Country music star Toby Keith died Monday at home in Oklahoma after an 18-month battle with stomach cancer. He was 62.
His death was announced in a simple message on his official website and on X (formerly Twitter): “Toby Keith passed peacefully last night on February 5th, surrounded by his family. He fought his battle with grace and courage. Please respect the privacy of his family at this time.”
In stories about his death, Keith has been described as “an incredible talent” and a “fun guy” (Fox News), as well as a “country music icon” (NBC News). John Rich of Big & Rich wrote on X that Keith was a “true patriot, a first-class singer/songwriter, and a bigger-than-life kind of guy.”
The New York Times reported that “singing in an alternately declamatory and crooning baritone, Mr. Keith cultivated a boisterous, in-your-face persona with recordings like ‘I Wanna Talk About Me’ and ‘Beer for My Horses.’”
The article added: “Built around clever wordplay and droll humor — and more than a little macho bluster — both topped the Billboard country chart.”
“Sometimes a polarizing figure in country music, the 6-foot-4 singer broke out in the country boom years of the 1990s, crafting an identity around his macho, pro-American swagger and writing songs that fans loved to hear,” USA Today reported.
The article added: “Over his career, he publicly clashed with other celebrities and journalists and often pushed back against record executives who wanted to smooth his rough edges.”
Keith’s website notes that he had 42 top 10 hits, 32 No. 1s, 40 million albums sold and more than 10 billion streams. Among other honors, he snagged a spot in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and won the Academy of Country Music’s Merle Haggard Spirit Award.
Per CNN, “In 2021, then-President Trump awarded Keith the National Medal of Arts, which the National Endowment for the Arts describes as ‘the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the United States government.’”
He continued to perform as he was being treated for cancer. In December, he did three shows in Las Vegas and wrote on Instagram that it was a good way to end the year.
He released his final album, “100% Songwriter,” in November.
Road to stardom
Keith was in his 30s when he got his first record contract in 1993. By then, according to the Times, he’d been a rodeo hand, worked the Oklahoma oil fields and played semiprofessional football.
Keith’s full name was Toby Keith Covel. He was born July 8, 1961, in Clinton, Oklahoma, to Carolyn and Hubert Covel. He was raised in Moore, an Oklahoma City suburb. He married Tricia Lucus in 1984. They have three children.
He reportedly got his first guitar at age 8 and the Times said he “later spent summers with his grandmother in Fort Smith, Arkansas, doing odd jobs at her supper club and occasionally sitting in with the house band.”
In 2018, he told Dan Rather about following his father into working in the Oklahoma oil fields. “At 18 years old, it made me a man,” he said.
He also around that time started performing with his own group, the Easy Money Band. According to Rolling Stone, “Music soon became his primary focus and his demo recordings caught the ear of record executive Harold Shedd.”
“It was unlike anything on the radio at the time, and it was still really good country music,” Shedd told Forbes about Keith in 2013.
In its coverage of Keith’s death, Fox News highlighted his support for the military.
“An outspoken and sometimes controversial advocate for American military service members, Keith went on 11 USO tours to perform for U.S. service members serving overseas. He also helped to raise millions for charity over his career, including building a home in Oklahoma City for kids and their families who are battling cancer,” Fox News reported.
Keith announced his own cancer diagnosis on a June 2022 Instagram post, saying he had just spent six months in chemo, radiation and surgery.
“So far, so good,” he wrote. “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.”
According to USA Today, “He was in similarly good spirits at the People’s Choice Country Awards, where he received the 2023 Country Icon award in September. ‘It’s a little bit of a roller coaster. You get good days and, you know, you’re up and down, up and down,’ Keith told E! News. ‘It’s always zero to 60 and 60 to zero, but I feel good.’”
Fans pay tribute
Fans took to X to express appreciation and sorrow.
Wrote one, posting as @GAonMyMind99, “I was 7 months pregnant, my daughter was 19 months old, and my husband was 7,000 miles away in Iraq. Toby’s ‘Red, White & Blue’ got me through many rough days. I would blare it on the CD player and my daughter and I would dance around the living room. I can’t express enough how much he helped my mental health with that song. Toby encouraged me when times got too hard. That song was my mantra. I am forever grateful.”
Another, @Garberinc, wrote: “Rest in peace, Toby. He advocated for and raised millions for kids with cancer. Now his pain and suffering is over.”