Toby Keith (1961–2024)

Toby Keith was an American country music singer, songwriter, actor, and record producer whose career in music had ties to Arkansas. He produced more than thirty studio albums and thirty-two number-one singles. He sold more forty million albums and, prior to his cancer diagnosis in 2021, wrote a chart-topping hit every year for twenty consecutive years. Keith was nominated for seven Grammy awards and was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the Merle Haggard Spirit Award from the Academy of Country Music (ACM), and the BMI Icon Award—an award that recognizes a songwriter’s “unique and indelible influence on generations of music makers.” Keith was also inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and was known for his annual golf classics—which funded his charities—and his USO tours.

Toby Keith was born Toby Keith Covel on July 8, 1961, in Clinton, Oklahoma to Carolyn Joan Ross Covel and Hubert Keith (H. K.) Covel Jr. He grew up with a sister, Tonnie, and a brother, Tracy. Keith’s father served in the U.S. Army, followed by a thirty-five-year career in the oil field business before retiring and becoming involved in the Masonic lodge and working on his son’s horse ranch.

Keith grew up on the family farm in Moore, Oklahoma (near Oklahoma City). At age eight, he took up the guitar, inspired by the artists who played at his grandmother’s club in Fort Smith (Sebastian County). His grandmother, Hilda Marie “Clancy” Martin, had moved to Fort Smith from Booneville (Logan County), first working as the plant manager for the Dixie Cup factory there. She later worked at Billy Garner’s Supper Club until she could purchase the club herself. Keith spent his summers at the club and developed a desire to play with the band, leading him into the music business.

In high school, Keith worked as a rodeo hand. After graduation, he went to work in the oil fields. It was around this time that he formed the Easy Money Band, which played in area honkytonks. He also met his future wife, Tricia Lucus. After Keith worked for three years in the oil fields, the oil industry in Oklahoma experienced significant declines. Keith turned to professional football, playing for the United States Football League (USFL). Two years later, he decided to focus on his music and began touring. He cut a few records with independent labels, and eventually one of his demo tapes made its way to Harold Shedd, a former producer for the country music group Alabama. Shedd helped Keith land a deal with Mercury Records.

In 1993, Keith released his self-titled debut album, which sold more than two million copies. The album reached platinum status and established Keith as a professional singer/songwriter. The following year, Keith released his second album, Boomtown, which reached gold status. Two years later, he released Blue Moon, with the entire album reaching platinum status.

In 1997, Keith teamed up with producer James Stroud to release the album Dream Walkin’. Three songs on the album made the Top Five, including “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying,” a duet with Sting that also landed the duo a Grammy nomination. After becoming increasingly disillusioned with the label’s marketing and promotional tactics, Keith left Mercury Records in 1999, purchasing the songs on his unreleased album from the label. He took his songs with him and followed James Stroud to Nashville, where he signed on with DreamWorks Records. That same year, Keith released his first album with DreamWorks, How Do You Like Me Now?! The title track reached No. 1 on the country charts and landed him on the Top 40 pop charts for the first time. The album earned him ACM’s Male Vocalist of the Year and Album of the Year, both in 2001.

Toby Keith became a household name, and he began to appear in mainstream media. He received cameo roles in the television show Touched by an Angel and the Dukes of Hazzard TV reunion movie; he also appeared in a series of telephone commercials.

Over the next ten years, Keith released an additional thirteen albums, including three greatest hits albums. His Pull My Chain album was his first album to top the country charts and his first Top Ten album on the pop charts. The album also included three No. 1 singles. Unleashed (2002) debuted at No. 1 on the country and pop charts. No. 1 hits included “Who’s Your Daddy?” and “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American).” The latter song was a response to the 9/11 attacks that sparked controversy when ABC News anchor Peter Jennings objected to Keith singing it on an upcoming ABC patriotic special unless he toned down the inflammatory lyrics. Keith also feuded with Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, who called the song’s lyrics “ignorant.” The album sold more than three million copies and included the Top Ten hit, “Beer for My Horses,” a duet Keith recorded with country music legend Willie Nelson. Their music video won an ACM Award in 2004. Keith released Honkytonk University in 2005, which included notable hits such as “She Ain’t Hooked on Me No More,” which was a duet with Merle Haggard, and its biggest single, “As Good As I Once Was,” which won the Country Music Association (CMA) Award for 2005 Video of the Year. In 2005, he left DreamWorks; afterward, its parent company—Universal Music Group—closed the label. In 2007, Keith was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.

Keith launched his own label, Show Dog Records, and in 2006, he released the label’s debut album, White Trash with Money. The next year, he released Big Dog Daddy, the first album he produced on his own. He released three more albums under this label before merging with Universal South to create the label Show Dog-Universal Records in 2010. Between 2010 and 2023, Keith released fourteen albums, including Clancy’s Tavern (2011), which was inspired by his grandmother’s club in Arkansas and the time he spent there. Keith was named Artist of the Decade at the American Country Awards (ACA) in December 2011. Though he released several albums after Clancy’s Tavern, none reached the level of success he enjoyed with it or the albums prior. In 2015, Keith was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in 2019, he wrote a song for Clint Eastwood’s film The Mule.

Keith was diagnosed with stomach cancer in the fall of 2021, undergoing chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation, and surgery. After his diagnosis, he focused on this charity work, the Toby Keith Foundation and the OK Kids Korral, and spending time with his family. He and his wife were parents to three children and lived in Norman, Oklahoma.

Keith died of stomach cancer on February 5, 2024.

For additional information:
Black, Lauren Jo. “Toby Keith Shares Health Update Amid Stomach Cancer Battle.” Country Now, June 26, 2023. https://countrynow.com/toby-keith-shares-health-update-amid-stomach-cancer-battle/ (accessed December 8, 2023).

Burton, Jamie. “Inside Toby Keith’s Life with Longtime Wife Tricia Lucus.” Newsweek, July 28, 2023. https://www.newsweek.com/inside-toby-keith-life-longtime-wife-tricia-lucus-1815940 (accessed December 8, 2023).

Hackett, Vernell. “Toby Keith Pours of Shot of Sentimentality in ‘Tavern.’” The Boot, October 27, 2011. https://theboot.com/toby-keith-interview-clancys-tavern/ (accessed December 8, 2023).

Huey, Steve. “Toby Keith Biography.” AllMusic.com. https://www.allmusic.com/artist/toby-keith-mn0000510805/biography (accessed December 8, 2023).

McDonnell, Brandy. “Toby Keith Recalls the Past with ‘Clancy’s Tavern.’” The Oklahoman, October 21, 2011. https://www.oklahoman.com/story/entertainment/columns/brandy-mcdonnell/2011/10/21/toby-keith-recalls-the-past-with-clancys-tavern/61125305007/ (accessed December 8, 2023).

Toby Keith. https://www.tobykeith.com/home (accessed December 8, 2023).

Mysti L. Gates
University of Arkansas Rich Mountain

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