NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Toby Keith, the larger-than-life country music icon known for chart-topping anthems like “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” and “How Do You Like Me Now?,” has died at age 62 after a private battle with cancer, his family announced on Tuesday.
Keith passed away peacefully at his home in Nashville on Monday evening surrounded by his loved ones, according to a statement posted on his official website and social media pages. The statement said he had been fighting cancer since being diagnosed last year but did not provide further details.
“He fought with courage and grace like the true champion he was,” the statement said, asking for privacy as the family grieves the profound loss.
The Oklahoma native skyrocketed to fame in the 1990s and became one of country music’s most decorated artists, earning multiple Grammys, Academy of Country Music and Country Music Association awards over his decades-long career. His signature smash hits defined an entire generation in country music and influenced many artists who followed.
From Small Town Oklahoma to the Biggest Stages
Keith was born Toby Keith Covel on July 8, 1961 in Clinton, Oklahoma, a small rural town west of Oklahoma City. Music was always central in his life thanks to his grandmother, who owned a supper club in Fort Smith, Arkansas where Keith worked and was exposed to live music at a young age.
“I grew up around that, seeing Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell,” Keith told The Oklahoman in 2021.
After graduating high school, Keith worked in the oil industry by day and played defensive end with the semi-pro Oklahoma City Drillers football team on weekends before focusing on his blossoming music career. He moved to Nashville in 1990 to fully devote himself to songwriting.
Keith got his big break in 1993 when his original demo tape landed in the hands of Mercury Records executive Harold Shedd, who signed him to Mercury. His self-titled debut album “Toby Keith” was released that year and featured his first No. 1 hit “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” along with three more top 10 country singles.
The smashing success of his first record shocked the industry and vaulted Keith to stardom at age 32.
“I felt like I was 15 years old in the business by the time I got a record deal,” Keith told Billboard in 2016. “So I was pretty ready by the time they let me in the door.”
Chart Dominance and Critical Acclaim Over the next decade, Keith became a hit-making machine that dominated country radio. He churned out seven more platinum and multi-platinum studio albums between 1994 and 2003, including the quintuple platinum “Pull My Chain” in 2001. An astounding 17 of his singles reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart during the 90s and early 2000s.
Some of Keith’s most enduring smashes include “How Do You Like Me Now?!” “As Good As I Once Was,” “I Love This Bar,” “Beer for My Horses” with Willie Nelson, “I Wanna Talk About Me,” “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American),” and “Red Solo Cup” which has become a party anthem.
In addition to commercial success, Keith racked up awards and honors recognizing him as one of country’s elite artists. He won Entertainer of the Year from both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association in 2002 and 2003. The coveted CMA also awarded him Male Vocalist of the Year twice, in 2002 and 2003, while the ACM presented him with Album of the Year for “Shock’n Y’all” in 2003 and 2004.
Keith took home numerous ACM, CMA, and American Music Awards over the years. His illustrious songwriting earned him induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015. The praise extended beyond the country genre – Keith won a People’s Choice Award for Favorite Country Male Artist in 2013 and 2017.
Unapologetic Patriotism and Outspoken Nature Keith became known almost as much for his outspoken nature and unfiltered opinions as his iconic music catalog. He wore his fierce patriotism on his sleeve, especially in the aftermath of 9/11 with his 2002 rabble-rousing hit “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American).” Lyrics like “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way” stirred controversy but resonated with many listeners.
While the unabashed patriotism boosted Keith’s popularity, it also made him a polarizing figure at times. His feud with The Chicks (formerly The Dixie Chicks) exploded after they criticized President George W. Bush on stage in 2003 and fellow singer Natalie Maines called Keith’s famous 9/11 song “ignorant.” Maines and Keith famously clashed for years.
Never one to shy away from beefs with other celebrities like actor Ethan Hawke or anyone else who dared to criticize him publicly, Keith cultivated a tough, anti-establishment persona. He frequently complained about “too much politics” and meddling from record executives in Nashville who wanted him to tone down lyrics.
“I write about life, and I sing about life, and I don’t overanalyze things,” Keith told The Associated Press in 2001.
Patriotic Performances and Charity Work While divisive at times, no one could question Keith’s devotion to the troops and using his platform to support noble causes. He went on 11 USO tours between 2001 and 2022 to visit and perform for active service members across the world, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Kosovo, Kuwait, and South Korea.
Keith also helped raise millions of dollars for various children’s charities over the years. One of his most lasting contributions came in 2006 when he founded the Toby Keith Foundation to provide support for pediatric cancer research. In 2014, the foundation opened OK Kids Korral in Oklahoma City, which offers cost-free, convenient housing to pediatric cancer patients and their families during treatment.
Battling Stomach Cancer Last June, Keith devastated fans when he announced that he had been privately battling stomach cancer since the fall of 2021. He had undergone surgery as well as chemotherapy and radiation treatment in the previous six months.
“I need time to breathe, recover and relax,” Keith said in his June 2022 statement, explaining that he needed to step away from touring and public engagements. “I am looking forward to spending this time with my family. But I will see the fans sooner than later. I can’t wait.”
His last public performance came in late October when Keith played a shortened set and appeared noticeably thinner at the iHeartCountry Festival in Austin. As rumors swirled about his health, his team maintained he was still fighting stomach cancer and no specific prognosis was given.
Keith spent his final months out of the spotlight, surrounded by loved ones on his Nashville farm where he died peacefully on Monday night at age 62.
Country Stars and Fans Mourn a Legend Tributes immediately began pouring in from the country music community expressing grief and gratitude for Keith’s legacy.
“I’ll never forget the day I met Toby. It was at a benefit concert in Oklahoma City, not long after the bombing,” fellow Oklahoma country star Garth Brooks said in a statement. “He was very kind to me that day as I was pretty new to the business. Years later we met again in Las Vegas and he was still just as kind… I admired the fact that he wrote his own music and I was always excited when I saw his name come up on my radio.”
Longtime friend and frequent collaborator Willie Nelson said “Toby Keith was one of the original outlaws of Country. He was a friend who I will greatly miss.”
Carrie Underwood called Keith an “incredible talent” and said “his voice and songs will live on forever in the country music hall of fame!”
Blake Shelton tweeted “I don’t even know what to say… This guy… Man. RIP Toby Keith.”
Fans mourned the premature loss of an icon who shaped their teenage years and beyond with his honest lyrics about small town life that made country music feel raw and relatable, even as his stardom grew to mammoth heights. Keith’s legacy and larger-than-life persona will not be forgotten, as the cowboy rides off into the sunset for the very last time.