Oklahoma country music icon Toby Keith dies after battling stomach cancer

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When Toby Keith was ushered into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 2007, he lingered until well after the black-tie induction ceremony was over.

"He stayed until every person, including hotel staff, got a photo or autograph. He had a large presence and an even bigger heart," recalled Oklahoma Hall of Fame President and CEO Shannon L. Rich, in an email.

"Toby was a force of nature, proudly embracing his Oklahoma roots while using his platform to honor our military and provide resources for families dealing with childhood cancer. He cherished his fans and never forgot where he came from."

A larger-than-life Oklahoma and country music icon, Keith died Monday after a multiyear battle with stomach cancer. He was 62.

"Toby Keith passed peacefully last night on February 5th, surrounded by his family. He fought his fight with grace and courage. Please respect the privacy of his family at this time," reads a statement posted early Tuesday on Keith's social media.

A singer, songwriter, entertainer, philanthropist, businessman, unabashed patriot and proud Oklahoman, Keith was best known for his enduring country music hits like "Should've Been a Cowboy," “How Do You Like Me Now?!” and “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue (The Angry American)."

"America lost a legend today. Toby Keith helped make Oklahoma the coolest place in the nation," Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt posted Tuesday on X (formerly Twitter).

"His legacy will forever be in the hearts of Oklahomans and fans around the world — I know his spirit will live on."

Timeline: A look at Toby Keith's storied life from Oklahoma oil fields to climbing charts

Music icon followed his father into the Oklahoma oil fields

Toby Keith Covel was born July 8, 1961, in Clinton to Hubert "H.K." Covel Jr. and Carolyn Joan Covel while his parents were living in Arapaho and his father, an oil-field roughneck, was working on a rig in Wheeler, Texas.

When he was a child, the future superstar's family moved around because of his dad's job. Except for a couple of years in Fort Smith, Arkansas, though, Keith lived in Oklahoma all his life, telling The Oklahoman in 2007, "This is home to me, and I'll never have a home base anywhere other than here.”

"When most people get in the music business and move to Nashville, L.A., New York or wherever business is … I've never made that move,” said Keith, who was based in Norman.

"More so than anything, I'm just proud to be an Oklahoman. Everywhere I go … I hear people say, ‘You know, you're the face of the Sooner nation.' Or if I go overseas, or if I go into other states, people will wave an Oklahoma flag or a Sooner flag."

When he was in middle school, his family settled on a farm in Moore, where the water tower now is emblazoned with the logo "Home of Toby Keith." He worked as a rodeo hand during high school and in nearby oil fields after graduation. After the oil market crashed, he played semiprofessional football for the now-defunct Oklahoma City Drillers.

'America lost a legend today' Social media reacts to news of Toby Keith's death

In 1984, Keith made music his full-time job, playing Oklahoma and Texas honky tonks with his Easy Money Band.

Superstar broke out with debut single 'Should've Been a Cowboy'

The singer-songwriter eventually took his music to Nashville, where it got the attention of Harold Shedd, then head of Mercury Records, which released his self-titled debut album in 1993.

A Moore water tower is emblazoned with the logo "Home of Toby Keith."
A Moore water tower is emblazoned with the logo "Home of Toby Keith."

Keith's music career got off to fast start with his first single, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy," which galloped up the country charts, ascending to No. 1 in four months. Although it only took Keith about 20 minutes to write it, the tuneful tribute to Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and the Texas Rangers became the most-played country song of that decade and set him on a multiplatinum-selling music career.

“It’s the foundation for me of everything," Keith told The Oklahoman in 2018. "I’ve never played a show that I didn’t play that song."

His platinum debut also featured the hits "He Ain't Worth Missing," "A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action" and "Wish I Didn't Know Now," and his 1994 follow-up, "Boomtown," sent even more singles up the country charts, including "Who's That Man," "Upstairs Downtown," "You Ain't Much Fun" and "Big Ol' Truck."

Through a series of label shifts and corporate mergers, Keith notched several more 1990s hits, including "Does That Blue Moon Ever Shine on You" and a cover of Sting's "I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying" before the Oklahoma star moved in 1999 to DreamWorks Records, where his album "How Do You Like Me Now?!" propelled his career to another level.

