Toby Keith, 1961-2024

The country music singer was 62.

Associated Press, “Toby Keith has died after battling stomach cancer

“Beer For My Horses” singer-songwriter Toby Keith has died. He was 62.

Keith, who was battling stomach cancer, passed 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-foot-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.” He had a powerful booming voice, a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and range that carried love songs as well as drinking songs.

Among his 20 No. 1 Billboard 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.

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

“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.”

Keith learned good lessons in the booming oil fields, which toughened him up, but also showed 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.”

But the domestic oil field industry collapsed and Keith had not saved. “It about broke us,” he said. “So I just learned. I’ve taken care of my money this time.”

He spent a couple seasons as a defensive end for the Oklahoma City Drillers, a farm team for the now-defunct United States Football League. But he found consistent money playing music with his band throughout the red dirt roadhouse circuit in Oklahoma and Texas.

“All through this whole thing the only constant thing we had was music,” he said. “But it’s hard to sit back and say, ‘I’m going to go make my fortune singing music, or writing music. I had no contacts.”‘

New York Times, “Toby Keith, Popular Country Music Singer-Songwriter, Dies at 62

Toby Keith, the larger-than-life singer-songwriter of No. 1 country hits like “Who’s Your Daddy?” and “Made in America” and one of the biggest stars to come out of Nashville in three decades, died on Monday. He was 62.


In a recent interview with KWTV News 9, an Oklahoma-based TV station, Mr. Keith, who played a run of shows in Las Vegas in December, said he was still in treatment. “Cancer is a roller coaster,” he said. “You just sit here and wait on it to go away — it may not ever go away.” Keith said that his Christian faith was helping him get through the treatment and the potential dark outcome.

Singing in an alternately declamatory and crooning baritone, Mr. Keith cultivated a boisterous, in-your-face persona with recordings like “I Wanna Talk About Me” and “Beer for My Horses.”

Built around clever wordplay and droll humor — and more than a little macho bluster — both topped the country chart, with “Beer for My Horses,” a twangy, Rolling Stones-style rocker featuring Willie Nelson on vocals, crossing over to the pop Top 40.

Mr. Keith wrote or co-wrote most of his material, which ranged stylistically from traditional honky-tonk to pop-country balladry and Southern rock. More than 60 of his singles reached the country chart, including 20 No. 1 hits, and he sold more than 40 million albums worldwide. In 2015 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in a class that included Cyndi Lauper, the blues pioneer Willie Dixon, and Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.

Mr. Keith was already in his 30s, having scuffled for years to make it in the music business, when he signed his first record deal in 1993. He had previously worked as a rodeo hand, a roughneck in the Oklahoma oil fields and a semiprofessional football player to support his young family.

“I didn’t take many vacations the first 20 years of my adult life,” Mr. Keith said in a 2018 episode of The Big Interview with Dan Rather.

“When I came out and my song hit,” he added, referring to “Should Have Been a Cowboy,” his first No. 1 country single, in 1993, “I was doing 28, 29 shows a month because I didn’t know I was going to get a second hit.”

“At the time I was just trying to outwork everybody.”

His vast popularity — and blue-collar bona fides — notwithstanding, Mr. Keith was often a lightning rod for controversy, especially where politics were concerned.


Fiercely independent, Mr. Keith for years described himself as a conservative Democrat, confounding his critics with seemingly contradictory statements expressing admiration, for example, for the ideologically divergent likes of Donald Trump and Barack Obama. (He later said he had re-registered as an independent voter.)

A particularly disarming instance of Mr. Keith’s contrarian capacity for surprise was his 2003 recording of “If I Was Jesus,” an empathetic rumination reminiscent of vintage John Prine.

“If I was Jesus/I’d have some friends that were poor,” he sang over a lilting Caribbean rhythm to open the song’s second stanza. “I’d run around with the wrong crowd/Man, I’d never be bored/Then I’d heal me a blind man, get myself crucified/By politicians and preachers who got something to hide.”

It was enough that Mr. Keith, whose critics dismissed him as a loudmouthed boor, rendered these lines with self-deprecating understatement and good humor. Especially disarming was his suggestion, in keeping with the tenets of liberation theology, that God takes the side of sinners and outcasts.

Rolling Stone, “Toby Keith, Country Music’s Brash, Patriotic Songwriter, Dead at 62

Toby Keith, who injected Nineties and 2000s country music with an unapologetic dose of patriotism and an unrelenting swagger in songs like “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” “How Do You Like Me Now?!” and “Who’s Your Daddy?”, has died at 62 following a diagnosis of stomach cancer.

Keith’s family confirmed the death on social media, writing that the musician “passed peacefully” on Feb. 5 and was “surrounded by his family.” “He fought his fight with grace and courage,” they wrote. The statement did not mention a cause of death.

Keith revealed his illness to fans in 2022 but was actually diagnosed a year earlier. In the months that followed the diagnosis he underwent treatment including chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, and dialed back his performing schedule. In summer of 2023, he made his return to the stage with a pair of pop-up bar shows in his hometown of Norman, Oklahoma. That fall, Keith gave his first television performance since his diagnosis, singing “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” the tale of mortality he wrote for Clint Eastwood’s 2018 film The Mule, at the inaugural People’s Choice Country Awards in Nashville.

Onstage at the awards, his voice was strong, but Keith appeared thin. “Bet you all never thought you’d see me in skinny jeans,” he joked. It was a stark contrast to the burly, boisterous Toby Keith that barnstormed country music in the decades prior, striking an imposing presence on concert stages in flannel shirts (often with the sleeves cut off), jeans, and a straw cowboy hat. He looked every part of his nickname: “Big Dog Daddy.”

