Weeks After Death, Toby Keith Named to Country Music Hall of Fame

Perhaps it would have been even better if Toby Keith was still around to share in this moment with the rest of us. But it still feels just about perfect and poignant that less than six weeks after Toby Keith tragically passed away at the age of 62 after a fight with stomach Cancer, he’s headed into the Country Music Hall of Fame. The honor was announced Monday morning (3-18) in a press conference in the Hall of Fame rotunda in Nashville.

Toby Keith goes in with John Anderson in the Veteran’s era category, and musician James Burton in the rotating musician’s category. Keith’s son Stelen was there to accept the honor for his father. He briefly thanked the Hall of Fame.

“On behalf of my whole family, we want to thank the Hall of Fame. It’s an honor to stand here and represent my father. He was an amazing man, husband, father, and artist. And I just want to thank everybody for being here,” Stelen said.

Stelen Keith

The Country Music Hall of Fame has a standing rule that artists can’t be inducted the year after they pass away to discourage sympathy votes. But in the case of Toby Keith, his passing came right as the committee seeded by the CMA tabulated its final decision on February 6th—the day after Toby Keith died. In this instance, the inductee is allowed to go through if they receive the most votes.

The CEO of the CMA, Sarah Trahern, took to the podium to explain what happened.

“This year we anticipated receiving the names of our final inductees on Tuesday, February the 6th. As we know now, we woke up that morning to the heartbreaking news that our friend Toby Keith had lost his long battle with stomach Cancer. What’s bittersweet is that just a few hours later, out team received word that Keith was elected in the Modern Era category … My heart sank that Tuesday afternoon knowing that we had missed the chance of informing Toby while he was still with us. But I have no doubt that he’s smiling down on us, knowing that he will always be as good as he once was.”

Trahern continued, “I should mention that while the rules of election do not allow someone to be elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame in the year in which they pass away, that doesn’t apply this year as Toby was selected before he died.”

In truth, Keith was likely already a front runner due to his health concerns, and his landmark TV performance of “Don’t Let The Old Man In” in late 2023.

What’s inarguable is that Toby Keith amassed a Hall of Fame career in his time on earth. In the first decade of the 2000’s, there was no country music artist that was more commercially successful than Toby Keith, both as an entertainer, and as a businessman. Keith put 20 #1 singles on the charts during an eight year run, and had another seven #2’s during this same period. Toby Keith was mainstream country music in the aughts.

“Should’ve Been a Cowboy” was the first single from the Oklahoma native in 1993, and it was a massive one. Now a country music standard that’s Certified Triple Platinum, it announced what would be a career that would eventually land in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and it did with with a traditional country song that helped define the ’90s country era.

More hits would come in the next eight years for Mercury Nashville, but the fact that the label put out a Greatest Hits compilation on Keith in 1998 tells you a lot. At that time, they thought Toby Keith was done. As we would see in the coming years, he was just beginning. Toby Keith also wrote most all of his own songs, including, if not especially his hits. Brushing aside Toby Keith the performer, Toby Keith the songwriter is one of the most successful of the era, and one of the most successful to ever do it in country music.

2002’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” written in direct response to 9/11 is what would go on to define the career of Toby Keith, as well as popular country music for the next decade. The stark language in the song drew its opponents, but that polarization only lent to the song’s popularity. “Beer For My Horses” with Willie Nelson in 2003 not only put a country legend back on the charts, it continued the type of sabre rattling songs that would become Toby Keith’s signature.

2003 saw Toby Keith’s album Shock’n Y’all, whose title exploited the fact that Toby Keith’s stark Americanism drew the ire of many. But unabated, Keith redirected the criticism into a point of pride.

Though Keith would be considered the seat of American jingoism for many in the post 9/11 world, his actual political legacy was significantly more nuanced. At the time “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” was released, Toby Keith was a registered Democrat. Though Keith will be criticized for performing for Donald Trump, he also performed for multiple Democrat Presidents as well.

Nonetheless, Toby Keith was a polarizing figure in country music for much of his career, including feuding with The [Dixie] Chicks, who were also rumored to be in consideration for Hall of Fame induction in the Modern Era category, and likely will be inducted in the coming years.

But upon Toby Keith’s death, there appeared to be a great reconciliation with many of the more divergent elements of his career, and to remember Toby Keith the man, the singer, the songwriter, and the musician. It’s that man who will be formally placed forevermore into the Country Music Hall of Fame in a Medallion Ceremony later this year.

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