The title track became a multiweek chart-topper, as well as his first song to cross over to the Top 40 charts, and he scored additional hits with "Country Comes to Town" and "You Shouldn't Kiss Me Like This." In 2001, he won the male vocalist of the year and album of the year trophies at the Academy of Country Music Awards.

"He certainly lived his life on his own terms, didn't care much for what the critics said and didn't care much if people didn't like his music. ... He certainly did what he thought was best and what he wanted to do — and that's what made him unique," said Oklahoma Historical Society Executive Director Trait Thompson. "He's quintessentially Oklahoman ... and definitely in the top tier of Oklahomans who have made their mark on the world with their music."

Toby Keith appears in 2015 at State Farm's Neighborhood Sessions in Norman.
Toby Keith appears in 2015 at State Farm's Neighborhood Sessions in Norman.

'Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue' stirs controversy

"Unleashed," his 2002 DreamWorks release, included the hits "Who's Your Daddy," "Rock You Baby" and "Beer for My Horses," a duet with Willie Nelson that became the title and title track of a 2008 movie Keith produced, starred in and co-wrote.

The album also included one of his most lasting and polarizing hits in “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)." Written in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and inspired by the 2001 death of his father, the Army veteran referenced in the lyrics, the song stirred controversy with its line “We’ll put a boot in your ass — It’s the American way."

Keith ended up in a public feud with the Dixie Chicks (now known as the Chicks) over the song, as well as over comments lead singer Natalie Maines made about then-President George W. Bush during a March 2003 concert in London.

Country music icon played for presidents of both parties

The Norman resident told The Oklahoman in 2015 that he was aware of the cartoonish way his detractors viewed him: as a simpleminded, flag-waving right-winger who only writes drinking songs and jingoist military anthems.

“I’ll have real liberal people come up to me and say, ‘You’re my favorite Republican,’ and I’m thinking, ‘You didn’t do your homework, Jack.’ I’m not a political guy, I just support the troops. I come from a long line of Democrats. I’m one of the first non-Democrats in our family and I’m an independent. … I try to pick the guy that I think’ll do the best job; I don’t care how they’re affiliated,” Keith said.

“I don’t go out and fight it, you know. I let people call me what they want ‘cause I’m my own guy. I’m my own man. And you can’t go out and argue every time; you can’t go try to put out every fire or build every ship, so I just say, ‘Hey, you know, paint me with whatever brush you wanna paint me. I don’t care.'”

Keith stirred more controversy in 2017 when he headlined President Donald Trump's inaugural festivities.

“I played the (Nobel) Peace Prize (festivities) for Obama in Oslo. I played at the White House for George W. (Bush). Anytime the commander in chief invites me to come play at a ceremony for our country, I'll go. And I don't care what anybody says about any of that. I'm a big boy. I can take the heat. I'm your guy,” Keith told The Oklahoman in 2017.

"The president of the United States asks you to come do something, or you get to attend an event where the president is, you always go. It doesn't matter which one you play for, you're gonna get flak. And most people don't wanna go 'cause they don't want the flak. And I take it as an honor.”

Toby Kieth gives an interview in 2017 before a fundraiser for the OK Kids Korral at Riverwind Casino in Norman.
Toby Kieth gives an interview in 2017 before a fundraiser for the OK Kids Korral at Riverwind Casino in Norman.

Oklahoma star launched his own label in 2005

In 2005, Keith launched his own record label, Show Dog Nashville, taking full creative control of his music starting with his 2006 release "White Trash with Money." At the same time, record executive Scott Borchetta launched Big Machine Records, and Keith opted to share staff and buy a stake in that label. Borchetta went on to sign acts like Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw and Taylor Swift.

More: 10 things you may not have known about Toby Keith

Keith's label later became Show Dog-Universal Music and included big-name acts like Trace Adkins, Joe Nichols and Clay Walker, along with Keith. He signed his daughter and fellow Oklahoman Krystal Keith in 2013. She wrote her debut single "Daddy Dance with Me" as a surprise to her father and performed it for the first time on the day of her wedding.

