Country music star Toby Keith dead at 62

Country music star Toby Keith dead at 62

Singer-songwriter Toby Keith, who twice won the Academy of Country Music's entertainer of the year award, has died. He was 62.

Keith, who had stomach cancer, died peacefully on Monday surrounded by his family, according to a statement posted on the country singer's website.

"He fought his fight with grace and courage," the statement said. He was diagnosed in 2022.

Sometimes a polarizing figure in country music, the 6'4 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.

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. He was known for his overt patriotism on post 9/11 songs like Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue, and boisterous barroom tunes like I Love This Bar and Red Solo Cup.

Two bearded men in cowboy hats, one older and one younger, are shown performing on stage
Singers Willie Nelson, right, and Keith perform on stage during the 30th Annual American Music Awards (AMA) at the Shrine Auditorium on Jan. 13, 2003 in Los Angeles. (Vince Bucci/Getty Images)

He had a powerful booming voice, a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour and range that carried love songs as well as drinking songs. Among his 20 No. 1 Billboard country hits were How Do You Like Me Now?!, Should've Been a Cowboy, As Good As I Once Was, My List and Beer for My Horses, a duet with Willie Nelson.

"I write about life, and I sing about life, and I don't overanalyze things," Keith told The Associated Press in 2001, following the success of his song I'm Just Talking About Tonight.

'Miserable' after breakout success

Keith worked in the oil fields of Oklahoma as a young man, then played semi-pro football before launching his career as a singer.

Eventually his path took him to Nashville, where he attracted the interest of Mercury Records head Harold Shedd, who was best known as a producer for the hit group Alabama. Shedd brought him to Mercury, where he released his platinum debut record Toby Keith, in 1993.

Should've Been a Cowboy, his breakout hit, was played three million times on radio stations, making it the most played country song of the 1990s. But Keith felt that the executives were trying to push him in a pop direction.

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"They were trying to get me to compromise, and I was living a miserable existence," Keith told the Associated Press years later. "Everybody was trying to mould me into something I was not."

After a series of albums that produced hits like Who's That Man, and a cover of Sting's I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying, Keith moved to DreamWorks Records in 1999.

That's when his multi-week How Do You Like Me Now?! took off and became his first song to crossover to Top 40 charts. In 2001, he won the male vocalist of the year and album of the year at the Academy of Country Music Awards.

Outspoken views

Keith often wore his politics on his sleeve, especially after the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in 2001, and early on he said was a conservative Democrat, but later claimed he was an independent. He played at events for Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the latter giving him a National Medal of the Arts in 2021.

Singer-songwriter Steve Earle characterized Keith's 2002 song, Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American), as pandering to people's worst instincts at a time of fear after the 9/11 attacks.

Then there was the feud between Keith and The Dixie Chicks, now known as the Chicks, who became a target of Keith's ire when singer Natalie Maines told a crowd that they were ashamed of then-president George W. Bush.

Several soldiers are shown with two musicians.
Musicians Ted Nugent, left, and Keith are shown visiting U.S. troops at Camp Phoenix prior to a USO performance for coalition forces on June 3, 2004 in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Mike Theiler/USO/Getty Images)

Keith, who had previously claimed that he supported any artist's freedom to voice their opinion about politics, used a doctored photo of Maines with an image of Saddam Hussein at his concerts, further ramping up angry fans.

Maines responded by wearing a shirt with the letters FUTK onstage at the 2003 ACM Awards, which many people believed was a vulgar message to Keith.

He won the ACM Awards top entertainer prize in 2003 and 2004, adding the top male vocalist and album of the year for Shock 'n Y'all in 2004.

He was also nominated for Entertainer of the Year at the Country Music Awards three times.

He went on 11 United Service Organization tours to visit and play for troops serving overseas. He also helped to raised millions for charity over his career, including building a home in Oklahoma City for kids and their families who are battling cancer.

A man in a cowboy hat and a light-haired woman smile while posing for a photo.
Carrie Underwood and Keith are shown at the 2022 BMI Country Awards in Nashville, Tenn. (Erika Goldring/Getty Images)

After Universal Music Group acquired DreamWorks, Keith started anew again, starting his own record label, Show Dog, in 2005 with record executive Scott Borchetta, who launched his own label Big Machine at the same time

His later hits included Love Me If You Can, She Never Cried In Front of Me, and Red Solo Cup. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015. He was then honoured by the performance rights organization BMI in November 2022 with the BMI Icon award, a few months after announcing his stomach cancer diagnosis.

"I always felt like that the songwriting was the most important part of this whole industry," Keith told the crowd of fellow singers and writers.