Alberta country artists remember Toby Keith
Posted February 7, 2024 6:39 pm.
Last Updated February 10, 2024 5:21 pm.
Condolences are continuing to pour in for country music artist Toby Keith, who died following a battle with stomach cancer.
Country musicians from, or with ties to, Alberta shared their stories of the country legend with CityNews, emphasizing the impact he had on their lives professionally and personally.
“I didn’t know he had cancer for quite some time and then my manager told me and of course I immediately started praying for him and his family,” said country music star George Canyon. “And now he’s in a much better place and not in pain anymore, which puts a smile on my heart. But it’s sad for his family and for all of us fans and industry alike.
“As an artist and more importantly just as a human being, you hope you can have an impact on people and leave – I know it sounds a bit corny – but leave a legacy. And there’s no shyness in the legacy left by Toby Keith.”
Canyon, the long-time Calgary Flames’ anthem singer, says Keith’s impact on country music will last generations.
“His music will stand the test of time,” Canyon said. “And I think all of us artists, no matter if we’re in Alberta or wherever we’re at in the world, you want to leave that lasting imprint on humanity, so that a hundred years from now when I’m long dead and gone, hopefully somebody is listening to one of my songs.
“And I can definitely and I would bet it all they would be listening to a Toby Keith song – he just had that impact.”
Keith, the “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” singer-songwriter, died peacefully Feb. 5 surrounded by his family, according to a statement posted on the country singer’s website. “He fought his fight with grace and courage,” the statement said. He announced his cancer diagnosis in 2022.
“It’s a tough loss, it’s a really big one,” country artist Aaron Goodvin said. “We knew that Toby wasn’t doing very well. There was still kind of an ‘any day now’ feeling, but you still can’t believe a guy like that is gone.”
Alberta’s Brett Kissel says the outpouring of love and respect for Keith and his music says everything about the country star.
“It just goes to show much of an impact he made,” said Kissel.
“It’s one of those things that really had a big impact on everybody because he was so young. His cancer diagnosis was two years ago, and to pass away in your early 60s – sometimes that’s when the resurgence really starts for the legends.
“Toby Keith was the king, one of the great kings of the ‘90s, so it’s really, really too bad that he’s gone.”
‘Living the cowboy way’
The 6-foot-4 singer broke out in the country boom years of the 1990s, writing songs that fans loved to hear. Over his career he publicly clashed with other celebrities and journalists and often pushed back against record executives who wanted to smooth his rough edges.
He was known for his overt patriotism on post 9/11 songs like “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” and boisterous barroom tunes like “I Love This Bar” and “Red Solo Cup.”
Kissel described Keith as “living the cowboy way.”
“I think one of the most important things about Toby Keith is what he stood for,” Kissel said. “Now, as we look back at some of the comments that he had made, or the things in which he stood for, at least he was authentic. Whether somebody agreed with him or they didn’t agree with him, that to me in a lot of ways was integrity. He stood up for what he believed in and whether you loved it or you didn’t, it didn’t matter to him.
“He respected himself, he respected what he believed in and that was very, very special. Because artists can often be people pleasers and artists will often go within the direction they think the general public wants them to feel. Whereas Toby Keith didn’t care and there are a lot of lessons to be learned from having that perspective and being true to yourself and sticking to your guns.”
The love and support for Keith could be seen across social media this week.
“Gone way too soon, Toby is a legend and he’s #Dreamwalking with the big man in the sky now. My condolences go out to his entire family. RIP Big Dog,” wrote Gord Bamford on X.
“You literally took me under your wing,” wrote Terri Clark on Facebook. “I feel lucky to have shared so many great times with you out there on the road. We lost a friend but country music lost an icon and one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Sending love and tender mercies to his family. You will be missed Toby Keith.”
Canadians’ love for Toby Keith
While Keith was a proud American, he’s remembered for having a soft spot for Canada and Alberta.
“One of the greatest things about Toby was that he loved Canada,” Goodvin said. “He had a Canadian flag on the back of his ‘Merica guitar. I think it was back at Rexall Place years ago. He loved Canada and he loved coming up here.”
Canyon describes a real love for Keith’s music from bar-goers in Canada, who would request Keith’s songs any chance they got.
“He would release a song, one of his earlier songs, and I remember the single and having to play it every night in the bars when I played bars – that’s all I get to play – four sets a night and played a lot of Toby Keith.”
And the response when that song came on? Something special, Canyon describes.
“Not unlike playing a George Strait song, the crowd would always take the dance floor,” he said. “The crowd would always go wild and so those were songs that I always look forward to playing.”
What started as playing Keith’s songs in bars evolved when Canyon eventually met and went on tour with him.
“I remember the first time I toured with Toby,” Canyon recounted. “I didn’t quite know what to expect and I remember him shaking my hand. It was sort of like shaking hands with Trace Adkins; he had a hand like a football. But… he just made me feel like one of the guys going and playing hockey, that kind of feeling. And I thought to myself, ‘that says a lot for an artist of his calibre.’
“(Got) to watch how he delivered the music to his fans, there was no crash, bang, boom. It wasn’t about the fireworks and all that stuff; it was about the music. And when Toby stopped to tell a story you could hear a pin drop and I try to do the same thing in my shows. And part of that, when I was a younger artist, he has a huge influence on me that way and knowing that ‘just be yourself’ because what you saw was what you got and it’s the same thing for me.
“He was a bit of a mentor in that way to me where I kind of have surrounded myself with incredible people and Toby did that. That’s sort of where I kind of learned that from.”
Throughout the cancer treatments, Keith continued to perform, most recently playing in Las Vegas in December. He also performed on the People’s Choice Country Awards in 2023 as he sang his song “Don’t Let the Old Man In.”
Canyon called that performance touching and “very special.”
Keith is also being remembered as an authentic person who always stuck to his guns, surrounded himself with down to earth people, for his sense of humour, and laugh.
“His laugh, he just had this kind of chuckle,” said Canyon. “I just remember sitting in the dressing room one day and we were telling jokes or something and he couldn’t get through the whole joke he would just start laughing, I remember that, and I’d start laughing and we didn’t even know what the end of the joke was, we didn’t know what the punchline was.”
Kissel credits Keith with helping him bond with his brother Jamison, saying his country music brought them together.
“My brother and I are very, very close now,” Kissel said. “But when we were teenagers, he did not like country music and I was a rising country singer and I was singing all these other songs by all these other artists. But it wasn’t until my brother discovered Toby Keith that he realized that, ‘maybe this country thing isn’t that bad.’ So thanks to Toby Keith my brother and I had something to connect about.
“My brother and I even snuck into watch him at Big Valley Jamboree. We didn’t have tickets for that particular night; we were staying in the camping. And so my brother and I just wore black t-shirts that said ‘security’ and no one checked our tickets, so we snuck in to watch a Toby Keith Concert and it’s a great memory my brother and I have now.”
–With files from The Associated Press