On his own label, Keith continued to write songs and score hits like "She Never Cried in Front of Me," “Love Me If You Can,” "God Love Her," "American Ride," "Made in America" and "Red Solo Cup." In 2018, he penned for Clint Eastwood the poignant ode "Don't Let the Old Man In," which the filmmaker used in his movie "The Mule."

Keith released his final studio album, "Peso in My Pocket," in 2021.

Throughout his hall of fame career, Keith scored 42 Top 10 hits, including 32 chart-toppers, sold 40 million albums and achieved more than 10 billion streams, primarily on the strength of his own songwriting. He told The Oklahoman that he considered his 2015 induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame "my ultimate trophy."

"Although a number of his biggest hits expressed his unapologetic patriotism, his sharp wit and tremendous sense of humor is prevalent in almost all of his songs. A larger-than-life legend, he always looked like he was having the best time performing one of his songs — which will live on to be sung and enjoyed by many future generations," said Songwriters Hall of Fame President and CEO Linda Moran and Chairman Nile Rodgers in a statement.

Keith also was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in 2005, ushered into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2021 and received the National Medal of Arts in 2021. Last year, he received the inaugural Country Icon award, presented by fellow Oklahoman Blake Shelton, during the People’s Choice Country Awards.

"There will never be another Toby Keith," Shelton said in a statement. “Even though I knew about your battle these last few months I still never imagined this day. Anyone who knew you knows what I mean. You were the toughest man I ever met. Thank you brother for being a friend, a hero and an inspiration."

Toby Keith made his mark as a businessman, patriot and philanthropist

Keith also made his mark as a businessman, patriot and philanthropist. A 2013 cover story in Forbes proclaimed him "Country's $500 Million Man."

In 2005, Keith opened his first Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill in Oklahoma City, and at one time, restaurants in his name were in business across the nation through a licensing venture. Three locations — operated by Hal Smith Restaurants — are in business in Oklahoma: the original in OKC's Bricktown district, one in his hometown of Moore and one in the Chickasaw Nation's WinStar World Casino in Thackerville.

In 2015, Keith bought Hollywood Corners, a historic 1920s roadhouse and service station in north Norman, and revamped it into a roadside deli, bar and music venue.

An avid outdoorsman and golfer, Keith owned Belmar Golf Club in Norman and was a longtime race horse breeder and trainer, He announced last year that he had hooked a big deal in acquiring famed fishing brand Luck E Strike.

Starting in 2002, Keith played 11 USO Tours spanning more than 285 events for nearly 256,000 troops and military families. He performed in 18 countries, and during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he played for troops on the front lines and even encountered mortar fire on at least one occasion. In 2009, he received the Military Officers Association of America Distinguished Service Award. He was recognized with the Spirit of the USO Award in 2014.

"Toby Keith was big, brash, and never bowed down or slowed down for anyone," said Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, in an email. "His story is a distinctly American one. ... He relished being an outsider and doing things his way. Proudly patriotic, he didn’t mind if his clear-cut convictions ruffled your feathers. For three decades, he reflected the defiant strength of the country music audience. His memory will continue to stand tall."

This April 7, 2014, file photo shows Toby Keith as he performs at "ACM Presents an All-Star Salute to the Troops" in Las Vegas.
This April 7, 2014, file photo shows Toby Keith as he performs at "ACM Presents an All-Star Salute to the Troops" in Las Vegas.

Long before he was diagnosed with cancer himself, Keith made helping Oklahoma pediatric cancer patients one of his top priorities. In 2004, Keith helped found Ally's House, a nonprofit group that aids Oklahoma children with cancer and their families. The charity is named for Allison Webb, the 2-year-old daughter of Scott Webb, one of the country star's original bandmates, and his wife, Linda Webb. Allison died Aug. 6, 2003, a month before her third birthday, of Wilms' tumors, a type of kidney cancer.

In 2006, he established the Toby Keith Foundation on a mission to build no-cost housing for pediatric cancer patients and their families. In late 2013, Keith, his family and supporters celebrated in OKC the grand opening of the $9 million OK Kids Korral.

Through his annual charity event the Toby Keith & Friends Golf Classic, Keith raised in excess of $15 million for the OK Kids Korral over the past two decades.

"It’s probably my greatest accomplishment," he told The Oklahoman in 2019.

