Born Toby Keith Covel on July 8, 1961, in Clinton, OK; married to Tricia; children: Shelley, Krystal, Stelen (son). Addresses: Record company--DreamWorks Records, 9268 W. Third St., Beverly Hills, CA 90210, website: Website--Toby Keith Official Website:

When singer-songwriter Toby Keith first entered the country charts with the 1993 hit single "Should've Been a Cowboy," the talk around Nashville was that, if you looked closely, you might just see a coating of dust on his cowboy hat. Not the smoky dust of the local dancehall, but the dust that comes from riding and roping and hard work. A former rodeo rider, oil rigger, and football player, the burly Keith wields his deep, dusky baritone to good effect on songs that range from rollicking barroom romps to heart-tugging ballads in the best country tradition. His easy way with audiences has gained him a following that has grown to encompass both aficionados of traditional honky tonk and fans of Southern rock.

Keith was born in Clinton, Oklahoma, on July 8, 1961. As a young man and aspiring songsmith, he took his musical lead from Southern rockers like the members of the Marshall Tucker Band, as well as country great Merle Haggard. A stint working for a supper club run by his grandmother gave Keith his first taste of show business; the house band would let him sit in with them on stage after his work was done in the kitchen. Although Keith and several friends had formed bands during their high-school years, the young Oklahoman's musical aspirations were destined to be put on the shelf for several years in favor of making a living. He went to work test-driving bulls for a local rodeo outfit; from there, it was on to four years in the oil fields of his home state. Keith also served a two-year stint as a semi-pro football player with the Oklahoma City Drillers--part of the now-defunct United Football League--before his desire to play a guitar lured Keith off the field and back onstage.

Went to Nashville for a Contract

Backed by a group of fellow rodeo riders who comprised his Easy Money Band, Keith toured the country dancehall circuit of the Western states for almost ten years before making it big in Nashville. "You're up against the best bands in the world out there," Keith explained to Country Music's Bob Allen about life on the circuit. "The competition's fierce, and if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. I'm not bragging when I say that The Easy Money Band and I can hold our own against any of them." By 1991, Keith had decided to give his best shot at a Nashville recording contract. "I knew either way I wasn't gonna starve," he told Allen. "I was very successful with my band, and eventually, if I didn't get a record deal, I would've opened a nightclub somewhere and made a lot of money."

Visiting Music City, Keith recorded some demo tapes and made the rounds with them. While representatives of Liberty Records expressed enthusiasm, they were more interested in his talents as a musician and vocalist than as a songwriter. As a combination of talent, timing, and confidence would have it, one of Keith's demos eventually fell into the lap of a producer at Mercury Records. Upon one listen, he promptly scheduled a flight out to Oklahoma City and offered Keith a contract.

Released Debut Album

Keith's self-titled debut album was released by Mercury in 1993. Toby Keith contained all original material, which, Keith explained to Country Song Roundup's Bob Paxman, was inspired by "things I see and what happens to others." The story behind the album's runaway number-one hit exemplifies this statement. On a quail-hunting trip that had a stop in historic Dodge City, Keith and a few rodeo-riding friends decided to go out on the town one night. When one of his companions asked a woman to dance, Keith's friend received a classic rebuff. "She just looks at him and says, 'No way!'" Keith recalled to Paxman. "Then this guy in a cowboy hat swoops down on her, and he gets her to dance with him.... One of our other guys looks over and says, 'Hey, man, you should have been a cowboy.'" Hearing those words sent Keith running for pen and paper and the song was written in under a half hour. "I had the melody and everything at the same time," he recalled.

"Should've Been a Cowboy" was released as Keith's first single. Initial fears that the song would prove to be nothing more than a radio novelty song and merely sputter for a moment on the charts eventually ended: "Should've Been a Cowboy" made a slow, determined, five-month climb into the number-one spot; the album's other top-ten hits, like "Wish I Didn't Know Now" and "He Ain't Worth Missin'," added the energy to push Toby Keith all the way to platinum. Keith would score a total of four songs in the top ten, thanks in part to his determination, which was reflected by a heavy touring schedule that kept the singer away from his wife and two daughters throughout most of 1993. "Should've Been a Cowboy" had yet another incarnation: as the adopted anthem of the Dallas Cowboys Football League, thereby drawing Keith's past--as a football player and self-professed "cowboy"--in line with his future as a country music recording artist.

