HomeTop NewsToby Keith, Country Music Icon, Loses Battle with Stomach Cancer at 61

Toby Keith, Country Music Icon, Loses Battle with Stomach Cancer at 61

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The country music world is mourning the loss of one of its biggest stars and most patriotic voices. Toby Keith, the roughneck singer-songwriter known for smash hits like “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” “Beer for My Horses,” and “As Good as I Once Was,” passed away on March 19, 2024, at the age of 61 after a prolonged battle with stomach cancer.  

“This one hurts,” Jason Aldean said in an emotional tribute to his friend and occasional touring partner. “Toby wasn’t just a great artist and ambassador for country music, he was a badass human being who always kept it real and never changed who he was no matter how much fame he had.”

What Type of Cancer Does Toby Keith Have?

In late 2022, Keith revealed he had been diagnosed with stomach cancer and was receiving treatment, including chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. Stomach cancer, also known as gastric cancer, starts in the stomach lining and can spread to other organs if not caught and treated early.

While stomach cancer is relatively uncommon compared to other cancers, accounting for only 1.5% of new cases per year in the United States, it is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. Risk factors include a diet high in smoked and salted foods, smoking, obesity, and infection with Helicobacter pylori bacteria. 

Toby didn’t disclose what stage his cancer was diagnosed at initially, but reports indicate it had already progressed to stage 4, the most advanced form where cancer spreads to distant organs, by the time it was found. His diagnosis sparked an outpouring of support from fans and the tight-knit country community, but regrettably, the rough-and-tumble Oklahoma native’s fight ended in tragedy just over a year later.

An Unstoppable Force in Country

Keith’s passing at a relatively young age punctuates an incredible three-decade run that cemented his status as one of the most successful country artists of all time. His catalog boasts dozens of number-one hits across his 19 studio albums released since his 1993 debut.  

“Toby Keith was the guy who really showed me how it’s done in country music,” said Aldean. “I remember opening shows for him early in my career and just being in awe of his showmanship and connection with the fans. He helped pave the way for guys like me.”

Many of Toby’s songs celebrated an unabashedly pro-America, blue-collar way of life, earning him both immense popularity and no shortage of critics who viewed his music as overly jingoistic or conservative. But love him or hate him, there was no denying the former oil rig worker’s straight-shooting authenticity and skills as a tunesmith.

“He was not only a world-class singer and songwriter, but a world-class person,” said longtime friend and duet partner Willie Nelson. “Toby was the real deal – a true original who didn’t follow the herd, and that’s why his fans loved him so much.”

Indeed, Keith’s diehard fans, nicknamed “Red Solo Cup Soldiers” after one of his biggest hits, were a legion of millions strong. Whenever he toured or released new music, the outpouring of love was deafening. His singles spent a combined 20 years on the Billboard Top Country Albums charts, and he was one of the highest-grossing touring acts in any genre.

“I can’t be me, not in this business,” Keith said in a 2018 Taste of Country interview. “Because if you try to be something else, you may have a hit, but you won’t have a career.” 

Aldean echoed that sentiment: “Toby never chased whatever was hot or trendy. He stuck to his guns and did his authentic thing, and that’s a big reason why he lasted so long at the top.”

Never Forgot His Blue-Collar Roots

That steadfast embrace of his background and no-filter personality endeared Keith to hard-working Americans who appreciated his lack of pretense. His father was a soldier and his mother a factory worker, and he worked as a laborer on oil rigs in the suffocating Oklahoma heat for years to support his wife and kids before finally scoring a record deal in his early 30s.

While his music and politics alienated some, Keith always insisted he was just “saying it like he saw it,” and that artistry should transcend political divides. When criticized for performing at inaugural events for both Democratic and Republican presidents, he famously said: “Damn straight I’ll do it – we’re Americans first.”  

Those blue-collar roots and mentality were apparent in both his music and lifestyle. He often played free concerts for soldiers, first responders, and disaster relief workers. Keith largely avoided the vices and scandals that plague many stars, remaining married to his wife Tricia for over 30 years up until his death.

“Say what you want about Toby’s politics, but he was the most down-to-earth superstar you’ll ever meet,” Aldean said. “He treated the road crew and openers the same as he treated the biggest stars, and that’s real respect.”

The Unstoppable Dream 

Keith’s big break came in 1993 with the release of his self-titled debut album, which produced his first number one in “Should’ve Been a Cowboy.” A slew of hits followed across the 90s and 2000s, establishing him as a touring juggernaut and one of the best-selling acts in country music.

At his commercial peak in the early 2000s, Toby owned an array of businesses reflecting his folksy interests – a mezcal company, stakes in wrestling organizations, and his very own Ford redesign shop. But his proudest claimed accomplishment was starting his own record label, Show Dog Nashville, which helped launch the careers of countless other artists.

“He took every dollar he had off that oil rig and bet it all on his dream of being a country singer,” longtime friend and collaborator Scott Hendricks said. “That’s why his music connected like it did – Toby lived what he sang about.”

Even as his fame grew to superstar levels, Keith adamantly refused to move to the usual Nashville/LA music hubs, instead building a studio and remaining in Oklahoma to be near his family. And he gladly embraced the role of an unofficial Oklahoma ambassador, becoming one of the state’s most famous exports and raising millions for causes like the Oklahoma Kids Korral for pediatric cancer patients.

A Resilient Warrior Till the End

Sadly, Toby’s battle with stomach cancer followed a recurring pattern of adversity in his life. As a young man, he narrowly survived getting smashed by a defective water truck while working on an oil rig. In 2001, he was treated and recovered from a subdural hematoma after being struck on the head by an errant baseball throw during batting practice. And in 2017, he revealed he had been secretly undergoing treatment for alcoholism and drug abuse for several years.

“That stubbornness he had on the rig saved his life more than once,” said college roommate and longtime friend Ronnie Craddock. “Whatever tried to take Toby down just made him fight harder because he was too ornery to quit.”

Aldean also remarked on Keith’s toughness: “Toby was a fighter through and through – both in his life story and his attitude. I’ve never seen someone battle as hard as he did against this terrible disease.”   

Toby brought that same gritty resilience to his final fight against stomach cancer. Despite being advised against it by doctors, Keith continued touring as much as he could during treatment, determined to keep performing for his adoring fans. However ongoing complications and weakness finally forced him to cancel his touring schedule and retire in the summer of 2023. 

In his final public statement last August, Keith thanked fans for their support and said he would “dig in deep for this fight and come through once again.” But regrettably, the grueling nature and advanced progression of stomach cancer proved too formidable an opponent this time for the tireless Oklahoma warrior.  

With his signature red solo cup now empty for the last time, Toby Keith leaves an unparalleled legacy as an iconic voice of countrified defiance and patriotism – and a timeless reminder that no matter how far he soared, he always stayed true to his blue-collar roots.

“We lost a true original today and one of the all-time greats,” Aldean said. “Toby’s music, spirit, and life story inspired me and millions of others. He’ll be irreplaceable.”

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