It was early on February 6 when I saw on X – the former Twitter – that Toby Keith had passed away losing the battle he fought with stomach cancer.
I had to sit down as tears came to my eyes. I had met Keith one time covering the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and had a chance to talk a bit with him.
By the time we were done, I felt like I had known him for years. A huge sports fan, Keith loved golf and enjoyed his time on the Monterey Peninsula for the AT&T.
We were all stunned when we first heard the cancer diagnosis but knowing he was a fighter we hoped for the best. It appeared things were going in the right direction and when he played a concert in December, we thought it was a great sign and we hoped for another tour so I could go see him again.
But it was his last concert.
I talked with someone the day Keith passed who was not a country music fan. They were curious as to why everyone was so emotional about Keith’s passing.
It was a valid question. Celebrities pass all the time and while we feel for their families and are genuinely sad about their death, we usually are not this emotional.
I thought about it for a minute then told them why.
Toby Keith was a person that seemed like someone you lived next door to and hung out with regularly. You could be sitting out back with the BBQ fired up and drinking beer all night.
Then you’d see him in concert, and it was like your buddy was on a stage in your backyard performing for his friends. But that was it – his fans were his friends.
I have seen over 1,000 concerts in my life and there are only two other performers that carry/carried themselves that way – Sammy Hagar and Jimmy Buffett.
Buffett passed away not long ago and Hagar, who is still performing and has amazing energy, is 76. It’s also not a coincidence Hagar and Keith were buddies and business partners. The two shared a song with both making the song, “I Love this Bar,” a hit.
Keith’s songs spoke to his fans and loved the interaction he had with his fans.
In September of 2023, he was honored with the Country Icon Award on the first ever People’s Choice Country Music award.
Largely shunned by awards shows, Keith appeared thin after a year’s battle with cancer. In his typical demeanor he came out on stage and said, “Bet you never thought you’d see me in skinny jeans.”
His performance that night of “Don’t Let the Old Man In,” was hauntingly beautiful and brought tears to many, including Keith and his wife who was in the audience.
Keith had 20 No. 1 country hits and won three Billboard Music Awards but was vastly under-rewarded for a performer of his stature and success.
In typical form Keith said something to this effect – “I’m okay with it. I know how many albums I sell and how many tickets to my concerts I sell.”
His support of the military was well known and loved by millions. He was unapologetically American and so many of his songs showed just that.
“Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” “American Soldier,” and “American Ride,” are just a few of his songs about being American.
One other strong memory of Keith is reading about his friendship with Wayman Tisdale. The two former Oklahoma students were great friends and following Tisdale’s NBA career, he turned to music and became a successful jazz musician.
Sadly, in May of 2009 Tisdale died, ironically of cancer.
Keith’s tribute to Tisdale was the amazing song – Cryin’ for Me – with the chorus continually running through my head tonight:
“I’m gonna miss that smile
I’m gonna miss you, my friend
Even though it hurts the way it ended up, I’d do it all again
So play it sweet in heaven
‘Cause that’s right where you want to be
I’m not cryin’ ’cause I feel so sorry for you
I’m cryin’ for me.”
Amazing words – something I am sure all of Toby’s fans are feeling right now.