wine / Don’t let the old man in.”

His wife of 39 years, Tricia, could not hold back tears. They were married on Mar. 24, 1984.

Keith is survived by her and three children — two daughters, Shelley Covel Rowland, 43, adopted by Keith in 1984, and Krystal “Krystal Keith” LaDawn Covel Sandubrae, 38, plus a son, Stelen Keith Covel, 26, and four grandchildren.

A celebrated songwriter

In Nov. 2022, Keith also received music publisher BMI’s Country Icon award. Thar honor has previously been received by names including Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton.

The event also honored the 30th anniversary of the three-time BMI Country Songwriter of the Year’s recording his previously mentioned hit single “Should’ve Been A Cowboy.”

Toby Keith speaks after receiving the BMI Icon Award during the BMI’s 70th Annual Country Awards at the BMI Music Row Headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

At the festivities, Keith was feted onstage by a multitude of artists, including Carrie Underwood, who offered a spirited rendition of “Should’ve Been A Cowboy,” plus Eric Church, who performed a stripped-down version of Keith’s 2003 hit “I Love This Bar.”

Upon receiving the trophy from BMI president/CEO Michael O’Neill and Clay Bradley, BMI’s Nashville Vice President of creative, Keith noted that he appreciated BMI [being] so great to [him] “because [he] knew that even if [he] didn’t make it as an artist, that maybe somebody would cut [his] songs.”

Keith’s legacy was noted often during the event.

“Like [Toby Keith], songwriting has perpetually been a vehicle to my artistry,” stated 2022 BMI Songwriter of the Year HARDY’s Big Loud label mate ERNEST.

“Toby, like myself, is an ‘I don’t give a damn kind of guy — but he’s the original article. He’s in my DNA as a country artist and songwriter.”

Betting on himself for “Red Dirt” success

Keith’s Nashville career came after he was inspired by the success of Robert A. Hefner III’s decade of extensive drilling in Southwest Oklahoma.

In a 2013 Forbes Magazine feature, Keith recalls earning the modern equivalent of the same sort of money made by Wall Street investors fresh out of college at 18 while climbing oil rigs. This deterred him from continuing to pursue an education as a petroleum engineer at Pennsylvania’s Villanova University in 1979 and 1980.

Newcomer Toby Keith performs during the Fan Fair’s Mercury Records show at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds June 8, 1993.

However, by 1982, Oklahoma’s boom “busted,” and the state had its first failure in history to achieve revenue from the oil industry.

Keith, hustling for money, worked many jobs, including as a bricklayer, playing defensive end with the semi-pro Oklahoma City Drillers football team and earning $35 a night playing covers at local bars in the Oklahoma and Texas “Red Dirt” region alongside the Easy Money Band (Scott Webb, Keith Cory, David “Yogi” Vowell and Danny Smith), which he’d formed with four friends.

After a half-decade of eventually touring nationally with a group that ultimately comprised fewer of his friends and more professional musicians (Keith’s musicians played on a salary and the band was eventually able to earned a good living), Keith — amid the breakout success of fellow “Red Dirt” artists Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn as singer-songwriters at Tim DuBois’ Sony/Arista Records — was courted by Harold Shedd at Mercury Nashville.

Shedd recalled to Forbes in 2013 that the “quality of [Keith’s] writing [was] unlike anything on the radio at the time, and it was still really good country music.”

Taking a deal similar to Brooks and Dunn, the then 32-year-old performer sold nearly 20 million albums in his first Nashville decade; Keith achieved over two dozen top-10 hits on country radio and became a dependable multi-millionaire touring revenue leader — often returning to areas where he’d earned $50 15 years prior and able to charge 100 times more.

In March 1994, country music singer Toby Keith holds a street sign named in his honor. Moore Mayor Debe Homer had presented Keith the sign during a ceremony at Moore High School.

Anecdotes about how confident Keith became as a grown, 30-plus-year-old man in his abilities as a Music Row hitmaker are plentiful.

“Last I heard, [label executives who] turned me down were cutting grass for a living,” Keith told Forbes.

James Stroud, who produced No. 1 “How Do You Like Me Now” with Keith in 1999, recalled to The Tennessean that the album of the same name’s second single only reached the air after a late-night phone call from an antagonized Keith. The former was adamant that unlike “When Love Fades,” a song that was initially titled “You Never Loved Me Before, So How Do You Like Me Now” (a kiss-off to an old flame), would not — like the album’s lead single was meant to — play well to female audiences.

“I was wrong and he was right!” Stroud exclaimed. “Toby is his own man. He knows what he wants to say and what the people want to hear. So you trust him and basically leave him alone.”

“How Do You Like Me Now?”

By 1999, it was believed that Keith’s chart-topping appeal had stalled.

His 1997 album “Dream Walkin'” featured “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying,” a duet with British rock icon Sting which the former Police frontman had recorded a year prior (which also resulted in a pairing at 1997’s Country Music Association Awards.) Moreover, in non- “Dream Walkin'” recordings, Keith also appeared on The Beach Boys’ 1996 album “Stars and Stripes Vol. 1” performing a cover of their 1963 hit “Be True to Your School.”

