Toby Keith, country superstar from ‘Honkytonk U,’ dies at 62

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Toby Keith, a former oil rigger, rodeo hand, and semipro football player who amassed over 40 million recordings selling patriotic anthems, witty drinking songs, and propulsive odes to cowboy culture, passed away on February 5. He was a notorious king of country music. At the time, he was 62.

“Toby Keith passed away in peace, with his family by his side.” “He fought his battle with valor and dignity,” read a statement on his website, which did not specify the cause of death. Mr. Keith disclosed his prognosis for gastric cancer in June 2022, supplementing his statement with information regarding his surgical recovery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, a music critic, once characterized the robust singer-songwriter Mr. Keith as “the big, bad outlaw who hides a big, soft heart.” He possessed piercing blue eyes and an Oklahoma twang. Ornery, obstinate, self-deprecating, and sensitive, he composed both melancholy ballads and party songs. The former explored sorrow and desire, while the latter referred to raising hell, drinking whiskey from a paper cup, and getting high with his friend Willie Nelson.

Red Solo Cup” (2011), his most successful crossover single, was a humorous homage to the simple plastic drinking cup—”the best receptacle for barbecues, tailgates, fairs, and festivals”—sung in a nearly drunken mumble and peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100.

In hits such as “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” (2002), a post-9/11 morale booster whose jingoistic lyrics sparked controversy, and “Made in America” (2011), a jubilant ode to supporting American-made products and raising children while watching “King James and Uncle Sam,” Mr. Keith also paid homage to the flag and the armed forces.

“Keith’s commercial chops, overlaying a wide patriotic appeal, have created the most vertically integrated performer in the music business — and a one-man cash machine,” Forbes magazine wrote on its 2013 cover story. The publication estimated that Keith has earned over $500 million over the course of his career.

An unexpected triumph for a vocalist who had labored in the Oklahoma oil fields after graduating from high school and who boasted of being “oil field trash.” He attended “Honkytonk U,” as he described it in a 2005 single, instead of college, touring beer joints, rodeos, basketball arenas, and dance halls for 51 weeks a year from Arizona to Arkansas.

In 1993, Mr. Keith released his debut single, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” following an approximately ten-year tour career. The song’s lyrics romanticized a life of roping, riding, and “stealing the young girls’ hearts, just like Gene and Roy.” In reference to the television series “Gunsmoke” and an earlier generation of country singers, the song peaked the country charts and became the genre’s most-played track of the decade.

Mr. Keith subsequently demonstrated a sly sense of humor in songs such as “As Good as I Once Was” (2005), which was inspired by a honky-tonk standby involving his manhood in middle age and was notably inspired by a pair of twin sisters who proposed to him in a bar, and “I’m Just Talkin’ About Tonight” (2001), which commemorated a one-night stand and became a honky-tonk standard. Nelson and himself lamented in “Beer for My Horses” (2002), one of his most popular songs, that there were times when “all those bad boys could be rounded up and hung high in the street” prior to gathering with your posse at “the local saloon.”

Despite consistently topping the country music rankings, Mr. Keith failed to receive complete acceptance from the Nashville establishment. His image and music entangled disputes with record executives (they insisted on dressing him in suits rather than denim), and he was nominated for 28 Country Music Association awards. Despite his obstinate nature, he was honored with a mere three accolades.

However, he demonstrated skill in selecting his battles and capitalizing on controversy to his benefit. He stated to The Washington Post, “The key to success in this industry is to generate sufficient animosity among individuals to provoke discussions about you.”

This was particularly the case in 2002, when his song “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” propelled him to an unprecedented degree of fame and recognition. The single contained verses that alluded to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and vowed that retribution would be exacted by the United States against those responsible. “You’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A.,” Mr. Keith sang. “cause we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.”

According to Mr. Keith, the track was intended solely for military performances and USO concerts and never for recording. The Marine Corps commandant, General James L. Jones, persuaded him to alter his mind by stating, “That’s the most amazing battle song I’ve ever heard in my life.”

Toby Keith
Toby Keith performs at a concert. Image provided for illustrative purposes by Frenz Hub

The song’s lyrics sparked controversy and propelled it to the top of the country music charts; this was especially true following Mr. Keith’s invitation to perform at an ABC Fourth of July television special. Peter Jennings, the presenter of the program and a news anchor, reportedly fired him from the program after he performed “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” in its entirety.

A representative for the network stated that logistical concerns prevented Mr. Keith from being scheduled for the program, not a dispute over lyrics. However, the incident sparked a backlash from the singer’s followers who delivered hundreds of cowboy boots to Jennings’s office. In light of this, Mr. Keith ridiculed the anchor by speculating that Jennings’s reluctance to approve of the song might be due to his Canadian birthplace.

Subsequently, Mr. Keith entered into a prominent dispute with Natalie Maines, the lead vocalist of the Dixie Chicks. Maines called his song “ignorant” and publicly criticized President George W. Bush and the impending 2003 invasion of Iraq, which incited a backlash. In retaliation, Mr. Keith displayed a manipulated photograph of Maines endorsing Saddam Hussein at his concerts.

Explaining that he was “embarrassed” about his part in the dispute, he told reporters at a roundtable event in October 2003, “That was funny for a night or two, and then it was a little over the top for me.” He was “embarrassed.” “She’s getting kicked enough without me piling on.”

Mr. Keith often found himself grouped with vocally conservative musicians such as Ted Nugent, despite disclosing his former affiliation with the Democratic Party prior to 2008, when he formally declared himself an independent. He stated that his sole political stance was support for the soldiers, and not necessarily the conflicts they were dispatched to wage.

“If you listen through his catalog, you’ll hear nods to a certain chicken-fried multiculturalism,” wrote Atlantic journalist Spencer Kornhaber, citing an excerpt from “Drunk Americans” (2014): “We’re all mudflap suburbans, all ball caps and turbans.”

Mr. Keith frequently remarked that he had performed at presidential events in support of Barack Obama and George W. Bush. He subsequently performed at Donald Trump’s inaugural concert and stated that he accepted the invitation out of concern that his reputation would be harmed by associating with the controversial new president.

“If you don’t succumb to that kind of pressure, you’ll always come out stronger,” he said in 2017 at the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville. “Your fans will love you more, your friends will love you more, your peers will respect you more. At the end of the day, you just get another notch on your gun belt.”


  • Dennis

    Dennis brings a comprehensive worldview to the Frenz Hub team, fueled by his passions for writing, reading, documentaries, and community involvement. His educational background enhances his thoughtful contributions.

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