The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Toby Keith

Born Toby Keith Clovel in Clinton, Oklahoma, Toby Keith pursued a couple of careers early on, working in the oil industry and then playing in the USFL football league. It wasn't until the early 1990s that he found his true calling in country music, when he was signed to Mercury Records. His debut album — titled simply "Toby Keith" — was released in 1993, and wound up going platinum.

That kicked off a wildly successful music career that spanned decades, highlighted by numerous hit singles along the way. These included his collaboration with Sting, "I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying," and his duet with country legend Willie Nelson, "Beer for My Horses." Not for nothing, Keith's track "Should've Been a Cowboy" became the most-played song of the 1990s on country music radio, played in excess of 50 million times.

Keith's success — both as a country recording artist and live touring act — also made him a very wealthy man; in 2013, Forbes estimated his net worth to be in the neighborhood of $500 million. In the midst of all that success, fame, and fortune, however, Keith also experienced plenty of personal tragedies. These ranged from experiencing natural disasters close to home to losing people close to him to being diagnosed with a devastating illness that eventually culminated in his death.

His father was killed in a highway accident

In 2001, Toby Keith's career was continuing to soar when he was hit by some devastating news. His father, Hubert "H.K." Covel Jr., was driving home from a barbecue when he got into a fatal car accident. As The Oklahoman reported, Covel's pickup truck crossed a median on a highway and was struck head-on by a charter bus. He was killed, his life ending at the age of 67. Keith told the newspaper that his father had undergone quadruple bypass surgery two years earlier. "I hate to speculate, but I think he had a stroke," Keith said at the time, sharing his belief that a medical emergency had led his father to jump the median. "He was only going 35 mph," Keith said. "He was too good a driver."

It was later discovered that Covel's truck was struck by another vehicle, which is what sent him over the median; the woman responsible, Jeannie Sparlin, received a one-year deferred sentence after pleading guilty to leaving the scene of an accident. Keith and his family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the company that operated the bus, which was determined to be in urgent need of brake repairs. 

In 2007, a jury determined that the company, Rodriguez Transportes, was responsible for Covel's death. Keith and his family were awarded $2.8 million, with the jury also determining that Keith's father bore no responsibility for the crash that took his life. 

He experienced warfare while performing at a USO show in Afghanistan

One thing that's characterized Toby Keith's career throughout the decades has been his support for the servicemen and women who serve in America's military. That led him to place himself in harm's way on more than one occasion, performing in USO shows for troops stationed overseas.

One of those concerts was more memorable than others. In March 2008, Keith and his band were performing on a base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. As they were partway through Keith's song "Weed With Willie," the base suddenly came under fire. As mortar shells exploded, Keith and the other musicians joined the military personnel as they all scrambled and sought cover. "We all ran about 100 yards to a concrete bunker," Keith's agent, Curt Motley told People (via "Today"). Keith reportedly stayed under cover for about an hour, passing the time by signing autographs for soldiers and posing for photos. After receiving confirmation that it was safe, he and the band returned to the stage and finished off the concert — precisely from where he had left off. "He went right to the verse he was in and finished his show!" Motley recalled.

Despite the danger he encountered, Keith considered it a small sacrifice when compared to those of the men and women who defend America. "And so I feel like it's my duty every year to take about 14 or 17 days and go over there," Keith told The State Journal-Register

He lost his longtime friend to cancer

One of Toby Keith's best friends was Wayman Tisdale. Tisdale had a career trajectory that was somewhat similar to that of Keith, having been a professional basketball player in the NBA and then shifting to music to become a renowned jazz bassist. In 2009, Tisdale died at age 44 following a two-year illness with cancer.

Keith responded by writing a song, "Cryin' for Me (Wayman's Song)." As Keith explained in an interview on his official YouTube page, he wrote the song with the intention of performing it at Tisdale's funeral, which was held in Tulsa, Oklahoma. However, while rehearsing on the way to Tulsa as his wife drove, Keith was unable to make it to the end of the song without breaking down. Instead, he performed Willie Nelson's "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground."