Toby Keith performs July 6, 2013, at the end of the Oklahoma Twister Relief Concert, benefiting tornado victims, at Gaylord Family — Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on the campus of the University of Oklahoma in Norman.
Toby Keith performs July 6, 2013, at the end of the Oklahoma Twister Relief Concert, benefiting tornado victims, at Gaylord Family — Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on the campus of the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

Superstar remembered by fellow Oklahoma musical stars

When an EF5 tornado tore through Moore in 2013, the University of Oklahoma superfan organized the star-studded Oklahoma Twister Relief Concert at OU's Gaylord Family — Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman.

The sold-out concert, which raised about $2 million, featured performances by Keith, daughter Krystal Keith, fellow Oklahoma native Garth Brooks and wife Trisha Yearwood, former Tulsan Ronnie Dunn and music icons Willie Nelson, Sammy Hagar, Mel Tillis and John Anderson.

"I knew of Toby his entire career, but only got to know him a bit at the Tornado Relief Concert he did in Oklahoma. ... What he did for the victims and survivors brought a ray of hope in a dark, dark time," Brooks said in an emailed statement to The Oklahoman.

"In the entertainment world, things change from day to day. The business changes, the music changes, the ONLY thing constant is change. Except for Toby Keith. Toby was the same every time you saw him. Loved him or hated him, he was constant."

Keith's consistent summer touring schedule was disrupted in 2022 when he scrapped several shows, revealing that he had been battling stomach cancer since fall 2021 and had already spent the past six months undergoing chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.

In a 2023 interview with The Oklahoman, Keith was optimistic about his health and vowed to return to the stage. He played a pair of hometown pop-up concerts in July at Hollywood Corners, moved viewers with his emotional performance of "Don't Let the Old Man In" at the People's Choice Country Awards in September and made a surprise appearance at Jason Aldean's October OKC concert.

He capped last year with three sold-out December shows at the Park MGM Las Vegas in the hopes of getting back to touring in 2024.

Waking up to the news Tuesday morning, several Oklahoma music stars paid tribute to the influential icon. Rising Oklahoma country star Zach Bryan posted Tuesday morning on social media, "too many rides in my old man’s car listening to Toby Keith. really hard thing to hear. rest in peace friend we love you."

"Saddle up the horses, Jesus, ‘cause a true blue COWBOY just made his ride up to heaven!!! Introduce him to all the Okies and sign that boy up for the choir!" Checotah native Carrie Underwood posted on X. "We’re gonna miss you, Toby, but my heart has no doubt that you are standing in the presence of our King right now!!! See you again someday, friend."

Kristin Chenoweth, another Sooner State star, posted on social media, "My fellow Okie. You’re so loved, Toby. We will all miss you so terribly. Dad and I sure did love seeing you on the field at the OU games. Rest easy - you fought a hell of a battle."

Toby Keith, Oklahoma fan and singer, tries to get the OU crowd to cheer in 2005 during the Sooners game against Baylor in Norman.
Toby Keith, Oklahoma fan and singer, tries to get the OU crowd to cheer in 2005 during the Sooners game against Baylor in Norman.

OKC singer, songwriter and ventriloquist Darci Lynne, who won "America's Got Talent" in 2017, recalled Keith performing on her NBC Christmas special the following year as "an amazing blessing."

"I was perhaps a little young to appreciate the magnitude of Toby’s influence in the music industry when I first met him. He was so gentle and kind," she said in an email to The Oklahoman. "He leaves a legacy that my generation is so lucky to draw inspiration from."

Keith is survived by his wife of four decades, Tricia Covel; their daughter Shelley Covel, her daughter Presley and sons Sladen and Sawyer; their daughter Krystal Keith Sandubrae, her husband, Drew, and their daughters Hensley and Kirby; their son Stelen Covel and his wife, Haley; his mother, Carolyn Joan Covel; and his sister, Tonni Karan Covel-Moore, who all live in Oklahoma. He is also survived by his brother, Tracey Covel, of Florida.

Services are pending.

Contributing: The Oklahoman's Cheyenne Derksen and The Associated Press.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Toby Keith dies: Oklahoma country star was battling stomach cancer