‘So Patriotic’: Country Music Mourns Toby Keith, One Of The Greats

NORMAN, OK - JULY 06: Musician Toby Keith performs during the Oklahoma Twister Relief Concert to benefit United Way of Central Oklahoma May Tornadoes Relief Fund at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on July 6, 2013 in Norman, Oklahoma. To donate go to www.unitedwayokc.org or text REBUILD to 52000. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Shock Ink)
Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Shock Ink

The world lost a legend on February 5 when country star Toby Keith’s family announced that he had died following a battle with stomach cancer.

The death of a celebrity always inspires a lot of reflection and public mourning, but for some reason losing the “Beer For My Horses” singer-songwriter at the age of 62 hit everyone in the community a little harder. 

Maybe it was because he was one of the last unapologetically patriotic country artists in a genre that’s been slowly phasing out those sentiments for years. Maybe it has something to do with how much he respected the armed forces. Or perhaps it’s because his three decades worth of songs are so catchy. 

It’s likely a combination of all these factors, and more.

LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 07: Musician Toby Keith performs onstage during ACM Presents: An All-Star Salute To The Troops at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 7, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Kevin Winter/ACMA2014/Getty Images for ACM)

Kevin Winter/ACMA2014/Getty Images for ACM

The singer was known for hit songs such as, “How Do You Like Me Now?” and “As Good as I Once Was,” but more than that, he’ll be remembered for celebrating and performing for our nation’s armed forces. One X tribute from U.S. Marine Corps veteran and podcast host Leigh Wolf described one of his encounters with Keith.

“‘Toby Keith is here.’ Words that spread through Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan like wildfire. Everyone knew the USO sent acts to bases to perform, but Toby Keith was something special,” he wrote on X. “In the midst of war, a slice of home. Forever grateful to a man who had everything but still took time to come see us and give us a reprieve from the grind of combat operations. Rest in peace sir.”

Then there’s the story about Keith performing for U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2008 when the military base he was singing at came under fire. Mortar fire exploded on the base right in the middle of the song “Weed With Willie,” per Today. After taking cover for about an hour with the troops, Keith apparently went back out and finished the show.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - JUNE 3: In this handout image provided by the United Service Organizations (USO), country music star Toby Keith (R) holds an artillery shell he is asked to autograph by U.S. troops at Camp Phoenix after a USO performance for coalition forces June 3, 2004 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Keith, who swept top honors at last week's Academy of Country Music Awards, is touring U.S. military installations for the USO in Kosovo, Germany, Italy and the Persian Gulf. (Photo by Mike Theiler/USO via Getty Images)

Mike Theiler/USO via Getty Images

Incidents like this help explain why just after Keith’s death was announced on Tuesday morning, the tributes to the country singer started pouring in. They came from both fans and from other big names in the country sphere.

“Our self titled debuts came out on the same day, April 20, 1993… Toby and I spent quite a bit of time together early in our careers,” fellow country star Tim McGraw shared on Instagram. “We had a lot of good times and conversations about what we wanted out of our careers and our lives. He was a maverick. He did things his way, on his terms, a true artist. I always have and always will have tremendous respect for his artistry, dedication and fearlessness to do his thing.”

“We all will miss you, brother,” he added.

The musical duo Brooks & Dunn each shared their separate thoughts on Keith with a lengthy Instagram post.

Toby Keith (center) and Brooks and Dunn during Clive Davis Hosts A Celebration of The American Music Awards at The Esquire House - Inside at Esquire House in Beverly Hills, California, United States. (Photo by L. Cohen/WireImage for J Records)

L. Cohen/WireImage for J Records

“A troubadour gone too soon,” Dunn wrote. “We played together, we sang together. He was a friend, ornery, rough, tough, kind and loyal… if he liked you. A rascal, an outlaw with a big heart. He was opinionated, usually his way or the highway. A patriot that acted, didn’t just talk it. He was a loyal husband and proud loving father. He was a big man, a fighter… in the end life wins. Give ‘em hell up there my friend !!! Our love, prayers and condolences go out to his lovely wife Tricia, daughters Krystal, and Shelley and son Stelen.”

Brooks wrote, “Waking up to losing Toby wakes up a lot of memories and realities – I remember the first time we actually met and talked – he was wearing a blue leather suit – we all wore horrible clothes back then – we got along from the beginning – he called “a spade a spade” plain and simple — always – we asked him to come on tour with us somewhere in the late ‘90s, along with Keith Urban, and I’ll never forget after our first show together, he said “We’ve got to find a place to play” …after that we would go find a house band after every show and burn ‘til the flame was gone”

He continued, saying the singer was “a relentless participant in every aspect of his life – performing, writing, golf, hanging with his friends, along with his dedication to the military and the Red White and Blue. But he always put his loyalty and love of God and family first – He was one of those guys I just assumed would always be there – HOF Cowboy Heart – RIP Big Man.” 

Country legend Tanya Tucker weighed in, writing, “My heart is bleeding for @tobykeith and his family. He was so kind and his music meant so much. He was so patriotic, loved his country and Loved his fans! He was a great warrior right up until last night. Now he’s in Gods army… My thoughts and everything I can muster goes to his wife and family in hopes that he gives them the strength they’re gonna need to move forward and get through this tragedy!

She added, “Sleep well my friend! It sure won’t be the same without you!”

Luke Bryan wrote, “An iconic artist and a great man. Your songs turn every room into a good time.”

INGLEWOOD, CA - MAY 01: Singers Luke Bryan (L) and Toby Keith attend the 2016 American Country Countdown Awards at The Forum on May 1, 2016 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images for dcp)

Lester Cohen/Getty Images for dcp

Dolly Parton also shared a message of mourning, writing, “It’s always hard when we lose our brothers and sisters in country music. Toby Keith was one of the greats in every way. He will be missed but his music and legacy will live on.”

“Waking up to the terrible news that our friend, and legend @tobykeith has passed away from cancer. He was a true Patriot, a first class singer/songwriter, and a bigger than life kind of guy. He will be greatly missed,” singer John Rich shared.

“Toby Keith was a true trail blazer. Authentic and heartfelt but always with a wink ‘til the end. He was larger than life in so many ways and his music will live on forever! Raising our red solos tonight—you will be missed by so many. Peace,” Old Dominion wrote in an X post.

“Just waking up to the news of Toby Keith’s passing,” country star Jason Aldean wrote. “Today is a sad day for Country music and its fans. Toby was a huge presence in our business and someone we all looked up to and respected. You and your music will be forever remembered big man.”

Even first lady Jill Biden posted about the singer’s death, writing, “Cancer truly touches us all. Rest in peace, Toby Keith.”

NORMAN, OK - JULY 06: Musician Toby Keith performs during the Oklahoma Twister Relief Concert to benefit United Way of Central Oklahoma May Tornadoes Relief Fund at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on July 6, 2013 in Norman, Oklahoma. To donate go to www.unitedwayokc.org or text REBUILD to 52000. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Shock Ink)

Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Shock Ink

The country singer had been diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2021, publicly revealing his battle later on social media.

“Last fall I was diagnosed with stomach cancer,” Keith tweeted in June 2022. “I’ve spent the last 6 months receiving chemo, radiation and surgery. So far, so good. I need time to breathe, recover and relax.”

The singer described his cancer battle as a “roller coaster” in September 2023. Keith also said that his faith played a major role in helping him cope. “I lean on my faith and I just pray and lean into it. You gotta’ do what you gotta’ do, and I don’t know how people do it without faith … that’s what I did, it was my rock.”

Keith is survived by his wife Tricia, three children, and four grandchildren.

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Katie Jerkovich contributed to this report.

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