Toby Keith: What You May Not Have Known About The Country Star

Few recording artists in any genre have experienced success quite like Toby Keith. The late platinum-selling recording artist had a decades-long career and served as a symbol of American patriotism. The Oklahoma native became known for hits like "Should've Been a Cowboy" and "How Do You Like Me Now?!" early in his career, while songs like "Made in America" and "Red Solo Cup" defined the latter half. With a distinct voice and a knack for bringing people of all kinds together, it's clear why Keith's music had such longevity. 

In addition to being a country music superstar, Keith was a businessman and family man. He was adored by both country music fans and the other musicians who've impacted the genre over the past several decades. He never shied away from controversy or worried about what people thought of him, but he was never making himself the center of attention either. Despite years in the public eye, there's still a lot you may not have known about the country star. 

Toby Keith fell in love with music as a child

Music has always been part of Toby Keith's life. The musician, who was born on July 8, 1961, in Clinton, Oklahoma, started playing guitar when he was just 8 years old. Keith was inspired by multiple musicians, including Bob Wills and Merle Haggard, as well as the musicians he saw perform at the supper club his grandmother owned.

Some may remember Keith as a singer, but he was a songwriter, too. He began writing songs as a teenager, and the skill would go on to earn him millions. As Keith himself noted, though, it took him a few tries to get the hang of songwriting. "The first song I ever wrote I was 14 or 15 years old," he revealed in an Instagram video. "It was called if 'You're Handing Out a Heartache.' It wasn't bad — it was structured right — but it wasn't very good either. But the people around here when I played it, they were like, 'Wow, that's a great song.'"

He had a career in the oil business before becoming a professional musician

Toby Keith's legacy as an all-star country musician lives on. Interestingly, though, his career took a few detours before he was able to make a living singing and writing songs. After graduating from high school, Keith began working in the oil field in Oklahoma. When the industry collapsed in the early '80s, Keith dabbled in construction before switching to play football for the Oklahoma City Drillers in the bygone United States Football League. "All through this whole thing the only constant thing we had was music. But it's hard to sit back and say, 'I'm going to go make my fortune singing music or writing music.' I had no contacts," Keith told the Associated Press in the late 1990s (via The Spokesman-Review).

All the while, Keith kept performing music with his band, remaining his own constant as others dropped out. In the early '90s, a flight attendant who liked Keith's music gave his demo to Harold Shedd of Mercury Records. This act changed his life, as the label signed the musician. "It was mainly the quality of what he was writing. It was unlike anything on the radio at the time, and it was still really good country music," Shedd said of what drew him to Keith while speaking to Forbes.

Toby Keith found even more success after splitting from Mercury Records

Toby Keith's career in music was massive from the start. In 1993, his debut album, "Toby Keith," dropped, and it became his first platinum album. The most popular song from "Toby Keith," "Should've Been a Cowboy," was also the most popular country song of the decade. Keith released additional albums that decade; however, at the turn of the century, things changed for Keith.

Since the beginning of his career, Keith had been releasing music under Mercury Records. But in 1999, when Keith was preparing to release his album "How Do You Like Me Now?!", a new executive took over at Mercury, and he wasn't fond of the album. Willing to bet on himself, Keith encouraged the executive to drop him from the label. After being dropped, he purchased his album's IP and sold it to DreamWorks. The album was released under DreamWorks, and it went double platinum.

He was an ardent supporter of the United States military

From the start of Toby Keith's career, it was clear from his music that he loved the United States. But nearly a decade into his career, Keith became more publicly supportive of the United States military than perhaps any other artist at the time or since.

After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Keith, whose father served in the military, was inspired to write a song in support of the country and the troops. Thus, "Courtesy of the Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)" was born. The anthem was popular, and it has remained a staple in many Independence Day playlists since. This was just the beginning of Keith writing and recording patriotic tunes, though. Some of his other popular hits later written include "American Soldier" and "Made in America."