Toby Keith, 1999.

His initial champion, Shedd, was eventually succeeded by Luke Lewis at Mercury Nashville,

“I don’t hear a hit,” Keith recalls Lewis saying when he heard the rough cut of “How Do You Like Me Now?,” the album that followed “Dream Walkin’.”

Keith tells Forbes he brusquely responded to Lewis by asking to be dropped from the label because the new executive in charge “[hated his] music.”

Keith bought back his album from Mercury for $93,000, sold the album and moved to his producer Stroud’s Nashville outpost of David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg-founded DreamWorks Records for $200,000.

The album sold 3.1 million copies, and its title single was his largest-selling single since “Should’ve Been A Cowboy.”

Keith’s business acumen shines

Between 2000 and 2010, Keith became as much a chart-topping star as he was a savvy businessman whose boardroom work established a continuing Nashville precedent.

Toby Keithwon the Entertainer of the Year award during the 2003 and 2004 Academy of Country Music Awards shows. Here, he performs at the CMT Flameworthy Video Music Awards show in 2003.

In 2004, Universal’s Interscope bought out DreamWorks and brought an antagonized Keith back into Luke Lewis’ orbit when Interscope and DreamWorks also merged with Mercury Records.

Instead of releasing an album, Keith threatened to retire.

Free from that situation, Keith began Universal-distributed Show Dog Records. He staffed the imprint with shared staff from then-rising executive Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records.

Keith retained a stake in Big Machine that hovered around ten percent of the company.

In the years following the deal, Borchetta signed Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw and Taylor Swift.

Politics and 9/11

The “Should’ve Been A Cowboy” singer hasn’t been afraid to get political, releasing the biting single “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” in 2002.

The song, written in late 2001, was inspired by Keith’s father’s death in March and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

With soldiers from Fort Campbell line up in formation behind him, Country music singer Toby Keith performs at half-time of the Tennessee Titans season opener with the Philadelphia Eagles Sept. 8, 2002.

It was released in May 2002 as the lead single from the album, “Unleashed.”

United States Marine Corps Commandant James L. Jones reportedly told Keith it was his duty as an American citizen to record the song.

“It’s your job as an entertainer to lift the morale of the troops,” Jones said to Keith. “If you want to serve, that is what you can do.”

The song spurred Keith’s continued support of the United States Armed Forces, including, starting in 2002, numerous trips to the Middle East.

Himself the son of a veteran, Keith told the American Forces Press Service the following in 2009:

“My father was a soldier. He taught his kids to respect veterans. It’s that respect and the thank-you that we have a military that’s in place and ready to defend our nation, our freedom.”

The song led to a public feud between Keith and fellow country singer Natalie Maines of The Chicks, who criticized the song’s tone.

Toby Keith thanks his father as he accepts the award for album of the year for "How Do You Like Me Now?!'" During the 36th annual Academy of Country Music Awards show May 9, 2001 in Los Angeles.

Keith responded by deriding Maines’ songwriting skills and displaying a doctored photo of Maines with Saddam Hussein as a backdrop at his concerts.

Maines wore a T-shirt with the letters “FUTK” on the front at the Academy of Country Music Awards in May 2023. A spokesperson for The Chicks said the acronym stood for “Friends United in Truth and Kindness.”

Event host Vince Gill took it to be an obscene shot at Keith. Maines later agreed.

In a November 2003 interview with CBS, Keith noted: “[“The Angry American”] wasn’t written for everybody. And when you write something from your heart — I had a dad that was a veteran, taught me how precious our freedom is — I was so angry when we were attacked here on American soil that it leaked out of me. You know, some people wept when they heard it. Some people got goosebumps. Some people were emotionally moved. Some cheered, turned their fists in the air.”

Philanthropy and wide-spread fame as legacy

Perhaps the best showcase of the spread of Keith’s fame arrives via his 2011 single “Red Solo Cup.”

It’s more than an acoustic song The Warren Brothers (Brad and Brett Warren) co-wrote with The Beavers Brothers (Brett and Jim Beavers) once described to CMT as “[something to] make us all laugh and smile.” Keith, almost to stereotype, added, “[‘Red Solo Cup’ was] “freakin’ awesome,” but also “the stupidest song that I have ever heard in my life.”

Among many, its revelry-filled music video features comedians Jeff Dunham, Carrot Top, Craig Ferguson, Geoff Peterson, magician Lance Burton, musicians Eric Church, Joe Nichols, Ted Nugent and Sammy Hagar, plus athletes Roger Clemens and Larry Bird.

For the 2017 National Medal of Arts recipient and 2015 Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee, that type of broad appeal spread into his impressive — and groundbreaking — business acumen and philanthropic deeds.

Among his numerous charitable works, Keith helped found Ally’s House in 2004, a nonprofit group that aids Oklahoma children with cancer and their families.

At the time of his passing, he had also licensed his name to over two dozen Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill establishments nationwide.

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