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Country music star Toby Keith is dead at 62 after battle with stomach cancer

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The country star Toby Keith has died at the age of 62. The singer announced in 2022 that he was undergoing treatment for stomach cancer. NPR's Isabella Gomez Sarmiento has this remembrance.

ISABELLA GOMEZ SARMIENTO, BYLINE: Toby Keith fell in love with music while working at his grandmother's Arkansas supper club, where he'd sometimes join bands on stage. After years of playing in a group called Easy Money Band in the 1980s, Keith's solo debut single, "Should've Been a Cowboy," put him on the map in 1993.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOULD'VE BEEN A COWBOY")

TOBY KEITH: (Singing) I should've been a cowboy. I should've learned to rope and ride.

SARMIENTO: In a video he recently shared on X, Keith recounted how the song came to him while watching one of his hunting buddies try to win over a girl at a bar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEITH: His name was John. And he jumped up his hunting clothes and ran over to grab this cowgirl to dance. She turned him down. And on the way back to the table, we were laughing. And some - one of the guys hollered, John, you should've been a cowboy. And so I thought, I'm going to write that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOULD'VE BEEN A COWBOY")

KEITH: (Singing) I might've had a sidekick with a funny name running wild through the hills chasing Jesse James.

SARMIENTO: The song climbed to No. 1 on the country charts. Throughout the next two decades, Keith had a slew of hits, including "Beer For My Horses," a duet with Willie Nelson...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEER FOR MY HORSES")

TOBY KEITH AND WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) We'll raise up our glasses against evil forces, singing, whiskey for my men, beer for my horses.

SARMIENTO: ...And "American Soldier."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN SOLDIER")

KEITH: (Singing) I'm an American soldier, an American.

SARMIENTO: Pop Culture Happy Hour host Stephen Thompson says Keith's influence in country music over the last three decades has left an immeasurable mark on the genre.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: He made music with an eye toward the hugest possible audience. And I think he expressed sentiments with an eye toward the universal.

SARMIENTO: Into the 2000s, Keith's songs became more political. His 2002 hit, "Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue," responded to the 9/11 attacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COURTESY OF THE RED, WHITE AND BLUE (THE ANGRY AMERICAN)")

KEITH: (Singing) Hey, Uncle Sam. Put your name at the top of his list. And the Statue of Liberty started shaking her fist.

SARMIENTO: ...And stoked a feud with the then-Dixie Chicks about the invasion of Iraq. Stephen Thompson again.

THOMPSON: He got more politically outspoken. And still, his own politics weren't always that easy to pin down.

SARMIENTO: In 2015, Keith was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He continued to perform even while in treatment for stomach cancer. Toby Keith died in his home state of Oklahoma. He's survived by his wife, three children and four grandchildren. Isabella Gomez Sarmiento, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T LET THE OLD MAN IN")

KEITH: (Singing) I wanna live me some more. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.

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