Christmas Songs

While achieving a more modest success than its predecessor, Keith's 1994 album, Boomtown, went gold with hits like "You Ain't Much Fun" and the poignant "Who's That Man." As the album's first single, "Who's That Man" moved comfortably into the number-one spot on the country charts. Again writing or cowriting most of the songs on the album, with Boomtown Keith proved that he was more than a one-album artist. While noting that Keith's talents were not of the same caliber as those of the singer's idol, Haggard, or superstar Randy Travis, Bob Allen observed in a review for Country Music that, with Boomtown, Keith "seems like a grizzled musical genius when measured against the flock of baby-faced teenyboppers in cowboy hats who've recently stormed the country charts."

In addition to Toby Keith and Boomtown, Keith has also released a collection of holiday-inspired songs under the title Christmas to Christmas. This collection of 12 non-traditional songs centers around themes of love, caring, and the spirit of giving; the 1995 effort includes four tunes written or cowritten by the singer and the songs run an emotional gamut from the honky-tonk "Santa's Gonna Take It All Back" to the poignant "Mary, It's Christmas." "It doesn't have any traditional Christmas songs on it," Keith explained in a Polydor press release, noting the album's unique approach to the "Christmas album" genre. "Instead of this just being a Christmas album, I wanted this to be an album like I usually do, but with a Christmas theme," the singer/songwriter adds. "This sounds like anything else of mine that you would hear on the radio. It just happens to be about Christmas."

A summertime tour with country music superstar Reba McEntire the following year expanded his already considerable fan base. "I think any time anybody can get on a tour like that ... you have to take it," he told Deborah Price of Billboard magazine. "The recognition you get off a tour like that, you can't get anywhere else." Blue Moon was released to tepid reviews in 1996. People singled out one song on the album for praise, calling album-opening track "The Lonely" a "haunting, hard-to-forget lament ... [that] makes everything following it pale in comparison."

Keith's next album, Dream Walkin', released in 1997, earned much more favorable reviews. All Music Guide praised Keith for sticking with what he was good at: "Although Toby Keith doesn't depart from his trademark new traditionalist formula on Dream Walkin', he comes close to perfecting it." Despite good reviews and steady sales, Keith's relationship with Mercury Records began to sour. He left the label in 1999 and immediately began courting offers from other major labels. He signed with Steven Spielberg-founded DreamWorks Records in 1999 and released his next album, How Do You Like Me Now?, on the label. The title track off the album proved to be Keith's biggest hit to date, occupying the top spot on the Billboard charts for five straight weeks. Keith's second album on the label, Pull My Chain, was released in August of 2001.

Controversy Surrounded Song

Keith became embroiled in a controversy surrounding a track to be released on an upcoming album in the summer of 2002. He was removed from an ABC television special In Search of America: A July 4th Musical Celebration at the request of host Peter Jennings. Keith was to perform "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue," a song written after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Jennings objected to the confrontational and at times jingoistic lyrics of the song: "You'll be sorry you messed with the U.S. of A./ 'Cause we'll put a boot in your a**/ It's the American way." Fans were outraged at Keith's removal, bombarding the ABC offices with letters and e-mails protesting Jennings's decision. The controversy stirred up interest in Keith's upcoming album, helping Unleashed debut at number one on both the country and pop charts when it was released in July of 2002.

The album and the controversial single were released around the same time as another September 11th-inspired tune by fellow country music singer Alan Jackson. While Keith's song stirs up anger and pride, preparing the country for a long fight against those who wronged the nation, Jackson's tune, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" is a quiet, thoughtful reflection of feelings felt the day of the attack. Both songwriters were up for a number of Country Music Association awards, including Male Vocalist of the Year, Album of the Year, and Single of the Year, in 2002, but Keith walked away empty-handed while Jackson took home the majority of the awards. Still, Keith is proud of the tribute he wrote, which he never intended to record in the first place. "I really wanted it as an honor and a tribute to my dad," Keith told Dallas Morning News. "I wanted to go out and sing it to military people. Here's something I wrote for you guys, for your duty." Keith is satisfied with his hard-won success. On his official website, he reflected, "I've just been doing the same things I've always done; it's my surroundings that have changed. I've got a record company that gives me the freedom to do what I want, and the industry has accepted what I do. Because of that, in a very real sense, I've been liberated."