When he returned from the funeral, Keith recorded the song that he'd written for his fallen friend. "I came back and I cut it, and I got a couple of his buddies — jazz greats Marcus Miller and Dave Koz — and they loved him," he continued. "And I brought them in and I cut this song, and I put his answering machine [message], which I had saved on the recorder on the front of the song, so when it comes on you can hear him. This is my tribute to my friend."

His hometown experienced a deadly natural disaster

Tragedy struck in 2013 when Toby Keith's hometown — Moore, Oklahoma, a suburb of Oklahoma City — was hit by a natural disaster. After a huge tornado struck, the entire town was demolished, destroying 300 homes and killing 25 people. The extent of the damage was estimated at a staggering $2 billion.

"This storm has devastated the community that I grew up in," Keith said in a statement, as reported by Billboard. "I rode my bike through those neighborhoods. I have family and friends in Moore. My heart and prayers go to those that have lost so much. But Moore is strong, and we will persevere. God be with you all."

Keith responded by organizing a benefit concert to raise money for recovery efforts. He announced a star-studded lineup that included Garth Brooks and Brooks' wife Trisha Yearwood, the legendary Willie Nelson, and Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn, who'd grown up in that region. According to USA Today, Keith spoke at a news conference during the show and didn't shy away from the gravity of the situation he was attempting to help remedy. "You really have to see the devastation with your own eyes to appreciate how bad it is," Keith said. "It's probably what a war zone looks like." The concert raised $1.5 million for the United Way of Central Oklahoma.

Two members of his band died

During the 2010s, Toby Keith endured the loss of two members of his touring group, the Easy Money Band. 

In 2013, Keith issued a statement on his website, as reported by Music Row, revealing that his longtime bass player had died at the age of 54. "We are deeply saddened by the sudden death of our band member, Chuck Goff," Keith wrote. "He was a close friend for over 25 years, the band leader and bass player. Our hearts and prayers go out to his family." Goff was reportedly killed in an accident when the car he was driving collided with another vehicle. Keith also paid tribute to Goff in social media posts. "It will never be the same when I look to my left on stage," Keith wrote, adding, "But it's a much better world than never knowing him at all" (via Taste of Country).

Then, in 2016, Keith said goodbye to another band member after multi-instrumentalist Joey Floyd died at age 47. "Our dear friend and band member Joey Floyd passed away this morning after a long battle with cancer," Keith wrote in a heartfelt Facebook post. Floyd played banjo, fiddle, and electric guitar with Keith's band. "There will be a hole on stage and a hole in the hearts of all that loved him," Keith continued. "Rest in peace ol' friend."

His daughter nearly died in a 'horrific' car accident

In addition to being a country music star, Toby Keith was also a husband and father. He and his wife Tricia Lucus had two children, daughter Krystal Keith and son Stelen Keith Covel. He was also the stepfather of Shelley Covel Rowland, his wife's daughter from a previous relationship. 

On July 4, 2017, Krystal Keith, her husband, Drew Sandubrae, and their 18-month-old daughter, Hensley, were involved in a car accident. "Our 4th turned pretty horrific," she wrote in Instagram post, accompanying a photo of the mangled wreckage of what had once been their Mercedes SUV. "Hensley, Drew and I were on the way to watch fireworks on the 4th. A drunk driver almost took the lives of my entire family. We all survived the wreck but it's gonna take some time to heal. Keep us in your prayers. Hug your babies and spouses tight. DON'T DRINK AND DRIVE," she added.

The following December, she shared a follow-up Instagram post revealing that she and her husband were both still dealing with the physical repercussions of that accident. Interviewed by Rare Country, she revealed that she had a vertebrae fracture while her husband sustained knee injuries, with both requiring ongoing physical therapy. "It's been hell for us," she said (via Taste of Country). "We try not to complain, and there is no doubt that we are blessed to be alive."

He revealed his diagnosis of stomach cancer

In June 2022, Toby Keith took to Instagram to share some devastating news. "Last fall I was diagnosed with stomach cancer," Keith wrote, revealing he'd spent the previous six months undergoing surgery, radiation treatments, and chemotherapy. "So far, so good," he shared. 