Toby Keith Covel was born July 8, 1961 — just four days after Independence Day — in Clinton, Oklahoma. Music wasn’t his first calling. Out of high school, he followed in his father’s footsteps and took a job in the oil fields. “At 18 years old, it made me a man,” Keith told Dan Rather in 2018. Around that same time, he started playing music with his own group — the Easy Money Band — and then played semiprofessional football during a downturn in the oil market. Music soon became his primary focus and his demo recordings caught the ear of record executive Harold Shedd. “It was mainly the quality of what he was writing,” Shedd told Forbes in 2013. “It was unlike anything on the radio at the time, and it was still really good country music.”

Shedd signed Keith to Mercury Records and released his self-titled debut album in 1993. Remarkably, the album’s first single, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” hit Number One on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” was rich in Wild West hero imagery, namechecked singing cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, and was written solely by Keith, who, despite having one of country’s most powerful voices, prioritized songwriting above all else. “I wanted to be better at it and I wanted to write the best songs I could write,” he told Billboard in 2018. “So if I wouldn’t have gotten a recording contract and had some success, I would have still been pitching songs. God forbid, if something ever happened to you and you couldn’t sing no more or perform, you could still write songs.”

While many of his peers relied on “outside songs” written by professional songwriters, Keith wrote or co-wrote many of his own chart-topping hits: “Who’s That Man,” “How Do You Like Me Now?!”, “You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This,” his duet with Willie Nelson “Beer for My Horses,” “I Love This Bar,” “American Soldier,” and “Made in America,” among them.

But Keith didn’t just put his weight behind his singles. He wrote the majority of all of his album cuts, proof of a depth that went well past the radio dial. The title track to 1994’s Boomtown, “In a Couple of Days,” off 2010’s Bullets in the Gun, and the homage to his barkeep grandmother “Clancy’s Tavern” on the 2011 LP of the same name, stand on level ground with some of Keith’s biggest hits. His fellow songwriters took notice: In 2015, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, followed by induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2021.

Yet for all the poignancy of Keith’s “Cryin’ for Me (Wayman’s Song)” and the self-deprecating cleverness of “As Good As I Once Was,” Keith could also be proudly brash. He titled his 2006 album White Trash With Money; asked, “Don’t my baby look good in them blue jeans?” in the 2003 radio fodder “Whiskey Girl”; and in 2017 released the album Bus Songs, a collection of off-color ditties with titles like “Shitty Golfer” and “Ballad of Balad” (sample lyric: “Walked in on my buddy with a female M.P/The ugliest woman you ever did see”).

But his most polarizing and criticized song was 2002’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks that found Keith — who entertained American service members over 11 USO tours — warning foreign foes that the U.S. will “put a boot in your ass/it’s the American way.”

Detractors labeled it jingoistic. Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks (now the Chicks) called the song “ignorant” in a 2002 interview with the Los Angeles Daily News, a remark that ignited a public quarrel between the two disparate country stars. When Maines spoke out against President George W. Bush and the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq onstage in the U.K. a year later, Keith turned up the heat, displaying a doctored image of Maines next to Saddam Hussein at his concerts. Later, he suggested to reporters that he regretted the feud.

“It got pretty vicious sometimes, putting her and Saddam Hussein up on the screen. That was funny for a night or two, and then it was a little over the top for me,” he said. “I’m not that mean.”

If there were anything that hurt Keith’s standing in country music, however, it wasn’t the Maines squabble or his lyrics but rather his unwillingness to immerse himself in Music Row politics. He eschewed Nashville as his home base, distancing himself from the industry by choosing to live in Oklahoma and rarely attending awards shows. He won only three awards from the Country Music Association — the Nashville-based country organization — and found more success with the then L.A.-centered Academy of Country Music, which crowned him its Entertainer of the Year in 2003. In 2020 the ACM recognized Keith’s songwriting by giving him an award named after his hero: the Merle Haggard Spirit Award.

Variety,Toby Keith, Country Music Star Who Sang ‘Should’ve Been a Cowboy,’ Dies 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.


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?!”

Despite being vaguely aware that he’d been ill, I was shocked when I saw the news of his passing atop the AP news site this morning. At 62, he was still a relatively young man, albeit a little older than I would have guessed.

Somehow, despite having followed his career since his debut single, I was unaware until this morning that he’d played professional football before becoming a country star. He came blazing out of the gates with a #1 single, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” during the height of the country music boom kicked off by Garth Brooks and others in 1989. That the single coincided with the resurgence of the Dallas Cowboys, which won their first of three Super Bowls in the Aikman-Smith-Irvin era the month before, likely enhanced the song’s appeal.

While I didn’t care for some of the brasher songs, Keith proved to be an excellent country songwriter. I particularly enjoyed songs like “Red Solo Cup,” “Beer For My Horses,” and “I Love This Bar” for their wry sense of humor.

UPDATE: A heartfelt tribute from Steven Colbert:

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Neil Hudelson says:

    I was never a huge fan, but the height of his career coincided with my high school days, the time when music probably matters the most. “How do you like me now?” is the song that immediately transports me back to riding in the back of a friends truck on a warm summer night, comfortable in the knowledge that I have my whole life and endless opportunities ahead of me.

  2. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    His music wasn’t to my taste, but my wife and daughter loved it, and him. Met him after they were extras in a music video he shot locally, and he was gracious to everyone there. May he rest peacefully after a long fight.

  3. Matt says:

    What you didn’t like my pointing out that Toby Keith went MAGA on the Dixie Chicks before MAGA was cool to be? I won’t forget that he cheered on the worst of Bush and Cheney’s policies…

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Matt: Keith’s engagement in political controversy is a legitimate topic for conversation in reflecting on his passing. Your previous comment was simply out of bounds.

    Steven Colbert’s take is worth the 5 minutes.