Country Icon Toby Keith: The country music legend Toby Keith has passed away. His songs were pro-American and had millions of admirers and detractors alike. The man was 62 years old.
The country singer’s website announced Monday that the “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” lyricist and singer-songwriter passed away peacefully with his family by his side after a courageous battle with stomach cancer. The statement stated that he fought with courage and grace. In 2022, he made public his cancer diagnosis.
The 6-foot-4 vocalist became famous during the country music boom of the ’90s because to his hit tunes. Record company executives tried to gloss over his rough spots, and he openly fought with other celebrities and journalists throughout his career.
“Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” and other patriotic songs he wrote after 9/11 gained him fame, as did his rowdy bar anthems “I Love This Bar” and “Red Solo Cup.” His range allowed him to sing both love songs and drinking songs with equal authority, and his voice was loud and booming. He also had a wicked sense of humor.
His 20 number one singles on the Billboard chart include Willie Nelson’s “Beer for My Horses” and his own “How Do You Like Me Now?!,” as well as “As Good As I Once Was,” “My List,” and numerous others. He had over 60 singles that reached the Hot Country chart during his career, drawing inspiration from fellow working-class songwriters such as Merle Haggard.
Just waking up to the news of Toby Keith’s passing. Today is a sad day for Country music and its fans. Toby was a huge presence in our business and someone we all looked up to and respected. You and your music will be forever remembered big man. pic.twitter.com/M2RwMUFdKx
— Jason Aldean (@Jason_Aldean) February 6, 2024
Despite undergoing cancer treatments, Keith kept performing, his most recent show being in December in Sin City. On the 2023 People’s Choice Country Awards, he also sang “Don’t Let the Old Man In.”
“Cancer is a roller coaster,” he said in an interview that aired last month on KWTV. Sit tight and hope it goes away. It may remain forever. As a young guy, Keith toiled as a roughneck in Oklahoma’s oil fields. He then played semi-professional football before beginning his singing career.
In 2001, after his song “I’m Just Talking About Tonight” became popular, Keith told The Associated Press, “I write about life, and I sing about life, and I don’t overanalyze things.” The growth in the oil fields not only made Keith stronger, but it also taught him the importance of saving and investing.
The potential profit was “unbelievable,” Keith stated in a 1996 interview with the AP. After graduating from high school in 1980, I was offered a $50,000 per year job in December 1979. I was eighteen years old.
Unfortunately, Keith was unable to prevent the collapse of the domestic oil field business. “It nearly broke us,” he stated. It was recently that I discovered this. I’ve managed my finances well this time.
Toby Keith has gone home … This is very sad news … We loved and respected him on every level and whispered many a prayer for him as he fought this illness. God must have needed a big hearted Oklahoma singing boy for the great choir. Well, he got one #RIPTobyKeith pic.twitter.com/cBjybvnxwP
— The Oak Ridge Boys (@oakridgeboys) February 6, 2024
His professional football career began when he played defensive end for the Oklahoma City Drillers of the former USFL. However, he was able to maintain a steady income by performing with his band at red dirt roadhouses across Texas and Oklahoma.
“Music was the one constant we had throughout this whole thing,” he stated. You can’t just sit back and declare, “I’m going to go make my fortune singing music, or writing music.” Nothing was in my network.
His journey eventually led him to Nashville, where he caught the eye of Harold Shedd, the head of Mercury Records and a legendary producer for the legendary band Alabama. His 1993 platinum debut album, “Toby Keith,” was released by Mercury after Shedd signed him.
The most played country song of the 1990s was “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” his breakthrough hit, which was played three million times on radio stations. As a result of the label’s fixation on Shania Twain, a worldwide superstar, Keith felt that he was being pressured into a pop sound.
“They were attempting to convince me to make a concession, and I was going through a really bad patch,” Keith explained to the AP. “I felt like everyone was attempting to change me into someone I wasn’t.”
Hits like “Who’s That Man” and a cover of Sting’s “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying” were the result of Keith’s albums before he transferred to DreamWorks Records in 1999.
At that point, his debut single, “How Do You Like Me Now?!”, which had been in the charts for a few weeks, became a Top 40 hit. From the stage, he exclaimed, “I’ve waited a long time for this,” after winning male vocalist and album of the year at the Academy of Country Music Awards in 2001. “Nine years!”
— Jason Fraley (@JFrayWTOP) February 6, 2024
After the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, Keith frequently let his political affiliations show. He initially identified as a conservative Democrat but then changed his name to an independent.
Trump awarded him the National Medal of the Arts in 2021; he has performed for events hosted by Bush, Obama, and Trump. He appeared to actively seek out the controversy that his songs and forthright beliefs occasionally sparked.
The song “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” from 2002 had a threat — “We’ll put a boot in your ass — It’s the American way” — to anyone who dared to entangle with America.
After producers decided it was too harsh for an ABC patriotic Fourth of July special, the song was cut. When people are hurt and terrified, Keith’s song “panders to their worst instincts,” according to singer-songwriter Steve Earle.
As if that weren’t enough, Keith and the Chicks (formerly known as the Dixie Chicks) had a falling out after lead singer Natalie Maines expressed her disapproval of then-President George W. Bush in front of an audience. Before this, Maines had likewise deemed Keith’s music “ignorant.”
Keith, who had earlier asserted his support for artists’ right to express political opinions, further infuriated his already irate fan base by using a doctored photo of Maines during his shows, which featured an image of Saddam Hussein.
Thank you Toby Keith. We remember your patriotism and love for our servicemen and women. You were a great American. https://t.co/KVCSIbg2S5
— Mark Walker (@RepMarkWalker) February 6, 2024
At the 2003 ACM Awards, Maines reacted by appearing onstage while wearing a shirt that read “FUTK,” which many took as a sexist dig at Keith.
After being passed over in earlier categories, Keith—who has admitted to harboring grudges—left the 2003 ACM Awards early, missing out on being named performer of the year.
He was represented by Vince Gill, who accepted. He returned the next year and repeated as champion, this time taking the top male vocalist and album of the year for “Shock ‘n Y’all.”
But his support for the military wasn’t merely musical material. He visited and performed for troops stationed overseas on eleven separate USO tours. In addition to raising millions of dollars for charity, he played a key role in constructing a home in Oklahoma City for families dealing with children who have cancer.
Record executive Scott Borchetta had established his own company, Big Machine, at the same time that Universal Music Group bought DreamWorks, so Keith was able to start over in 2005 by forming his label, Show Dog.
In that year, he made the statement, “It’s safe to say that the majority of this town’s residents are pessimistic about my chances of success, and a small percentage want me to fail.”
Keith, Trace Adkins, Joe Nichols, Josh Thompson, Clay Walker, and Phil Vassar were all signed to the label later on when it changed its name to Show Dog-Universal Music.
A few of his later singles that did well were “Red Solo Cup,” “She Never Cried In Front of Me,” and “Love Me If You Can.” The Songwriters Hall of Fame accepted his nomination in 2015.
Just months after revealing he had stomach cancer, in November 2022, he received the BMI Icon Award from the performance rights organization. Telling his fellow musicians and songwriters, “I always felt like that the songwriting was the most important part of this whole industry,” Keith addressed the audience.
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