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


Toby Keith, a former rodeo hand, oil rigger and semipro football player who became a rowdy king of country music, singing patriotic anthems, wry drinking songs and propulsive odes to cowboy culture that collectively sold more than 40 million records, died Feb. 5. He was 62.

“Toby Keith passed peacefully … surrounded by his family. He fought his fight with grace and courage,” a statement on his website said, without listing a cause of death. Mr. Keith announced in June 2022 that he had been diagnosed with stomach cancer, adding that he had received chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.

A brawny singer-songwriter with piercing blue eyes and an Oklahoma twang, Mr. Keith cultivated a persona as “the big, bad outlaw who hides a big, soft heart,” as music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine once put it. He could be ornery, cantankerous, self-deprecating and sensitive, recording mournful ballads about heartbreak and desire, as well as party songs about raising hell, drinking whiskey from a paper cup and getting high with his friend Willie Nelson.

His biggest crossover hit, “Red Solo Cup” (2011), was an endearingly goofy ode to the humble plastic drinking vessel — “the best receptacle for barbecues, tailgates, fairs and festivals” — which was sung in a quasi-drunken mumble and reached No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Mr. Keith also saluted the flag and the troops in hits like “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American”) (2002), a post-9/11 morale raiser that generated controversy over its jingoistic lyrics, and “Made in America” (2011), a celebration of buying American-made goods and raising your children on “King James and Uncle Sam.”

That combination of flag-waving patriotism and beer-soaked good humor helped make him one of country music’s biggest stars, with 42 Top 10 hits on the genre’s Billboard chart, including 20 No. 1s. By the late 2000s, he was bringing in nearly $50 million a year, aided by business ventures that included a restaurant chain, a liquor brand, a Nashville record label and a stake in Big Machine Records, the label that signed Taylor Swift.

“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 declared in a 2013 cover story, which estimated his career earnings at more than half a billion dollars.

It was astonishing success for a singer who had gone from high school to the Oklahoma oil fields, and who proudly referred to himself as “oil field trash.” Instead of college, he attended “Honkytonk U,” as he put it in a 2005 single, performing 51 weeks a year at beer joints, rodeos, basketball arenas and dance halls from Arizona to Arkansas.

After about a decade of touring, Mr. Keith released his first single, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” in 1993. The song topped the country chart and became the genre’s most-played track of the decade, with lyrics that referenced the TV show “Gunsmoke” and an earlier generation of country singers, romanticizing a life of roping, riding and “stealing the young girls’ hearts, just like Gene and Roy.”

Mr. Keith went on to show a sly sense of humor in songs like “I’m Just Talkin’ About Tonight” (2001), which celebrated a one-night stand and became a honky-tonk standard, and “As Good as I Once Was” (2005), about getting his manhood tested in middle age, notably by a pair of twin sisters who proposition him at a bar. In one of his biggest hits, “Beer for My Horses” (2002), he and Nelson pined for the days when you could “round up all them bad boys, hang them high in the street,” before meeting up with your posse at “the local saloon.”

Even as he became a regular atop the country charts, Mr. Keith was not fully embraced by the Nashville establishment. He could be gruff and combative, fighting with record executives over his music and image (they wanted to dress him in suits, not jeans), and received only three Country Music Association awards out of 28 nominations.

But he proved adept at picking his battles and turning controversy to his advantage. “The secret in this business,” he told The Washington Post, “is to make enough people hate you enough to get them to talk about you.”

That was especially true in 2002, when his song “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” brought him a new level of renown and notoriety. The single featured lyrics that referenced the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and promised that the United States would take vengeance on its attackers. “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.”

As Mr. Keith told it, he had never planned to record the track, only to sing it at USO shows and other military performances. He changed his mind with encouragement from Gen. James L. Jones, the Marine Corps commandant, who told him, “That’s the most amazing battle song I’ve ever heard in my life.”

The single rose to the top of the country chart while also prompting debate over its lyrics, notably after Mr. Keith was invited to sing at a Fourth of July television special broadcast by ABC. He was apparently dropped from the show after the host, news anchor Peter Jennings, objected to his performing “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” in full.