According to a message that Keith's team provided to Taste of Country, he was taking the remainder of 2022 off in order to focus on his health and had canceled all live concert commitments. As Country Now reported, there had been over a dozen dates scheduled for 2022 on Keith's website; after his announcement, however, those had all been taken down. 

In June 2023, about a year after announcing his diagnosis, Keith spoke about the state of his health during an interview with The Oklahoman. "I'm feeling pretty good. ... Basically, everything is in a real positive trend. You never know with cancer, so you have to prepare," he said, noting that all the chemo, radiation, and surgery he'd undergone appeared to be doing what it was supposed to do. He also indicated that he was mulling over the possibility of returning to the stage at some point. "But my goal is, I feel better; I've got more wind," he explained. "And I'm thinking about bringing the band in and setting up, playing two or three days somewhere just to see if I can get through two hours."

His illness with cancer was 'debilitating'

In mid-2023, Toby Keith returned to the spotlight when he took to the stage at the Hollywood Corners, his music venue in Norman, Oklahoma, for two concerts. The pop-up shows were intended to be secret, but word had gotten out. "He seemed a little taken aback that that many people were there," a Norman resident told The Oklahoman of the crowds that had turned up. That October, Keith shared a video on his official YouTube page announcing he was set to perform, for the first time since his cancer diagnosis, two concerts that December in Las Vegas. "It'll be my first two shows. They're kind of rehab shows — get the band back in sync, get me rolling again," he said.  

While Keith was ready to test the waters for a comeback, he was also candid about how much of a toll his cancer had taken. "I'm thinking about getting back in fighting shape," Keith said in a subsequent interview with CMT Hot 20 Countdown. "I need a little time to just rest up and heal up." Referencing all the treatment he'd undergone, he added, "It's pretty debilitating to have to go through all that, but as long as everything stays hunky dory, then we'll look at something good in the future." 

Those two shows grew to three and sold out within minutes. "[Three] sold out shows in Vegas was a damn good way to end the year," Keith mused on Instagram.

Cancer surgery impacted his famous voice

While Toby Keith's stomach cancer treatments left him visibly thinner, the surgery he'd undergone had also caused one other side effect. Appearing on "The Bobby Bones Show," he revealed that his singing had been impacted as well. "The thing I've had to overcome is the surgery I had on my stomach. They had to stitch on my diaphragm ... and not using it to sing every night, that is a muscle, you know?" Keith said. "So I've really had to work that to get it ... where I sing really, really hard and really, really violent and loud, and I didn't have that last 10% on the bottom where I could just belt anything." However, he also asserted his confidence that even without that last little bit of lower vocal range, he could entertain a crowd just like he always could. 

Interviewed by Taste of Country in November 2023, Keith was asked how he was feeling. "I feel great today. It takes awhile," he said, admitting he'd finally reached a point where he was comfortable with the fact that, while his health seemed to be moving in the right direction, that might not always be the case. "Everything's trending really well right now, and I'm not gonna let this define the rest of my life," he said. "If I live to be 100 or I don't, I'm going to go forward."

Toby Keith died at age 62

Despite his optimism that his cancer treatment had been successful, recovery was not in the cards. Toby Keith died on the evening of February 5, 2024, at the age of 62. "Toby Keith passed peacefully last night on Feb. 5 surrounded by his family," read a statement from Keith's family that was posted on X (formerly Twitter). "He fought his fight with grace and courage," the statement continued.

In September 2023, less than five months before his death, Keith attended the People's Choice Country Awards, where he was honored with the Country Icon Award. Speaking with E! News, Keith offered a candid assessment of the physical toll stomach cancer had taken. "It's a little bit of a roller coaster," he admitted. "You get good days and, you know, you're up and down, up and down. It's always zero to 60 and 60 to zero but I feel good today."

Asked to single out the career achievement of which he was most proud, Keith didn't hesitate. "My songwriting," he said. "Those years of pounding those songs out there and remembering where you were when each one was conceived and all that, it's amazing."