American country singer-songwriter, Toby Keith has died aged 62. A statement posted on his social media accounts said he “passed peacefully” surrounded by his family, having been diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2021.
He leaves a legacy of 19 studio albums behind, from which came 20 chart-topping singles and four number-one albums.
A year after his diagnosis, the country icon made the news public, during which he called his illness “debilitating”, having endured six months of chemo and radiation therapy.
His illness limited his live appearances, with his performance of Don't Let The Old Man In at the 2023 People's Choice Country Awards proving to be one of the final times he stepped foot on stage.
The statement posted on his social channels said he had “fought his fight with grace and courage”.
Responding to the Instagram post announcing his passing, Lady A (formerly Lady Antebellum) commented: “A true country inspiration to us. Rest easy, Toby.”
Before his musical success, Keith worked as a derrick hand in the local oilfields, before trying his hand as a semi-pro American footballer. A Pittsburgh Steelers fan off the field, he represented the Oklahoma City Drillers on it. Around the same time, he started making music with his group The Easy Money Band.
Keith picked up the guitar as a child and played in honky-tonk bands in the mid and late '80s, before branching out as a solo artist. His career may never have taken off if it weren't for one of his demo tapes making its way, via a flight attendant, to a Mercury Records executive.
As such, the Oklahoma-born guitarist rose to fame with the 1993 single, I Should’ve Been a Cowboy, which romanticized to cowboy lifestyle. Some years later, it became available as a download on the plastic guitar-touting video game, Rock Band.
Keith’s career was defined by his palpable patriotism, producing Country staples such as Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American), American Soldier, and Beer for my Horses, a duet with Willie Nelson.
While lauded by many, his patriotic views did spark some controversy over his 30-year career. Most notable was a feud with The Chicks frontwoman, Natalie Maines over the lyrical content of Courtesy…, which was written in response to the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001.
Maines publicly expressed her feelings that the song “makes country music sound ignorant”. Keith eventually doused the flames of the argument, saying there were more important things to focus on.
The country singer intended the song to be a live-only tribute to his veteran father, who had passed in March ’21. However, Commandant of the Marine Corps James L. Jones told Keith it was his duty as an American citizen to record the song, prompting him to take the song to the studio.
Keith’s father served in the military, leading to his playing numerous shows for American troops across 11 USO tours. He also performed at several events for US Presidents, including George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
In 2021, Trump awarded Keith a National Medal of the Arts during a closed ceremony. Fellow country multi-instrumentalist Ricky Skaggs was awarded the same honor at the ceremony.
Much of his musical legacy survives in his pro-America lyrics, but underpinning those lyrics was a penchant for smooth country guitar playing. He was bestowed with a Takamine signature guitar, the EF250TK in 2013. It was based on his long-time "workhorse" acoustic, the Takamine TF250SMCSB and features his silhouette on its headstock.
Keith was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York in 2015. It was a rare victory for the musician, who had irked much of the Country community by distancing himself from Nashville. Instead, he stayed in his home state, Oklahoma, though he still won three CMA awards during his career
Away from music, he enjoyed a brief acting career, starring in the 2005 film Broken Bridges alongside Kelly Preston and Burt Reynolds. He also opened a chain of restaurants between 2005 and 2010. His business acumen led to him being a Forbes Magazine cover star in 2013, in which the article labeled him a “cowboy capitalist”.
He is survived by his wife, Tricia Lucus, and three children.