A spokesperson for the network said logistical issues, rather than a debate over lyrics, had kept Mr. Keith from being booked for the program. But the incident inspired fans of the singer to send hundreds of cowboy boots to Jennings’s office in protest and led Mr. Keith to poke fun at the anchor by suggesting that Jennings might have disliked the song because he was born in Canada.

Mr. Keith later embarked on a high-profile feud with Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, who deemed his song “ignorant” and who sparked a backlash for publicly criticizing President George W. Bush and the impending 2003 invasion of Iraq. In response, Mr. Keith broadcast a doctored photo of Maines at his concerts, showing her embracing Saddam Hussein.

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

Mr. Keith was often lumped together with outspoken conservative musicians like Ted Nugent, although he noted that he was a longtime Democrat before becoming a registered independent in 2008. His only political message was support for the troops, he said, and not necessarily for the wars they were sent to fight.

“If you listen through his catalog, you’ll hear nods to a certain chicken-fried multiculturalism,” journalist Spencer Kornhaber wrote in the Atlantic, noting a line from the singer’s 2014 single “Drunk Americans”: “We’re all mudflap suburbans, all ball caps and turbans.”

Indeed, Mr. Keith often pointed out that he sang at presidential events for Bush and Barack Obama. He later played at an inaugural concert for Donald Trump and said he accepted the gig over concerns that associating with the controversial new president would damage his reputation.

“If you don’t succumb to that kind of pressure, you’ll always come out stronger,” he said at Nashville’s Country Radio Seminar in 2017. “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.”

Toby Keith Covel was born in Clinton, Okla., on July 8, 1961, and grew up in Moore, on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. His father was an Army veteran who worked in the oil business and introduced him to the western swing music of Bob Wills, who became an early musical influence along with country singer Merle Haggard and Southern rock groups like the Marshall Tucker Band.

Mr. Keith started playing the guitar at age 8 and spent summers working for his grandmother, who owned a nightclub in Fort Smith, Ark., where he packed empty beer bottles into boxes and slipped out of the kitchen to sit in with the house band.

After graduating from high school, he spent four years working in the oil fields. He later played defensive end for the semipro Oklahoma City Drillers before turning his focus to music, going on tour in the 1980s with a group of friends known as the Easy Money Band. They took their name after earning $1,000 for performing at a wedding, their first gig.

Mr. Keith released his self-titled debut on Mercury Records in 1993 and left the label after it turned down a set of songs that became his hit 1999 album “How Do You Like Me Now?!” According to Mr. Keith, executives feared that the title song, a cheeky rejoinder to a woman who rejected him before he became famous, would alienate his female fans. Instead, it became his fourth No. 1 country hit.

After the commercial success of “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” Mr. Keith released a string of crossover hits, reaching the top of the Billboard album chart with “Unleashed” (2002) and “Shock’n Y’all” (2003), a reference to the Iraq War.

Building on his musical success, he became a pitchman for a long-distance telephone service and launched a short-lived acting career, appearing in a 2008 movie version of “Beer for My Horses.” He also started a foundation to support children with cancer.

Mr. Keith married Tricia Lucus in 1984. He adopted her daughter, Shelley Covel Rowland, and had two other children, Stelen Keith Covel and country singer Krystal Keith. Information on survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Keith was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015 and later received the Merle Haggard Spirit Award for songwriting and the National Medal of Arts. He seemed to have a clear sense of what listeners liked about his music, and what songs fell short of their expectations.

In contrast to straightforward singles like “She’s a Hottie,” for instance, down-tempo tunes like “Love Me If You Can” — which referenced homelessness, Jesus and free speech — played well on the radio but didn’t sell many copies. “When I do it in my show,” Mr. Keith observed, “it’s kind of where everybody gets up to get a beer and take a leak.”

Other singles were silly but infectious, like “Red Solo Cup,” which was written by brothers Brett and Jim Beavers and Brad and Brett Warren, and was one of the few Keith hits that he didn’t write or co-write. “It is the stupidest song I ever heard in my life, but it’s so stupid it’s good,” he told the country website the Boot.

“‘Red Solo Cup’ is like a squirrel loose in a church house,” he added. “We can play it in an office and then play five other songs, give it an hour, walk out, and you’d hear the receptionist singing it. It’s like nursery-rhyme stupid.”

The song sold more than 2 million copies.



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