The Academy Remembers Toby Keith

Toby Keith, a Country Music superstar who wrote many of his biggest hits, passed away on February 5, 2024. He was 62 years old. A 14-time ACM Award recipient, including multiple wins for ACM Top Male Vocalist and ACM Album of the Year, he was named ACM Entertainer of the Year twice, in 2002 and 2003. With worldwide sales of more than 40 million albums, he built an exceptional career on well-sung ballads, barroom singalongs, and patriotic anthems, as well as heartfelt songwriting.

Toby Keith - In Loving Memory (click to play)

Born on July 8, 1961, in Clinton, Oklahoma, Toby Keith Covel grew up in the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore. As a boy, he discovered live music by listening to the bands at his grandmother’s supper club in Fort Smith, Arkansas. After high school graduation, he worked in the oil fields while playing regional gigs fronting the Easy Money Band. When the oil industry crumbled in the early ‘80s, Keith signed on with the Oklahoma City Drillers semipro football team for two years before deciding to focus on music. Although the major labels in Nashville ignored his demo, a fan of the band who worked as a flight attendant gave a copy to Harold Shedd, a Mercury Records executive who was on her flight. Shedd heard the potential, traveled to Oklahoma for a show, and signed him to Mercury. 

With the Dallas Cowboys winning the Super Bowl just weeks before the single’s release date, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” took on a new meaning. By summer of 1993, it spent two weeks at No. 1 and paved the way for a dozen more Top 10 hits on Mercury (and affiliated labels Polygram and A&M). Keith returned to No. 1 with 1994’s “Who’s That Man” and 1997’s “Me Too.” A duet with Sting on “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying” earned an ACM nomination for Vocal Event and reached No. 2 at Country radio.

By signing with DreamWorks Nashville, Keith’s outspoken personality could finally shine through. In 2000, “How Do You Like Me Now?!” lodged itself at No. 1 for five weeks. In addition, he was named 2000 ACM Male Vocalist of the Year and picked up Album of the Year (as an artist and producer) for the project of the same name. More hits rolled in, notably a comical Bobby Braddock composition titled “I Wanna Talk About Me.” That single spent five weeks at No. 1, as did its follow-up, “My List.” Yet, amid a backdrop of the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq War, Keith certainly made the biggest impression with “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” and its audacious threat to “put a boot up your ass, it’s the American way.” Its notoriety helped Keith claim the 2002 ACM Entertainer of the Year award. 

Keith’s winning streak raged on. “Who’s Your Daddy?” became his sixth consecutive chart-topping single in 2003. A Willie Nelson duet titled “Beer for My Horses” spent six weeks at No. 1, earned a 2003 Video of the Year award, and inspired a movie that received the ACM Tex Ritter Award. That same year, Keith collected his second ACM Entertainer, Male Vocalist, and Album of the Year trophies, the latter for Shock ‘N Y’All. 

Keith continued to offer a steady stream of radio-ready singles and accrued his 20th No. 1 hit, “Made in America,” in 2011. Although he’d released plenty of irreverent songs before, few listeners were prepared for the overwhelming reception of “Red Solo Cup,” a viral party anthem that soon crossed over into the mainstream and claimed the 2011 ACM Video of the Year award. A year later, “Beers Ago” became his 41st Top 10 Country hit.

Marking his 20th ACM Awards appearance in 2018, Keith was joined by Blake Shelton to sing “Should’ve Been a Cowboy.” In addition, he appeared in the network specials George Strait: ACM Artist of the Decade All Star Concert in 2009 and ACM Presents: An All-Star Salute to the Troops in 2014. The Academy presented Keith with multiple honorary awards throughout his career, including the 2013 ACM Career Achievement Award, the 2016 ACM Poets Award, and the 2020 ACM Merle Haggard Spirit Award. Keith was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015 and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2021. Other distinctions include the 2021 National Medal of Arts and the 2022 BMI Icon Award.

Keith’s many charitable initiatives included 11 USO Tours and nearly 300 USO events, a hometown fundraising concert following a devastating 2013 tornado, and an annual golf tournament to fund the OK Kids Korral, a cost-free home in Oklahoma City for families of children with critical illnesses.

"Toby Keith was a powerhouse singer-songwriter, performer, entrepreneur, and Country Music icon who defined the last several decades of Country Music and influenced a generation of talent,” said ACM CEO Damon Whiteside. “Here at the Academy, we’ve been able to celebrate Toby countless times over the years, including twice as our ACM Entertainer of the Year, along with more than a dozen of other trophies, such as the ACM Poet’s Award for songwriting and the ACM Career Achievement Award. In particular, I’m so glad we were able to honor Toby with the ACM Spirit Award in 2021, presented to a singer-songwriter who continues the legacy of Merle Haggard, one of Toby’s heroes. Additionally, his phenomenal commitment to philanthropy and serving the community throughout his career echoes in the work of ACM Lifting Lives. On behalf of our staff, Board, and membership, we send our love to Toby’s family, friends, and fans of his incredible music. His legacy in Country Music will live on forever.”