Kristin M. Hall, Associated Press
Published Tuesday, February 6, 2024 5:21 am EST
Last updated Tuesday February 6, 2024 5:21 am EST
NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — Toby Keith, singer-songwriter of “Beer For My Horses,” has died. He was 62 years old.
Keith, who was battling stomach cancer, passed away 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 burst into country’s boom years of the 1990s, forging an identity around his macho, pro-American swagger and writing songs that fans loved to listen. Throughout his career, he publicly clashed with other celebrities and journalists and often rebuffed record executives who wanted to soften his rough edges.
He was known for his overt patriotism in post-9/11 songs like “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” and boisterous bar tunes like “I Love This Bar” and “Red Solo Cup.” He had a powerful, booming voice, a wry sense of humor, and a range that conveyed love songs as well as drinking songs.
His top 20 Billboard hits include “How Do You Like Me Now?!”, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” “Tan Good As I Once Was,” “My List,” and “Beer for My Horses.” . duet with Willie Nelson.
Keith worked as a roughneck in the Oklahoma oil fields as a young man, then played semi-professional football before launching his singing career.
“I write about life, 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 made him stronger, but also showed him the value of money.
“The money you could make was incredible,” Keith told The Associated Press in 1996. “I got out of high school in 1980 and they gave me this job in December of 1979, $50,000 a year. I was 18 years old.”
But the national oil industry collapsed and Keith had not saved. “That almost broke us,” he said. “So I just learned. This time I have taken care of my money.”
He spent a couple of seasons as a defensive end for the Oklahoma City Drillers, a farm team in the now-defunct United States Football League. But he found steady money playing music with his band all over the red dirt road circuit in Oklahoma and Texas.
“Throughout 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 make a fortune singing or writing music.’ I had no contacts.”’
Eventually, his path took him to Nashville, where he attracted the interest of Mercury Records head Harold Shedd, best known as producer of the hit group Alabama. Shedd brought him to Mercury, where he released his platinum debut album, “Toby Keith,” in 1993.
“Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” their breakout hit, was played 3 million times on radio stations, making it the most played country song of the 1990s.
But the label’s focus on global star Shania Twain overshadowed the rest of the roster, and Keith felt executives were trying to push him in a pop direction.
“They were trying to get me to compromise and I was living a miserable existence,” Keith told the AP. “Everyone was trying to mold me into something I wasn’t.”
After a series of albums that produced hits like “Who’s That Man” and a cover of Sting’s “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying,” Keith moved to DreamWorks Records in 1999.
That’s when his multi-week show “How Do You Like Me Now?” took off and became her first song to reach the Top 40 charts. In 2001, she won male vocalist of the year and album of the year at the Academy of Country Music Awards, exclaiming from the stage: “I’ve been waiting a long time for this. Nine years!”
Songs such as “I Wanna Talk About Me”, a spoken word song written by Bobby Braddock about a man frustrated by a talkative partner, attracted attention for their similarity to rap cadences, which Keith dismissed. “They’re going to call it a rap song, (although) there’s no one making rap who would call it a rap,” he told Billboard magazine in 2001.
Keith often wore his politics on his sleeve, especially after the terrorist attacks on American soil in 2001, and at first said he was a conservative Democrat, but later claimed he was an independent. He has played at events for Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the latter awarding him a National Medal of Arts in 2021. His songs and blunt opinions sometimes caused controversy, which he seemed to court.
Their 2002 song, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” included a threat: “We’ll put a boot up your ass. It’s the American way” – to anyone who dared to mess with the United States.
That song was pulled from an ABC Fourth of July patriotic special after producers deemed it too angry for the show. Singer-songwriter Steve Earle called Keith’s song “indulging people’s worst instincts at a time when they’re hurt and scared.”
Then there was the feud between Keith and The Chicks (formerly called the Dixie Chicks), who became the target of Keith’s ire when singer Natalie Maines told a crowd that they were ashamed of then-President George W. Bush. Maines had also previously called Keith’s song “ignorant.”
Keith, who had previously stated that he supported the freedom of any artist to express their opinion on politics, used a doctored photograph of Maines with an image of Saddam Hussein at his concerts, further angering his fans.
Maines responded by wearing a T-shirt with the letters “FUTK” onstage at the 2003 ACM Awards, which many people believed was a vulgar message to Keith.
He also publicly criticized actor Ethan Hawke, who had written a story in “Rolling Stone” that described an argument between Kris Kristofferson and an unnamed country star who looked a lot like Keith. During a backstage press conference during an awards show, Keith was furious at Hawke (and journalists for repeating the story) for what he called a “fictitious (expletive) lie.”
Keith, who has acknowledged that he holds grudges, left the 2003 ACM Awards early because he had been snubbed in previous categories, causing him to miss out when he was announced as entertainer of the year. Vince Gill accepted on his behalf. He returned the following year and won the top prize for the second year in a row, along with best male vocalist and album of the year for “Shock ‘n Y’all.”
However, his pro-military stance was not just material for songs. He went on 11 USO tours to visit and perform for troops serving overseas. He also helped raise millions for charities throughout his career, including building a home in Oklahoma City for children and their families battling cancer.
After DreamWorks was acquired by Universal Music Group, Keith started over, founding his own record label, Show Dog, in 2005 with record executive Scott Borchetta, who launched his own Big Machine label at the same time.
“Probably 75 percent of the people in this city think I will fail, and the other 25 percent hope I fail,” he said that year.
The label later became Show Dog-Universal Music and had Keith, Trace Adkins, Joe Nichols, Josh Thompson, Clay Walker and Phil Vassar on its roster.
Her later hits included “Love Me If You Can,” “She Never Cried In Front of Me,” and “Red Solo Cup.” He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015.
He was honored by performing rights organization BMI in November 2022 with the BMI Icon award, a few months after announcing his stomach cancer diagnosis.
“I always felt like writing songs was the most important part of this whole industry,” Keith told the crowd of fellow singers and writers.