In 2021, Keith spoke with Fox Nation about the song that created his patriotic public persona. "I knew it would be polarizing. I knew it would be a lightning rod, and I prayed about it, but at the end of the day, it was a battle cry for our guys to go win and get back home safely and go do what Americans really do," he said.

Toby Keith had a brief acting career

Once you're in the entertainment industry, there are plenty of opportunities for you to walk down other creative avenues. Toby Keith didn't often veer from music, but he did dabble in acting at times. Most of Keith's acting credits are either for music videos or shorts, but he also appeared in the TV mini-series "Comedy by Blake" in 2018, and he had roles in two feature films, 2006's "Broken Bridges" alongside Kelly Preston and Burt Reynolds, as well as 2008's "Beer for My Horses," which Keith co-wrote with Rodney Carrington.

Neither film was well-received by critics, with the former scoring just 5% on Rotten Tomatoes and the latter scoring 0%. The films didn't make much money at the box office, either, and the 2008 comedy marked the end of Keith's film career. However, according to Keith, the success (or lack thereof) is not what deterred him from continuing with acting. "When I did the movies, it affected my [song]writing. I had quality songs and we had hits and stuff, but it affected my day-to-day, my system, my routine and the volume of songs that I bring to the table when I record an album," Keith told Country Vibe (via The Boot).

He was a successful restauranteur

Toby Keith didn't need to make money in the film industry — he made plenty of it as a businessman. While he also earned plenty of money as a recording artist, Keith was successful in multiple business ventures, including restaurants.

After his 2003 song "I Love This Bar" became popular, Keith was approached to parlay its success into Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill, a chain of restaurants that had locations across the country in the 2000s and 2010s. The first location was inside Harrah's Las Vegas, and today, there are still two locations open in Oklahoma, Keith's home state.

Keith was later inspired to start making his own line of alcohol, which he could serve at his restaurants. In 2011, the singer started Wild Shot, a line of mezcal. In Keith's eyes, many parts of his career coalesced in his restaurant venture. "I can put them on that 30-city tour. I don't have to look for a place to play. It's cost-effective as crap. They're in Toby's house. They're drinking Toby's liquor. That's Toby's act. And then we're moving to the next town," Keith told Forbes in 2013.

Toby Keith was married for almost 40 years

Toby Keith was a great musician, but he was a family man first. The country singer met Tricia Lucus in the early '80s when he was performing with his band, Easy Money, at a club. Lucus was in the audience. "I was 19 and he was 20. He was just one of those larger-than-life guys, full of confidence," Lucus told People of the first night she met her future husband. Lucus, who married Keith in 1984, entered their marriage with a child from a previous relationship, and she had two more with Keith.

As Keith shared, some times in his marriage with Lucus were tough, especially at the beginning — before Keith's music career had taken off. But Lucus supported her husband's dreams. "Dozens of people told Tricia, 'You need to go tell your old man to get a real job.' It took a strong-hearted and loving woman to say, 'He's good enough at music that I've got to let him try. And it'll be a great shot for both of us if he can make it work," Keith said (via The Boot). Keith's gamble certainly paid off, and he and Lucus were married for nearly 40 years until his death in 2024.

Toby Keith never shied away from giving political opinions

As noted, Toby Keith was vocal about his support for the United States military for most of his career, but he was just as vocal about his political beliefs, too. As Keith told the Chicago Tribune in 2016, "I was a Democrat my whole life. They kind of disowned me when I started supporting the troops, then I went and registered Independent. I've never been a registered Republican. It just keeps people off balance. They don't know what to think." The singer noted that he had been reprimanded by many for performing at the Republican National Convention that year, but had he been asked and offered as much money, he said he would've performed at the Democratic National Convention, too.

Keith was also unafraid to share his stances on specific political policies. In an interview with CNN in 2009, Keith stated that while he supported national health care, he didn't believe every citizen was entitled to it. He also touched on border security, stating the country needed "to protect that border from being infiltrated by radical, extreme terrorists," while allowing hard-working immigrants across. "I'll always pull for the commander in chief, whoever it is. Clinton, Bush — I always pulled for those guys because I want to live in a country that's functional," Keith noted when asked about his opinion on President Obama's performance at the time. Keith never did share who he voted for, though. "I don't think it's their business," he asserted.

