Country music icon Toby Keith has died at 62 following a three-year battle with stomach cancer. The singer-songwriter known for such patriotic anthems as “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” and “Made in America” passed “peacefully last night on February 5th, surrounded by his family,” according to a statement on his official website. “He fought his fight with grace and courage.”
Keith was diagnosed with cancer in 2021 and revealed the news to fans a year later, telling them that he was undergoing chemotherapy, radiation and having surgery. He returned to the road to play a pair of pop-up gigs in his hometown of Norman, OK during the summer of 2023 and made his first TV appearance since the diagnosis in September, when he performed at the first-ever People’s Choice Country Awards, at which he received the Country Icon award.
At the time he gave an update on his condition, saying, “I’ve walked some dark hallways. Almighty’s riding shotgun. But I feel pretty good, you know? You have good days and bad days. It’s a little bit of a roller coaster. I’m doing a lot better than I was this time last year… I’ve always rode with a prayer. As long as I have Him with me, I’m cool. You just have to dig in. You don’t have a choice.” That night, the visibly skinnier singer elicited many tears in beers when he sang the moving “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” a track about a man facing death that he’d written for Clint Eastwood’s movie The Mule.
The 6′ 3″ singer who as born Toby Keith Covel on July 8, 1961 in Clinton, OK worked in the oil industry and played in the USFL football league before pivoting to music. Keith busked on Music Row in Nashville in an attempt to break through, handing out his demos to no avail and making a vow to get a contract before hitting 30 or quit the business. His big break came a short time later when a flight attendant handed his demo to Mercury Records exec Harold Shedd, who signed him to the label.
Keith’s 1993 self-titled Mercury debut featured such traditional country tunes as “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” and “A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action.”
Keith, who wrote or co-wrote many of his own songs and had a chart-topper out of the gate with “Cowboy,” a trad country song that harkened back to a dustier time with references to Gunsmoke, ropin’ and ridin’, six shooters and Gene Autry and Roy Rogers; it went on to be one of the most-played country songs of the decade.
His follow-up albums, 1994’s Boomtown and 1996’s Blue Moon continued his early streak of success with hits such as the No. 1 Billboard hot country songs charting “Who’s That Man” and “Big Ol’ Truck” (No. 15) from the former and “Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine on You?” (No. 2) and “Me Too” (No. 1) from the latter.
His fourth and final album on Mercury, Dream Walkin’, continued his hot run on the Billboard country songs chart with another passel of top 10 charting tracks, including “We Were in Love” (No. 2), “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying” (No. 2) and the title track (No. 5). He moved over to Dreamworks Records in 1999 for How Do You Like Me Now?, whose title track proved to be his mainstream breakthrough, spending five weeks at No. 1 on the country chart and providing his first pop charting track when it hit No. 31 on the Billboard Hot 100. He followed up with 2001’s Pull My Chain, which spun off three more hot country songs chart-toppers: “I’m Just Talkin’ About Tonight,” “I Wanna Talk About Me” and “My List.”
In a town where artists often rely on professional songwriters to help hone their voice, Keith was proud to write or co-write many of his own tracks, telling Billboard in 2018 that, “I wanted to be better at it and I wanted to write the best songs I could write. So if I wouldn’t have gotten a recording contract and had some success, I would have still been pitching songs. God forbid, if something ever happened to you and you couldn’t sing no more or perform, you could still write songs.”
The singer won the Academy of Country Music’s top male vocalist and album of the year award in 2001 and the following year his duet with hero Willie Nelson, “Beer For My Horses,” from 2003’s Unleashed album, peaked at No. 22 on the Hot 100, marking Keith’s highest-charting pop single to date. Despite the playful title, the lyrics penned by Keith and and frequent collaborator Scotty Emerick hinted at a a dark underbelly to the American dream, with images of people being shot, abused, someone blowing up a building and stealing a car.
The vengeful refrain tapped into a deep vein of outlaw values and patriotic themes Keith would become known for on lines such as, “Grandpappy told my pappy, back in the day, son/ A man had to answer for the wicked that he done/ Take all the rope in Texas find a tall oak tree/ Round up all them bad boys, hang ’em high in the street/ For all the people to see/ That justice is the one thing you should always find/ You got to saddle up your boys, you got to draw a hard line/ When the gun smoke settles we’ll sing a victory tune/ And we’ll all meet back at the local saloon.”
Following the death of his father — a Navy veteran — in a traffic accident in 2001 and the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Keith channeled his rage and emotion into the controversial hit “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” from his 2022 Unleashed album. The jingoistic song hit No. 1 on the hot country singles & tracks chart and No. 25 on the Hot 100 and became a flag-waving staple of Keith shows thanks to the lyrics, “Justice will be served and the battle will rage/ This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage/ And you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A./ ‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass/ It’s the American way.”
Through 19 albums, Keith repeatedly returned to themes of American life and symbolism on songs such as “American Soldier”and “Made in America.” He also mixed in many signature, more light-hearted drinking songs, including “I Love This Bar,” “Whiskey Girl,” “I Like Girls That Drink Beer,” “Get Drunk and Be Somebody” and one of his most enduring anthems, “Red Solo Cup,” which marked his peak Hot 100 success at that point when it reached No. 15.
In addition to his long music career, Keith also dabbled in acting, appearing Ford truck commercials and starring in the 2005 film Broken Bridges as country also-ran Bo Price, as well as 2008’s Beer For My Horses, which he wrote and starred in. The entrepreneurial singer also lent his name a chain of Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill restaurants, with outlets from Oklahoma to New York, Michigan, Las Vegas, Arizona, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Cincinnati and several other states.
Keith was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2021 and received the Merle Haggard Spirit Award from the ACM in 2020, as well as the National Medal of the Art in 2021. As a testament to his prodigious songwriting abilities — he scored 52 top 10 hits and 32 No. 1s — Keith released a 13-track collection entitled 100% Songwriter in November, featuring some of his biggest hits.