And that liberation seemed to have helped Keith. His next few albums were incredibly popular. Keith won the American Music Award for best country album, for Unleashed in 2003. In 2004 Keith won the People's Choice Award for favorite music video, for "I Love This Bar." He also won two Country Music Television Flame Worthy Awards, including video of the year for "American Soldier," and collaborative video of the year for "Beer for My Horses" with Willie Nelson. Also in 2004 Keith won four Academy of Country Music Awards, including Album of the Year for Shock 'N Y'all with James Stroud, Video of the Year for "Beer for My Horses" with Willie Nelson, Entertainer of the Year, and Top Male Vocalist, and he won two American Music Awards, including Favorite Male Country Artist, and Favorite Country Album for Shock'n Y'All. In 2004 Keith went on a tour of the troops in Italy, Germany, Kosovo, and the Persian Gulf to perform for them.

Keith won the Country Music Television Award for Hottest Video of the Year for "Whiskey Girl" in 2005. Right afterwards Keith announced the pending launch of his new label, a venture with Scott Borchetta in 2005; it was the end of his affiliation with DreamWorks Records. In May he released the album Honkytonk University. It opened at number two on the Billboard 200 chart and number one on the Top Country Albums chart. Then he made another tour to perform for the troops, this time in Cuba, Germany, Belgium, and the Persian Gulf. In August desirous of expanding his creative horizons, Keith signed a three-picture deal with Paramount Pictures. Production started in October for the first of them, the movie Angel From Montgomery. The movie is about high school sweethearts who return home after the deaths of their brothers, forcing them to deal with their pasts and futures.

by Pamela Shelton

Toby Keith's Career

Formerly played semi-pro football for Oklahoma City Oilers, United States Football League (now defunct); worked on an oil rig and as a rodeo hand; toured the Western dancehall circuit with the Easy Money Band, beginning 1982; signed with Mercury Records, 1992; released debut album, Toby Keith, 1993; moved to sister-label, Polydor, 1994; toured with Sawyer Brown band, fall 1994; appeared in film Burning Bridges, 1995; released Christmas to Christmas on Polydor, 1995; released three additional albums for Mercury/Polydor, 1995-97; signed with DreamWorks Records, released How Do You Like Me Now?, 1999; released Pull My Chain, 2001; recorded hit single "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)," released album Unleashed, 2002; Shock 'N Y'all, 2004; Honkytonk University, 2005.

Toby Keith's Awards

Billboard, Best New Artist Award, 1993; Country Music Association, Male Vocalist of the Year, 2001; twelve Broadcast Music, Inc. Awards, including BMI Songwriter/Artist of the Year, 2001; Academy of Country Music, Male Vocalist of the Year, 2001; Academy of Country Music, Album of the Year for How Do You Like Me Now?, 2001; American Music Award for best country album, for Unleashed, 2003; People's Choice Award for favorite music video, for "I Love This Bar," 2004; Country Music Television Flame Worthy Awards, for video of the year for "American Soldier," and collaborative video of the year for "Beer for My Horses" with Willie Nelson, 2004; four Academy of Country Music Awards, including Album of the Year for Shock 'N Y'all with James Stroud, Video of the Year for "Beer for My Horses" with Willie Nelson, Entertainer of the Year, and Top Male Vocalist, 2004; two American Music Awards, including Favorite Male Country Artist, and Favorite Country Album for Shock'n Y'All, 2004; Country Music Television Award for Hottest Video of the Year, for "Whiskey Girl," 2005.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

April 11, 2006: Keith's album, White Trash with Money, was released. Source:,, April 13, 2006.

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 12 years ago

Keep goin Toby, I love everyone of your songs. I saw you at Country Jam here in Colorado and hope to see you agan. Thank you for very good and refreshing music.