He was instrumental in Taylor Swift's early career

All Taylor Swift fans owe Toby Keith a debt of gratitude. When Swift was just 15 years old, she signed with Big Machine Records, the label founded by Scott Borchetta. Big Machine worked in tandem with Show Dog Nashville, Keith's record label, which provided the funding for Big Machine. Though she technically signed with Big Machine, it was Keith's label that was funding Swift's career in her early days. And it ended up paying off big time for Keith. "I own a piece of the label she's on. If I just took the royalties I had off of that, I wouldn't have to do anything else. A bunch of people could live off that," Keith told the Chicago Tribune in 2016 of the income he had earned from Swift's music.

Swift was vocal about her admiration for Keith when she was still new in her career. "You're in the room with him and you can feel it. There's a power there, and you're just like, 'Oh my God,' so I don't think I'll ever get to a point where I won't see him and be like, 'Oh my God, that's Toby Keith,'" Swift told WSMV4.

Toby Keith was a humanitarian

Toby Keith was an incredibly successful musician and businessman, but he never kept all that he earned to himself. Keith supported various causes like The Salvation Army and Feeding America, but he was most passionate about his own charitable organization, The Toby Keith Foundation, which funds OK Kids Korral. Per the foundation's website, "OK Kids Korral is a haven for the entire family as a child with cancer receives treatment." People like John Daly, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, and Troy Aikman are among the supporters of Keith's organization.

Keith's idea for the OK Kids Korral came from personal experience. The daughter of Keith's former road manager developed a tumor at just 2 years old. Because he had donated to St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital in the past, Keith was able to arrange for the child to receive treatment there, and the family (as is the case for all families who visit St. Jude's) didn't have to pay. "They didn't charge her a penny. That led me to realize that's what we needed in Oklahoma City. Kids with cancer and their families come here for free. We feed them, shuttle them, whatever it takes," Keith told Golf Digest of the origins of OK Kids Korral. Since its inception, Keith's foundation has raised millions to support families with children diagnosed with cancer.

He kept his cancer diagnosis a secret for months

Toby Keith had a great relationship with his fans, with many of them supporting him throughout his entire career. Needless to say, they were devastated to learn in 2022 that Keith had been diagnosed with stomach cancer. Keith kept his health struggles a secret for half a year before making a public announcement. "Last fall I was diagnosed with stomach cancer,"he revealed in an Instagram post 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 was flooded with messages of support from fans and the country music community. "I am looking forward to spending this time with my family. But I will see the fans sooner than later. I can't wait," he ended his post.

After announcing his diagnosis, Keith was open about how he felt. "It's a little bit of a roller coaster. You get good days and, you know, you're up and down, up and gown. It's always zero to 60 and 60 to zero but I feel good today," Keith told E! News in September 2023. At the time, Keith was still actively undergoing treatment to fight the cancer.

Toby Keith did what he loved until the very end

Toby Keith didn't let sickness stop him from doing what he loved most: playing music. Even amid an intense battle with stomach cancer, Keith still held concerts. His final show was in December 2023 at Dolby Live at Park MGM in Las Vegas. The beloved performer sang his biggest hits in a sold-out, three-night show in Sin City.

Some months before his final performance, Keith was honored with the Country Icon Award at the 2023 People's Choice Awards. After accepting the award, Keith performed his hit "Don't Let the Old Man In" — his last televised performance. "It's nice to recognize my 30-year career. It's pretty mind-boggling," Keith told E! News on the red carpet ahead of the ceremony. "Those years of pounding those songs out and remembering where you were when each one was conceived, it's amazing."

In February 2024, less than two months after performing in Las Vegas, Keith died from stomach cancer. His death was announced via his Instagram account the next day. "Toby Keith passed peacefully last night on February 5th, surrounded by his family. He fought his fight with grace and courage," the post read.