Toby Keith, the country music star behind hit songs including “Red Solo Cup” and “I Wanna Talk About Me”, as well as the controversial “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue”, has died aged 62 after being diagnosed with stomach cancer.
“Toby Keith passed peacefully last night on February 5th, surrounded by his family. He fought his fight with grace and courage. Please respect the privacy of his family at this time,” a statement posted to Keith’s website and social media said.
Keith sold more than 40 million records over his career, which was peppered with controversy due to his political beliefs and a public feud with The Chicks (then known as The Dixie Chicks) over one of his biggest songs.
Born in Clinton, Oklahoma, in 1961, Keith worked in the booming oil fields of his home state as a young man, which he said taught him the value of money.
“The money to be made was unbelievable,” Keith told The Associated Press in 1996. “I came out of high school in 1980 and they gave me this job December of 1979, $50,000 a year. I was 18 years old.”
However, Keith failed to save anything and was left penniless when the domestic oil field industry collapsed: “It about broke us,” he said. “So I just learned. I’ve taken care of my money this time.”
After a stint playing semi-pro American football, he launched his career as a singer in the late Seventies and Eighties, playing with his band around the red-dirt roadhouse circuit in Oklahoma and Texas.
He ended up in Nashville, where he caught the interest of Mercury Records executive Harold Shedd, then best known for producing the hit group Alabama. Keith released his debut self-titled album, Toby Keith, with the label in 1993.
With his macho, pro-American swagger, booming voice and simple but catchy songs, Keith achieved success with hits including his breakthrough song, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy”, which became the most-played country song of the Nineties.
During this time, Keith became known for public clashes with celebrities and an unwillingness to have his rough edges smoothed over by record executives.
He also pushed back against what he perceived as an attempt to get him to cross over into pop music, as his label enjoyed similar success with country-pop queen Shania Twain.
“They were trying to get me to compromise, and I was living a miserable existence,” Keith told the AP. “Everybody was trying to mould me into something I was not.”
Keith moved to DreamWorks in 1999 and promptly achieved a hit record with “How Do You Like Me Now?!” his first song to cross over into the Top 40 charts. Two years later, he won Male Vocalist of the Year as well as Album of the Year at the Country Music Awards, exclaiming from the stage that he’d waited “nine years” to get there.
He wore his politics on his sleeve, particularly after 9/11. Previously describing himself as a conservative Democrat, he later claimed to be an independent, playing at events for US presidents George W Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
Written after the death of his father, HK Covel, in a car crash, and in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” is distinctly pro-American and issues a threat to anyone who tries to mess with it.
Melodically similar to “American Pie” by Don McLean, the song included the lyrics: “Justice will be served and the battle will rage/ This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage/ And you’ll be sorry that you messed with/ The US of A/ ’Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass/ It’s the American way.”
The song peaked at No 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. Keith was later invited by broadcaster ABC to perform at its Fourth of July concert in 2002, but he claimed he was dropped from the show after host Peter Jennings expressed his distaste for it.
However, ABC said in a statement that it was the network’s decision, because it had not wanted to start its celebratory event with an angry song.
It was also the subject of negative reactions from his country music peers, including the legendary singer-songwriter Steve Earle, who accused the song of “pandering to people’s worst instincts at a time they are hurt and scared”. The Chicks singer Natalie Maines branded it “ignorant”.
In response, Keith (already incensed by Maines’ infamous remark about how the band were ashamed of then-President George W Bush over the imminent invasion of Iraq) performed in front of a doctored photo of her with Saddam Hussein.
Maines then wore a homemade T-shirt reading “FUTK” on stage at the 2003 ACM Awards. While the band insisted at the time that it stood for, “Friends United Together in Kindness”, most believed that it was an acronym for: “F*** You Toby Keith.” Maines later admitted this was the case in the band’s 2006 documentary, Shut Up and Sing.
Keith was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2021, and shared the news with the public a year later.
In June 2022, he tweeted: “Last fall I was diagnosed with stomach cancer. I’ve spent the last six months receiving chemo, radiation and surgery. So far, so good. I need time to breathe, recover and relax.”
He added that he was looking forward to “spending time with my family. But I will see the fans sooner than later. I can’t wait.”
He had recently played live at the 2023 People’s Choice Awards, in September, when he received the Country Icon Award. He spoke about his diagnosis during the ceremony, telling Extra TV: “I’ve walked some dark hallways, [but] the Almighty’s riding shotgun. I feel pretty good. You have good days and bad days.”
Many of Keith’s friends and fans expressed their devastation at the news of his death.
Pro-golfer John Daly, a longtime friend of the singer, commented on the Instagram post, writing: “My heart is truly broken… one of my best friends gone by this disease! RIP Big Dawg.”
Additional reporting by The Associated Press