Distinctive and Prolific Country Artist Toby Keith, Dead at 62

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Toby Keith’s voice was truly distinctive in his music and his life. A barrel-chested baritone, with just the right amount of twang and vibrato to sound country, who wrote songs that were unabashedly country, but appealed to every man and every woman. Keith was also one of the last true trailblazers in country music in an era when you had to earn your place among that set. Keith was at his professional height when the industry began churning out “stars” with watered-down music, mass appeal, and mostly left-leaning politics. Stars like Brad Paisley.

After a short battle with stomach cancer, Toby Keith’s legacy and voice has fallen silent. He is dead at 62.

Toby Keith, the country singer who scored the genre’s most-played song of the ’90s with “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” died on Monday night of stomach cancer. He was 62.

The news was announced on Keith’s official website as well as his social media channels. “Toby Keith passed peacefully last night on Feb. 5, surrounded by his family,” the statement reads. “He fought his fight with grace and courage. Please respect the privacy of his family at this time.”

In June 2022, Keith revealed that he had been diagnosed with stomach cancer. “I’ve spent the last 6 months receiving chemo, radiation and surgery,” Keith wrote at the time. “So far, so good. I need time to breathe, recover and relax.”

Taking into account studio albums, Christmas records and greatest hits compilations, Keith released a project nearly every year for almost two decades. He was a prolific songwriter and hit machine, with some of his most well-known songs including “Red Solo Cup,” “As Good as I Once Was,” “Beer for My Horses” with Willie Nelson, “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)” and “How Do You Like Me Now?!”

Keith was bon July 8, 1961 in Clinton, Oklahoma. He was a fresh-faced, 20-year-old when he formed the Easy Money Band with his friends, which jump started his music career. The group did the usual Oklahoma and Texas honky tonk circuits, before Keith found his way to Nashville, where record deals are made. 

Amazingly enough, Keith’s big break came when a flight attendant gave his demo tape to Harold Shedd at Mercury Records. Shedd had worked with Shania Twain and Billy Ray Cyrus. He liked what he heard and signed Keith on to the label. In 1993, Keith’s debut single, Should’ve Been a Cowboy, reached No. 1 on Billboard’s country songs chart. The song became the most-played country song of the decade.

Keith changed record labels seemingly as quickly as he changed Stetsons, finally launching his own label, Slow Dog Nashville in 2005, and partnering with Scott Borchetta to found Big Machine Records. This label launched the careers of some name music stars, most notably Taylor Swift.

Keith dipped his toe into acting, opened up a restaurant, I Love This Bar & Grill, in Oklahoma City. It became a chain and expanded to more than a dozen locations nationwide. Keith also fronted a clothing line called TK Steelman. In 2015, Keith was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2021, he received a National Medal of Arts from former President Donald J. Trump. That same year, he also released his last album, Peso in My Pocket.

Keith was most distinctive in his politics. In 2004, Toby described himself as “a conservative Democrat who is sometimes embarrassed for his party.” In 2008, Keith registered as an independent, and as far as can be known, remained one until his death. 

“It’s strictly [because] my party, that I’ve been affiliated with all these years, doesn’t stand for anything that I stand for anymore,” Keith said of the Democratic party in a 2008 interview with CMT. “They’ve lost any sensibility that they had, and they’ve allowed all the kooks in, so I’m going independent.”

The country music artist told The Chicago Tribune in 2016, “I was a Democrat my whole life. They kind of disowned me when I started supporting the troops, then I went and registered Independent.”

While disagreeing with the Iraq War, Keith fully supported the American troops, writing songs which honored their service to the country and performing in war zones. Keith was one of the first artists to speak out against Natalie Maines and the Dixie Chicks for their infamous rant against George W. Bush, which made them the darlings of the Left. 

Keith’s most famous act of rebellion against the WOKE: he aligned with the music artists who performed at Trump’s 2017 inaugural ball. The majority of the music industry considered any association with Trump a toxic stew.

“I’m not naming names, but there’s a bunch of people that . . . were committed, and they backed out due to pressure,” Keith, 55, said recently during an onstage Q&A at the Country Radio Seminar (CRS) in Nashville. “Then they all texted me afterward and said, ‘Every guy would like to be you, standing up there.’ ” Excuses ranged from “Our camp wouldn’t let us” to “We just couldn’t bring ourselves to do it.”

Keith, on the other hand, never considered canceling on Trump. “I don’t apologize for performing for our country or military,” he said at the time, pointing out that he had played events for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. His message was clear. This was about America, not party lines.

America, and not party lines. If many musical artists took this view, we’d have a more diverse, interesting, and listenable music industry. When the high point of the once-lauded Grammy Awards is a beautiful duet of Fast Car between songwriter and artist Tracy Chapman and her biggest fan who covered the song, artist Luke Combs, you know this industry has become a barren desert. 

[t]he country star whose post-Sept. 11 patriotic anthem “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” famously includes the line, “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” Throw in his feud with the Dixie Chicks, particularly after Natalie Maines criticized Bush right before the Iraq War, and Keith became one of the prominent celebrity voices in the last Republican administration. 

Trailblazers, icons, and pro-America artists like Keith are dying off and we are unfortunately left with the Brad Paisleys. Keith’s video for Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue is a powerful marker of a distinctive life. 

Rest in Peace, Toby Keith.

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