Country music lost a cowboy, Oklahoma lost a treasured son and the U.S. military lost an ardent friend Monday when Toby Keith succumbed to an extended battle with stomach cancer. He was 62 years old.
"Toby Keith passed peacefully last night ... surrounded by his family," a statement shared to his website read. "He fought his fight with grace and courage. Please respect the privacy of his family at this time."
Keith revealed in June of 2022 that he had been diagnosed with stomach cancer in the Fall of 2021 and had already undergone chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. He performed his last three concerts at Park MGM's Dolby Live in Las Vegas in December but was forced to cancel an event with CMT in January.
The "Should've Been a Cowboy" singer was born Toby Keith Covel on July 8, 1961. He broke into country music with "Should've Been a Cowboy" in 1993, and the song became his first of 20 No. 1 hits. His other chart-toppers include "How Do You Like Me Now?!," "As Good As I Once Was," "My List" and his Willie Nelson duet "Beer for My Horses." But some of his biggest hits – including "Red Solo Cup" – never went No. 1.
Keith was known for his passionate support of the U.S. military and made frequent trips to war zones to play for the troops. Post 9/11, he released his defiant, fist-pumping "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue," which also became a No. 1 hit.
Keith described himself to CNN as a third-generation Democrat but maintained there was nothing political about supporting the troops.
President Trump awarded Keith the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the United States government, in 2021.
The 6'4 singer's other honors include two CMA Awards and 12 ACM Awards, including ACM Entertainer of the Year in 2003 and 2004 and special ACM Awards, including the Tex Ritter Film Award (2009), Career Achievement Award (2014), Poet's Award (2017) and Merle Haggard Spirit Award (2021). He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015 and the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 2021. Throughout his career, Keith was nominated for seven Grammy Awards, and BMI honored him in 2022 with its prestigious Icon Award.
He performed at the 2023 People's Choice Country Awards in September and went viral with his "Don't Let The Old Man In." Clint Eastwood inspired Keith to write the song in 2018, and it was featured in Eastwood's movie "The Mule." Keith told The Tennessean then that writing it is "one of my favorite things I ever did in my life."
2023 marked Keith's 30th year in country music – but worked toward country music success much longer than that.
Country Aircheck reported Keith received his first guitar when he was 8 years old. As he got older, the singer occasionally worked at his grandmother's Billie Garner's Supper Club in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he occasionally performed. He worked in the oil fields when he graduated high school and formed his Easy Money Band when he was 20. In the early '80s, Keith played semi-professional football for the Oklahoma City Drillers, and by the mid-'80s, his band was popular on the honky-tonk circuit in Oklahoma and Texas.
Famed producer Harold Shedd heard about Keith and signed him to Mercury Records. His debut album produced four chart-toppers, including "Should've Been a Cowboy." He hopped among record labels for years before founding Show Dog Nashville in 2005. In 2009, Show Dog merged with Universal South but went independent again six years later.
Keith was known as a philanthropist. In addition to his work with the military, he headed up a benefit concert to aid his fellow Oklahomans who were devastated by a tornado in 2013 and used his Toby Keith Foundation to build and fund the OK Kids Korral, a no-cost home for children and their families battling cancer in Oklahoma.
"When someone I know passes away, I usually think of two things: my own mortality and what I learned from this person," said Garth Brooks, a fellow Oklahoman who played Keith's 2013 benefit concert. "What I learned from Toby is what I hope I am able to do when it's my turn to wear those shoes. He was ALWAYS Toby...all the way up to his passing."
Keith opened a chain of Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill restaurants and grew his business to include a clothing line and alcohol brands. In 2013, Forbes featured Keith on the cover with the caption, "Country Music's $500 Million Man."
Another of Keith's fellow Oklahomans, Carrie Underwood wrote: "Saddle up the horses, Jesus, 'cause a true blue COWBOY just made his ride up to heaven!!! Introduce him to all the Okies and sign that boy up for the choir! We're gonna miss you, Toby, but my heart has no doubt that you are standing in the presence of our King right now!!! See you again someday, friend."
Keith is survived by his wife, Tricia, three children, Shelley, Krystal, and Stelen, his mother, and two siblings.
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